Study Shows That Being Judgmental May Increase Risk of Anxiety

Insight Journal, June 4, 2007

Vermont, USA -- A recent study performed by researchers at the University of Vermont’s Department of Psychology explored possible links between anxiety and mindfulness skills.

The study looked at 154 young adults in their early 20’s. Researchers found a significant association between certain mindfulness skills and high levels of both negative affectivity (also known as neuroticism) and anxiety sensitivity.

Essentially, the more anxiety a person experiences, the less they will be able to practice mindfulness skills. Specifically, negative affectivity leads to greater difficulty with awareness, acceptance, and description mindfulness skills. Anxiety sensitivity makes it especially difficult for those with anxiety to practice awareness and acceptance.

What does this mean? At their most basic, mindfulness skills are our ability to be in the present moment, avoid harsh judgment of ourselves and others, and act with deliberation. When a person lacks mindfulness skills, it can lead to impulsive unwanted behaviors, avoidance, and a general feeling of dissatisfaction. People dealing with anxiety often “act out” to avoid their anxious feelings, abusing drugs or alcohol, overspending, overeating or under eating, or participating in any number of other negative coping behaviors because they lack awareness of what they are feeling or the ability to sit with the anxious feelings in the moment. Clearly this can lead to negative outcomes.

Everyone experiences negative emotions. The distinction between those with anxiety disorders and those who do not suffer from anxiety disorders is that those with anxiety disorders lack the mindfulness skills needed to sit with negative emotions, name them, process them, and cope in healthy, self-supporting ways. Anxiety is commonly linked with avoidance, the opposite of mindfulness, and can best be described as “getting in bed and pulling the covers over your head.” The more a person can become aware (mindful) of their negative emotions, the more they will be able to overcome their anxiety and learn to live with the full spectrum of emotions.

What are mindfulness skills? According to the scale used by the researchers performing the study, mindfulness skills include awareness, acceptance, description, and act. Awareness is the ability to observe without judgment what is going on around and inside of the individual. When someone has awareness, they can sit back and recognize both internal and external events. Acceptance is the ability to deal with what is really going on, saying, “This is what is,” without placing judgments of “good” or “bad” on the situation. Description is the ability to put words to those events. It’s the ability to use language to describe one’s feelings and thoughts and the events that triggered those feelings and thoughts. Act is simply that; the ability to take action after conscious, mindful deliberation.

The link between high anxiety and low-level mindfulness skills could explain the reinforcement of negative coping skills in people suffering from anxiety. It could also point to possible therapeutic techniques for those with anxiety disorder. Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), a therapeutic technique originally designed for patients dealing with borderline personality disorder, focuses on 4 components. One component of DBT is mindfulness skills training. This therapeutic technique could also be used by patients with anxiety disorder for developing those same skills. Also, while preliminary research has shown a tenuous link between mindfulness meditation and anxiety improvement, learning mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) techniques including mindfulness meditation could help reduce anxiety if lack of mindfulness skills contributes to an individual’s feelings of anxiety.

In general, mindfulness is a key component of Eastern spiritual practices such as Buddhism. More research is needed to show a definite link.