We might be achieving our goals when everything in our life is on track, but the moment we have to face an uncontrollable stressful event, it can become easier to reach for something that will immediately soothe our feelings, even if we know we shouldn’t. The ability to regulate impulsive emotional behavior in order to act in favor of long-term, desirable goals is at the core of achieving success in multiple facets of our lives. How can we stop overwhelming emotions and thoughts from resulting in immediate compensatory behaviors? Often times, we talk ourselves into performing short term satisfying behaviors as they provide immediate reward or relief of emotions we cannot cope with – and we feel guilty in the long run, because we know that lack of emotional control is a setback from achieving what we really want.
Mindfulness is a powerful tool to increase self-regulation. Instinctively, we aim to remove sources of pain as quickly as possible (we don’t tend to keep our hand on the stove while it’s burning). Hence, being in the midst of a negative situation that we cannot change can cause anxiety, which, in a desperate attempt to subside, makes us turn to alternative pleasures; that chocolate cheese cake might make us feel good momentarily, but it will not change the fact that it hurts to be cheated on and your pile of work needs to be tackled. We might not have control over unforeseen stressors that fall upon us, but we can control our reactions which in turn will serve us greatly in accomplishing our long-term goals with a clear mind, patience and acceptance.
This sounds intuitive, however, during stressful events, our frontal lobes (in charge of planning for the future) shut down and our amygdala (emotional center) takes charge of our brain. The conjunction of our emotions and skewed thoughts can snowball into a hot mess deviating us from our goals. Studies have shown that mindfulness increases connectivity between the frontal lobes and the amygdala, thus strengthening the connection between our rational brain and our emotional brain. Hence, instead of losing control by acting on emotions or fighting against our emotions, we learn to acknowledge emotions and situation while maintaining reason, this allows us to work through our problems. We can reprogram our mind to accept situations by being mindful – which means experiencing what is really happening and not looking at the situation through the lens of future anxiety or depressive reminiscence. Practicing mindfulness is like a muscle, it takes time to develop, but practicing daily will yield into an effective tool to lean on in times of stress in order to control feelings and increase self-regulation.