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Can Mindfulness Help us Cope with Tragedy?

Eric Garland Press Photos

Dr. Eric Garland, associate dean for research at the University of Utah College of Social Work

Can mindfulness help us cope with tragedy? According to a new theory proposed by Dr. Eric Garland and colleagues, yes.

Mindfulness-to-Meaning Theory (MMT) is the subject of the target paper for the latest issue of the journal Psychological Inquiry, released this month. The theory describes the psychological and neurobiological mechanisms of using mindfulness to de-center from stressors, reframe the meaning of adverse life events (“positive reappraisal”), and improve one’s mental state and engagement with life.

“Every time another tragedy is in the news – from devastating earthquakes, to heartbreaking stories of personal struggles, to acts of savage terrorism – positive reappraisals emerge during the interviews of survivors,” says Dr. Garland, associate dean for research at the University of Utah College of Social Work. He explains that the ability to reframe difficult life experiences, big or small, improves resiliency and helps those impacted by tragedy derive rich personal meaning in the face of calamity. “It’s common for survivors to say that the experience brought the community together, played a critical role in helping them grow, or reminded them of what’s really important in life.”

So, how do we practice positive reappraisal? First, explains Dr. Garland, one must be mindful of their default negative or stressful reaction to a situation. Next, the person needs to consciously step back or disengage from that stress appraisal through mindfulness. Finally, one must deliberately open themselves up to a state of broadened awareness. “You begin to notice things about yourself and your situation that you had overlooked or ignored because you were so stressed and upset,” says Dr. Garland. Willingness to reevaluate the situation creates the mental space for a shift in thinking toward positive reappraisal, and fosters what Dr. Garland and his colleagues refer to as “fertile ground for constructive reframing of one’s circumstances.” Over time, a mindful approach to life’s challenges could result in an expanded sense of meaning and purpose.

Twenty-two noted scholars from around the world provided Psychological Inquiry with commentary articles in reaction to Dr. Garland’s MMT article, “Mindfulness Broadens Awareness and Builds Eudaimonic Meaning: A Process Model of Mindful Positive Emotion Regulation.” In their commentary article, Richard Chambers and Craig Hassed of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, call the theory “a welcomed move away from a limited emphasis on reducing psychological distress toward a more encompassing view of mindfulness that includes positive states of mind.”

“By becoming aware of awareness,” says Dr. Garland, “we realize that who we are is much bigger than any single thought, feeling, or stressful life event. We then become free to focus on more of the meaningful and beautiful experiences in life.”

Dr. Garland and colleagues’ target article on MMT, 10 commentary articles, and a reply to the commentary are available in Psychological Inquiry, Volume 26, Issue 4, 2015.

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Last Updated: 5/28/19