The teenage years can be a tumultuous time, and for teenagers burdened by social anxiety, such worries will often increase the difficulties they face. Research has attempted to uncover the reasons why social anxiety can be such a problem for youth.
Of late, a great deal of research and treatment attention has been focused on how youth are affected by stress and how they may or may not have the skills to regulate the negative emotions associated with stressful experiences. These stressful experiences can include rejection, loss, or changing social circumstances.
In order to give youth (and adults) the skills to better regulate and manage their negative emotions, one increasingly popular approach has been to teach mindfulness. A large part of being mindful involves taking time out to notice and observe one’s own internal experiences, such as emotions, without judgment and without immediately reacting to them.
It has been shown that mindfulness can be improved with training and practice, and this has been applied in treatments for socially anxious adults with some success. Mindfulness has also been leaking into schools via universal school-based programs to build resilience to stress (social and academic) among all children and adolescents.
Yet, some people, including teenagers and young adults, just happen to be naturally more mindful than others. Thus, at any one point in time, any group of people will have a baseline level of natural ability to be mindful. This baseline level of mindfulness ranges from low to high across persons in the group. This has been called dispositional mindfulness, and this form of mindfulness varies quite substantially on a person-to-person basis.
Definitions of mindfulness can seem very broad and somewhat vague, and the capacity to regulate emotions when experiencing stress can be very complex, specific, and multifaceted. Yet, there are common aspects of mindfulness and emotion regulation highlighted in their scientific definitions. In particular, both mindfulness and emotion regulation have been described as involving skills such as (1) the ability to be aware of and recognize a range of emotions, (2) the ability to control and adjust personal reactions to emotions, (3) a greater acceptance of one’s natural emotional responses, and (4) the ability to explain emotions as they are experienced.
Our study focused on identifying the extent of this overlap. We aimed to determine how mindfulness and emotion regulation are related to each other and share a common core, as well as to determine how much of youth’s social anxiety symptoms could be explained by their skills at mindfulness and difficulties with emotion regulation.
In a group of 336 adolescents from Australia, we first asked them to report their experiences of emotion dysregulation (i.e., difficulty regulating emotions) and their level of dispositional mindfulness. Each of these measures had a number of subcomponents, with six subcomponents of emotion dysregulation and five subcomponents of dispositional mindfulness measured. When these eleven subcomponents were examined together, social anxiety was higher in youth who reported more of one emotion dysregulation subcomponent and had a particular pattern on two mindfulness subcomponents.
For emotion dysregulation, youth who reported experiencing more symptoms of social anxiety seemed to struggle specifically with a lack of strategies for dealing with negative emotions. This means that, compared to youth who reported low social anxiety, more socially anxious youth seemed to be less able to relieve their distress due to not having specific strategies in place for managing distressing feelings. For dispositional mindfulness, youth who reported experiencing more symptoms of social anxiety were more likely to report purposefully paying attention to their inner experiences, such as emotions. Second, they reported having more difficulty naming and describing their emotions.
At a more global level, when we explored the commonalities between emotion dysregulation and dispositional mindfulness; this analysis revealed two core patterns (called factors). One factor reflected greater difficulties using active emotion regulation methods. For example, adolescents higher on this factor, called active dysregulation, were not as able to actively search for and put in place real strategies to regulate their emotions when they needed to. The second factor, passive dysregulation, reflected difficulties with the more passive aspects of regulating emotions. Adolescents higher on this factor seemed to lack knowledge of the basics of emotional understanding. In particular, they were less aware of the specific emotions they were having, which can make it more difficult to regulate emotions appropriately. Most importantly, adolescents higher in social anxiety had more difficulties with both passive and active emotion dysregulation — they reported being less able to recognize the specific emotions they were feeling and why they may have these feelings and they reported being less able to find strategies to help them regulate their intense emotions when they felt distressed.
Overall, our study results indicated that emotion dysregulation and dispositional mindfulness share much in common. When adolescents experience more extreme distress and are unable to regulate this distress to manage stressors in their lives, these same adolescents are likely to be low in naturally occurring dispositional mindfulness. However, emotion regulation and mindfulness are not exactly the same ideas, and both are independently important for understanding why some adolescents may be more at risk for excessive social worries and concerns.
It should be emphasized, however, that we have only examined associations between emotion dysregulation, dispositional mindfulness and social anxiety symptoms among youth. We cannot draw conclusions from these findings of how these symptoms, problems, or skills emerge and change over time, or how some may cause the others. Longitudinal research is needed to begin to better understand the unfolding patterns of, and temporal links between, emotion dysregulation, dispositional mindfulness, and social anxiety symptoms.
Also, we found here that adolescents’ mindful observations of their emotions were associated with more elevated social anxiety symptoms. In contrast, experts in mindfulness among adults often describe observation as an aspect of mindfulness useful for relieving or reducing mental health problems. We expect that mindfulness may not have the same benefits in adolescents as it may in older adults or that some aspects of what has been considered a part of mindfulness might increase mental health problems among those who have a pre-existing condition.
Although much more research is needed, we feel the need to caution that engaging youth in mindfulness training, where the process of observing internal experiences is encouraged, may be counter-productive for those already experiencing symptoms of mental health disorders, such as social anxiety.
These findings are described in the article entitled Emotion regulation and mindfulness in adolescents: Conceptual and empirical connection and associations with social anxiety symptoms, recently published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. This work was conducted by Victoria K. Hambour, Melanie J. Zimmer-Gembeck, Sarah Clear, Susan Rowe, and Elbina Avdagic from Griffith University.