Mindfulness DOI 10.1007/s12671-014-0362-7
The Impact of Mindfulness on Supportive Communication Skills: Three Exploratory Studies Susanne M. Jones & Wesley Hansen
# Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014
Abstract Supportive communication, which conveys care, empathy, and encouragement, plays a crucial role in how well people are able to cope with difficult emotions and aversive situations. But supportive communication can be conveyed more or less skilled. One possible mechanism that may link nonverbally and verbally conveyed emotional support and improved affective outcomes is mindfulness, conceived as enhanced nonreactive attention to and awareness of current internal and external stimuli. We present a theoretical model of mindful supportive communication and report the results of three exploratory studies that test the relationship between mindfulness and three factors that influence the supportive communication process, namely social skills, communicative coping, and reappraisals. Study 1 detected relationships between mindfulness facets and social skills. Studies 2 and 3 examine the impact of brief mindful interventions on social skills, communicative coping skills, and reappraisals. Keywords Comforting . Emotional support . Mindfulness . Mindful coping . Positive reappraisal . Social support . Supportive communication
Introduction A recent meta-analysis by Holt-Lunstad, Smith, and Layton (2010) found that interpersonal relationships and particularly the social support people receive from these relationships significantly predicted risk of mortality. One type of social support, the provision of emotional support, is particularly S. M. Jones (*) : W. Hansen Department of Communication Studies, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, 225 Ford Hall, 224 Church Str. SE, Minneapolis, MN 55455, USA e-mail: [email protected]
crucial for our well-being, because it helps us cope with difficult emotional experiences (Goldsmith 2004). Emotional support facilitates the coping process by generating a safe discursive environment within which upsetting events and difficult emotions, as well as potential coping options, can be explored (Burleson and Goldsmith 1998; Jones and Wirtz 2006). However, how exactly the provision of emotional support contributes to our well-being is still a poorly understood process (Thoits 2011). For instance, neither the actual emotional support nor the mere presence of a helpful supporter is necessarily conducive to well-being (Maisel and Gable, 2009; Uchino et al. 2010). In addition, received support (i.e., the support people report having received over a period of time; Barrera et al. 1981) and perceived support (i.e., what people evaluate as supportive; Lakey and Orehek 2011) are either not at all or negatively correlated with one another (Lakey and Orehek 2011; Reinhardt et al. 2006; Ross et al. 1999; Uchino et al. 2010). Perceived support is also much more strongly associated with beneficial outcomes than received support (Lakey and Orehek 2011). Perceived support is rooted in interpersonal relationships and is to some degree a result of past supportive communication—the things people say and do to facilitate emotional improvement (e.g., advice, troubles talk, daily conversations; Goldsmith 2004; Lakey 2013; MacGeorge et al. 2013). If perceived support is a function of past supportive interactions yet is not positively related with received support, then there must be an underlying process that influences the supportive communication process. In other words, the relationship between perceived and received support must be indirect and must be mediated by a third mechanism. One such mechanism that may explain the connection between perceived and received support might be mindfulness, defined as a person’s present-centered awareness and attention to internal and external experiences in a nonreactive and nonjudgmental way (Baer et al. 2006; Brown and Ryan 2003).
Conceptually, mindfulness comprises two core processes, namely (a) the regulation of attention to present experiences (observing, describing) and (b) approaching these experiences in nonjudging and nonreactive ways regardless their valence and desirability (Brown and Ryan 2003; Ciarrochi and Kashdan 2013; Hölzel et al. 2011). Operational definitions of mindfulness conceive of it as a multifaceted construct that is frequently assessed with the Five-Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ; Baer et al. 2006). Powerful empirical evidence documents the benefits of both mindfulness and emotional support on people’s emotional states, as well as their interpersonal relationships and coping abilities (Bodie and Burleson 2008; Wachs and Cordova 2007; Weinstein et al. 2009). But is mindfulness salubrious to supportive communication? This question strikes us as important; if supportive communication is skilled behavior, then a mindful mode might increase a putative supporter’s abilities to enact caring and compassionate emotional support. Supportive communication and mindfulness are conceptually guided by emotional regulation processes, particularly coping theory. A fundamental goal of mindfulness-based practices is to promote the use of effective emotion regulation strategies (Garland et al. 2009), whereas emotional support functions explicitly to assist a friend or close other in regulating (i.e., coping with) negative emotional experiences (Goldsmith 2004). Coping is a specific kind of emotion regulation process and involves two appraisal processes that serve different functions (Lazarus 1991): Primary appraisals involve an assessment of what stimuli mean to us and usually culminate in an emotional response. If a stimulus has been appraised as harmful, people usually engage in secondary appraisals, which involve assessments of problem- and emotion-focused coping resources (Lazarus and Folkman 1984). Problem-focused coping resources include tangible resources people use to remediate whatever caused the upset and include communicative strategies (e.g., seeking support; Burleson 2003; Lazarus and Folkman 1984; Thoits 1995). Emotion-focused coping resources target emotion regulation and one strategy that seems to accomplish that is a person’s ability to positively reappraise interpretations of what led to the harmful emotions in the first place (Ben-Artzi and Mikulincer 1996; Lazarus and Folkman 1984). Positive reappraisal reframes the meaning of a stressful event so that it can culminate in less aversive and perhaps even positive emotional experiences, and one way to increase positively reappraisal abilities is to cultivate mindfulness. Several emotion regulation models have now integrated mindfulness at the level of a person’s initial attention to a stimulus (e.g., Farb et al. 2014). Garland et al.’s (2009, 2011, 2013) Mindful Coping Model (MCM) is of particular interest to mindful supportive communication because it, too, is dynamic and self-regulatory. The
MCM begins with a stressful stimulus that has been appraised as harmful (Garland et al. 2011; Garland et al. 2013; Gerzina and Porfeli 2012; Hanley et al. 2014; Reber et al. 2013). But before the event can be positively reappraised, the distraught person must cognitively detach or decenter from the event and the experienced emotions. Research is emerging that documents connections between decentering and reappraisal (Hayes-Skelton and Graham 2013). Decentering is based on the idea that human understanding is a function of the relationship between a person’s verbal scripts and the idiosyncratic context within which the person operates. Decentering allows people to contextualize emotional experiences and to broaden attention by actively shifting perspectives. Once people shift perspectives, positive reappraisals of previously interpreted difficult events become possible. The result is emotional improvement. Beneficial emotional support influences the decentering process by helping the distressed person identify different vantage points from which difficult emotions can be understood (Cannava and Bodie 2014; Liehr et al. 2010; North et al. 2013). However, in order to assist upset people in decentering emotions, providers must be skilled in encoding and decoding emotional states of the upset person in the first place. Enacting emotional support is considered skilled behavior which requires effectively sensing and interpreting emotional expressions of others (Guerrero and Jones 2003; Jones 2004; Riggio et al. 1993). Riggio’s Social Skills Inventory is a frequently used measure that tabs social skills (SSI; Riggio 1986, 1992; Riggio and Carney 2003; Riggio and Riggio 2005). The SSI measures three skill dimensions (encoding/ sensitivity, decoding/expressivity, regulating/control) within emotional (i.e., nonverbal) and social (i.e., verbal) domains. Crossing the three dimensions with the two domains generates six social skills: Nonverbal expressivity refers to a person’s nonverbal ability to effectively convey felt emotions, whereas nonverbal sensitivity tabs a person’s ability to accurately observe and interpret nonverbal expressions of other people. Nonverbal control refers to a person’s nonverbal ability to regulate affect by appearing indifferent, by masking a felt emotion with a different (perhaps more appropriate) emotion, or by deintensifying emotion. Verbal expressivity is a person’s verbal expression and fluency, whereas verbal sensitivity refers to a person’s ability to receive and accurately interpret verbal messages. Lastly, verbal control includes a person’s verbal self-presentation skills and refers to the regulation of verbal performance, including the ability to manage impressions, assume different social roles, and take leadership positions. High levels of any one skill do not necessarily indicate more effective performance in that skill, which suggests that these skills are context-dependent. For example, social sensitivity, as measured by the SSI (e.g., “I’m very sensitive to criticism”; “Sometimes I think I take things that other people
say to me too personally”), focuses on one’s motivation to make positive impressions on others, and an overabundance of this skill may actually reflect oversensitivity to what others think (Guerrero and Reiter 1998). These skills also operate within a constellation. Thus for instance, people high in social and emotional control, and low in expressivity and sensitivity may be viewed as socially adaptive, yet perhaps not quite genuine and able to develop close emotional ties with others (for a review see Riggio 1992). One theory that integrates these skills with mindfulness and emotional support is Sensitive Interaction Systems Theory (SIST; Barbee and Cunningham 1995). SIST stipulates that self-presentational concerns and ambivalences are observable in nonverbal and verbal behavior, which may repel people from providing or seeking emotional support. In addition, because enacted support, like all interpersonal communication, is a socially shared enterprise, people coordinate behaviors, though not always necessarily for the better. Thus for instance, people may use indirect nonverbal support activation behaviors, such as sulking or sighing, because they feel ashamed and awkward, find it socially inappropriate to express negative emotions or do not want to burden the potential helper. However, such indirect activation cues tend to be reciprocated by the putative provider with equally avoidant or even insensitive support, such as distractions or minimizations (Yankeelov et al. 1995). Awareness of these deleterious activation cues could potentially lead to more effective and beneficial support provisions. Two studies testing relationships between social skills and social support further corroborate SIST findings. In the first study, Riggio and colleagues (1989) reported positive correlations for the SSI composite and empathy, suggesting that as a set, these skills seem to also encourage people to share, understand, and affectively respond more effectively to the emotional states of others. In the second study, Riggio (1992) found that people’s ability to accurately convey emotional needs (i.e., emotional sensitivity) was associated with perceived levels of emotional support. People who are good at expressing their own emotional states tended to also report an increased sense of support in their lives, perhaps because emotional sensitivity permitted these people to more effectively activate their support system. Interestingly, in the study, Riggio (1992) also reported negative associations between emotional control and perceived informational support (e.g., asking for advice and guidance), as well as the reported use of supportive coping strategies (e.g., seeking help from others). Riggio speculated that people with increased levels of emotional control are quite selective and thus perhaps judicious in their use of support. Another explanation might be that people high in emotional control skills closely monitor and control their emotions. Research on self-monitoring and deception suggests that high self-monitors tend to be good nonverbal “actors” who are able
to mask what they genuinely feel (Friedman and MillerHerringer 1991; Riggio and Friedman 1981; Tucker and Riggio 1988). Genuinely felt emotions may get stifled, such that what is truly felt does not get expressed; emotion control may thus become laborious and stressful (Grandey 2003). Applied to social support, high self-monitors may think that requesting emotional support impacts how they are perceived by others, puts demands on others, and is thus best avoided all together. Coupled with increased levels of emotional and/or social sensitivity, high self-monitors might also be particularly perceptive to others’ nonverbal microcues that express trepidations to offer help (e.g., a momentary eye brow flash, response latency; Ambady and Rosenthal 1992; Riggio 1992). In three studies, we sought to explore whether mindfulness is related to communicative components that influence the supportive communication process, namely social encoding and decoding skills and communicative coping skills. In study 1, we examined the relationship between mindfulness facets and Riggio’s social skills. In studies 2 and 3, we examined whether brief mindfulness training would influence people’s social skills and communicative coping abilities, respectively.
Study 1: Dispositional Mindfulness and Support Skills Being able to skillfully engage in sending, receiving, and monitoring nonverbal and verbal messages requires that one notice and attend to sensory information (i.e., cognitive indexing; Wyer and Adaval 2003). In addition, mindful describing, the tendency to be able to express what is felt, is closely related to how a person sends, receives, and monitors nonverbal cues and verbal messages. Mindful observing, describing, and social skill associations are also beneficial for both recipient and provider. Therefore, we predicted that mindful observing and describing would be positively correlated with the six social skills, because these two mindfulness facets in particular seem to emphasize these skills (H1). The positive relationship might not hold for all six social skills and the three remaining mindfulness facets, namely acting with awareness in a nonjudging and nonreactive manner for both provider and support recipient. Both MCM and SIST stipulate that the putative mindful provider must be especially sensitive to the emotional state of the distressed person, which includes emotional and social sensitivity skills. In addition, the mindful provider must also sensibly and compassionately respond to the emotional needs of the recipient by using expressions of care and concern which tab emotional and social expressivity skills. Mindful acting with awareness certainly facilitates the use of these four skills, as does one’s tendency to not judge the recipient. This led us to predict positive associations between acting with awareness in a nonjudging and nonreactive manner and social/emotional sensitivity as well as expressivity skills (H2).
Social and emotional control skills, as assessed by the SSI, assist people in adjusting felt emotions to situational expectations. Control skills, in particular, require people to react and evaluate. But the mindful mode posits the exact opposite: that one openly and genuinely attend to what is felt in a nonevaluative manner, that one not become attached to thoughts and emotions, and that one let go of these emotions all together. Thus, we predicted that people who report increased levels of mindful acting with awareness, nonjudging, and nonreacting would also report decreased levels of social and emotional regulatory skills (H3). This would suggest that these skills are perhaps not as important when mindfully supporting another person, primarily because regulatory skills encourage the provider to focus on his or her own behaviors to the detriment of attending to the putative recipient.
Method Participants and Procedures A total of 215 students from undergraduate communication courses at a Midwestern university completed an online survey in exchange for extra credit. The average age of the participants was 21.3 years (SD=3.42; range=18 to 51 years). The majority of the sample consisted of white Americans (n= 142), followed by Asians/Asian-Americans (n=49), AfricanAmericans (n=11), and Hispanics (n=5). Eight participants belonged to other ethnic groups. Measures Mindfulness was assessed with the 39-item Five-Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ; Baer et al. 2006). All items were assessed with Likert scales that ranged from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). The five FFMQ dimensions include nonreactivity (e.g., “I perceive my feelings and emotions without having to react to them”), observing (e.g., “When I’m walking I deliberately notice the sensations of my body moving”), acting with awareness (actaware; e.g., “I find it difficult to stay focused on what’s happening in the present,” reverse coded), describing (e.g., “I’m good at finding the words to describe my feelings”), and nonjudging (e.g., ”I tell myself I shouldn’t be feelings the way I’m feeling” reverse coded). The overall confirmatory structure of the FFMQ has been well established (see de Bruin et al. 2012; Williams et al. 2014). High scores for the acting with awareness and nonjudging scales reflect low levels of these two mindfulness characteristics. Therefore, we reverse coded these two subscales such that high scores reflected high levels of acting with awareness and nonjudging. High scores on the other three scales reflect
high levels of that particular mindfulness facet. Table 1 features relevant descriptive information for the FFMQ. Social skills were assessed with an abbreviated 39-item version of Riggio’s (1986) six-dimensional Social Skills Inventory. Items were assessed with Likert scales that ranged from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). Three of the skills tap nonverbal skills: emotional control (e.g., “It is very hard for me to control my emotions,” reverse coded), emotional sensitivity (e.g., “I am often told that I am a sensitive, understanding person”), and emotional expressivity (e.g., “I often laugh out loud”). The reliabilities for the last subscale were unsatisfactory; we therefore eliminated this scale from further analyzes. The reliabilities for both the emotional control and emotional sensitivity scales were somewhat low (.60 and .62, respectively) and likely weakened our results. However, we considered these reliabilities marginally acceptable and therefore left these two scales in our analyses. The three verbal skills include social control (e.g., “When in discussion I find myself doing a larger share of the talking”), social sensitivity (e.g., “I’m often concerned about what others think of me”), and social expressivity (e.g., “I could talk for hours on just about any subject”). High scores on all SSI subscales indicated a high level of that particular skill. Table 1 features relevant descriptive information for the SSI.
Results and Discussion Table 1 features correlations among study 1 variables. Several interesting patterns emerged. H1 predicted that mindful observing and describing would be positively correlated with nonverbal and verbal encoding, decoding, and regulating abilities. Results suggest that mindful observing and describing were only positively correlated with three of the six social skills (i.e., social control, social expressivity, emotional sensitivity). Therefore, H1 was only marginally supported. People high in social control tend to be able to monitor their own behaviors in line with what is considered appropriate and normative for any given situation. In addition, people who are able to express their own sensations and who are able to put these sensations into words (i.e., social expressivity) seem to then also be better able to adjust thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to social situations. Lastly, mindful observing and describing one’s own sensory stimuli were positively associated with emotional sensitivity, one’s ability to interpret the emotional cues of others. This skill might be particularly important in the emotional support context, where the helper needs to attend to the nonverbal cues of the upset person: Attending to one’s own emotional state and being able to label that state might contribute to one’s ability to attend to the emotional experiences and expressions of the upset person. Mindful observing and describing may be fundamental to
Mindfulness Table 1 Reliabilities, means, standard deviations, and correlational coefficients for variables in study 1
1. Mindfulness 2. Observing 3. Describing 4. Awareness 5. Nonjudging 6. Nonreactivity 7. Social control 8. Social sensitivity 9. Social expressivity 10. Emotional control 11. Emotional sensitivity
.75 .81 .89 .87 .91 .81 .86 .82 .82 .60 .62
4.32 4.90 4.61 4.07 3.78 4.22 4.61 4.83 4.97 3.53 5.11
.61 .96 1.17 1.13 1.30 1.05 1.30 1.10 1.03 1.21 .85
– – –
– – – –
– – – – – .22** .17* −.23** .01 −.29** .08
– – – – – – .10 .01 .18* −.30** .09
– – – – – – – −.05 .54** −.02 .35**
– – – – – – – – .08 .26** .17**
– – – – – – – – –
– – – – – – – – – – −.06
– – – – – – – – – – –
.28** .68** .65** .61** .45** .36** −.15* .26** −.34** .38**
.20** −.03 −.15* −.08 .22** .06 .29** .11 .44**
.39** .18** .07 .36** −.07 .23** −.13 .32**
.27** .09 .12 −.13* .043 −.28** .14*
N=215; *p<.05; **p<.001
managing social discourse and may serve to connect individual sensations with the unique demands of the social interaction, in this case, the social support context. However, we note once more that our results may have been biased by the somewhat low scale reliabilities for emotional sensitivity. H2 predicted that acting with awareness (i.e., not being on autopilot), taking a nonevaluative stance toward one’s emotions, and not reacting to these emotions would all be positively correlated with nonverbal/verbal sensitivity and expressivity. Correlations confirmed these predictions only for acting with awareness and emotional sensitivity, one’s ability to attend to the emotional expressions of others. Thus, H2 was also only marginally supported. In addition, an unpredicted pattern emerged for social sensitivity: People who scored high on social sensitivity tended to also be less able to act with awareness and to engage in mindful nonjudging. Upon inspection of the social sensitivity items used in the SSI, these results may make sense. Social sensitivity was assessed with items such as “It’s very important to me that other people like me” or “I’m usually concerned about the impression I am making on other people.” It seems that concern for how one appears to others might tab an intense preoccupation with one’s own thoughts and feelings (Guerrero and Reiter 1998), rather than dispassionately attending to moment-by-moment thoughts without judging. Ultimately, we might have to reconceptualize social sensitivity such that it becomes commensurate in meaning with its nonverbal counterpart. That way, we may be better able to assess how well people encode partner messages without concern for self. H3 predicted that acting with awareness, as well as nonjudging and nonreacting, would be negatively correlated with verbal and nonverbal regulating skills, one’s abilities to control one’s own emotional and verbal expressions. H3 was also only partially supported, such that acting with awareness in a nonjudging and nonreactive manner was negatively correlated with emotional control, but not with social control.
People who scored high on emotional control reported operating more on automatic pilot (vis à vis acting with awareness) and being more reactive and judgmental toward felt emotions. Notably, the somewhat low reliabilities for the emotional control scale might have biased our results. We conducted supplemental analyses to further explore these findings by examining associations with the mindfulness composite (see Table 1). As can be seen, mindfulness was also negatively associated with emotional control, which further corroborate the partial results for H3 (r=−.34, p>001; see Table 1). Contrary to our predictions for H3, results for social control only revealed a positive correlation with nonjudging: People who reported increased abilities to manage their impressions in talk also reported being less judgmental of their own emotional states. Perhaps this reflects previous findings that high self-monitors are usually quite confident (Riggio et al. 1990) and might therefore be more inclined to not judge what they feel. Taken together, study 1 findings suggest that mindfulness plays a complex role in the supportive communication between provider and recipient. Consider first the mindfulness facets: Acting with awareness captures a person’s tendency to avoid automatic behaviors (e.g., “I tend to spill things,” “I find myself doing things without paying attention,” reverse coded), whereas nonreactivity is a person’s ability to merely let difficult felt emotions “pass by” (e.g., “Usually, when I have distressing thoughts or images, I just notice them and let them go”). Lastly, high nonjudgment scores indicated a person’s ability to accept internal stimuli as they present themselves (e.g., “I tell myself that I shouldn’t be feeling what I’m feeling,” reverse coded). Next, consider emotional control which concerns the extent to which people are able to selfmonitor nonverbal expressions in social interactions (Riggio and Friedman 1981). Applied to the support context, support providers may control emotions by choosing to mask their distressing feelings and by appearing poised or even pleasant
when offering help, a dynamic that may backfire because felt emotions may “leak out” and thus be noticed by the recipient. In addition, masking emotions tends to be stressful (Grandey 2003). In an attempt to glean support availability and readiness from potential helpers, support seekers might be perhaps overly sensitive to the nonverbal and verbal cues of others. Emotional control was also positively correlated with social sensitivity, a finding that might illustrate the constellational nature of these skills. Perhaps increased levels of these two skills lead people to be overly involved with what others think of them; all of which are visible in people’s reduced levels of mindful awareness and nonjudgment. Perhaps most fundamentally, study 1 results suggest that some mindfulness features (e.g., nonjudging, describing) may impact verbal messages and nonverbal cues in different ways in the support process.
Study 2: Mindfulness Interventions and Support Skills The purpose of study 2 was to follow up on our findings from study 1 that people who scored high on nonverbal regulation (i.e., emotional control) skills and verbal sensitivity tended to be relatively judgmental and reactive toward their own emotional experiences. These people also reported being more inclined to operate on automatic pilot. In study 2, we tested whether brief mindfulness exercises would ameliorate these effects (H1). Our conjectures were based on empirical evidence documenting positive mindfulness effects on relational functioning and empathic responding (Block-Lerner et al. 2004). We also sought to replicate a well-established finding that mindfulness interventions would indeed improve people’s mindfulness (H2).
Method Participants Ninety-two students (nMindfulness =44; nComparison =48) from communication classes at a large university in the UpperMidwest of the USA participated in study 2 in exchange for minor extra credit. Instructors were approached initially with the request to have students participate in the study. We used intact classes, such that three classes completed the mindfulness regimen, whereas two other classes served as the comparison group. We began the study for all five classes at the same time (second semester week) and also ended it at the same time (fourth semester week). All five classes were upperdivision courses for junior and senior communication studies majors. None of the classes contained lecture information on mindfulness, meditation, or emotional support. We did not
collect data about class membership. Therefore, there might be a systematic difference between comparison and mindfulness groups as a function of the nature of the upper-division courses. The average age of the participants across both groups was 22.5 years (range=19 to 39 years). Groups differed somewhat with respect to age (MMindfulness =21.7, SDMindfulness =3.62; M Comparison = 23.27, SD Comparison = 3.83) and sex (e.g., Mindfulness nfemale =18; 40.9 %; Comparison nfemale =32, 66.7 %). The majority of the sample consisted of white/ European Americans (n=64), followed by Asian or AsianAmericans (n=14), and African-Americans (n=6). Nine participants belonged to other ethnic groups. A total of 46 % of the participants (n=57) reported having had meditation experience. Of those, 31 people were in the mindfulness group. In terms of length of meditation experience, only 15 out of 91 participants reported having practiced meditation for at least a month (nmindfulness =1); 8 out of 15 participants reported meditation experiences in excess of 7 months (nmindfulness =4). In terms of meditation routine, of the 15 meditation practitioners, only two reported practicing meditation every day, and both people were in the comparison group. It seems that the comparison group contained people with more meditation experience than the mindfulness group. We examined whether (a) length of meditation experience and (b) meditation routine impacted our outcomes by entering both of these measures as covariates in our repeated measures analyses of variance (ANOVAs). However, neither meditation measure generated significant interaction effects. We therefore eliminated these two covariates from future analyses. Procedures The research design reflected a pretest/posttest nonequivalent, quasi-experimental design. Mindfulness participants were asked to engage in daily exercises over the course of 2 weeks and to keep a diary of their experiences. On the first day of week 1, we handed out workbooks and spent one 55-min class period discussing the meaning of mindfulness, the overall structure of the 2-week exercise regimen, and the daily exercises for week 1. After the first week, we introduced the exercises to be completed during week 2. All instructions were provided in class. Over the course of the 2-week period, we regularly reminded students during class to complete the daily exercises. Students practiced the mindfulness exercises on their own time outside of class. After the 2-week period, students in both mindfulness and comparison groups completed the posttest consisting of the same scales used in the pretest. Scales were presented in random order across both pretest and posttests. Students in the comparison group received no lecture on mindfulness, and no exercises or assignments. They merely completed the pretest and posttest after the 2-week interval.
For week 2, participants practiced emotion regulation skills in addition to the mindfulness exercise (see Linehan 1993). Participants completed a daily appraisal analysis for the strongest emotion they had experienced that day. Participants labeled the emotion and rated the intensity of the emotion on a scale ranging from 0 to 100. For the appraisal analysis, participants indicated (a) the prompting event for the emotion (e.g., what started the emotion?), (b) interpretations (e.g., beliefs, assumptions, appraisals), (c) body changes (e.g., what was felt in the body?), (d) body language (e.g., what were facial expressions, gestures, and/or posture?), (e) action urges (e.g., what did the participant feel like doing or saying?), (f) what was actually said or done, and (g) after effects (e.g., any other emotions, or thoughts?). Using Likert scales that ranged from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree), participants were asked whether they enjoyed the emotion regulation exercise and whether they thought the exercise was useful. Views with respect to both issues seemed split (Ms=2.82 for both items; SDs=.93; 1.08; respectively).
All surveys were completed in class and during class time. To further encourage adherence to the mindfulness regimen, we collected all workbooks at the end of week 2. We checked student workbooks whether diary worksheets had been completed. Virtually all students completed at least some worksheets per week.
Mindfulness Stimuli The mindfulness practices were adapted in consultation with a psychiatric rehabilitation practitioner certified for acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT; Hayes et al. 2011) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT; Linehan 1993). In week 1, participants practiced one of four structured 5-min mindfulness exercises. The four mindfulness exercises included one exercise that used imagery (i.e., conveyor belt exercise) and three observational exercises (i.e., mindful routine, breathing, and attunement). Participants were instructed to practice these skills daily for 2 weeks. Participants recorded their experiences on a diary sheet that was included in the workbook. The sheet consisted of a table with seven columns (one column for each day) and five rows so that participants could record (a) the exercise they completed, (b) what sensations they experienced, (c) what they felt, (d) what they thought, and (e) what was difficult during the exercise. Twenty-seven students reported having completed the mindfulness exercises every day. An additional seven students stated that they had completed these exercises at least five times per week. By far the most favorite exercise was the mindful routine exercise (n=16), followed by the mindful breathing exercise (n=16) and the conveyor belt exercise (n=4). About half of the participants also indicated that it is likely that they will continue with these exercises.
Table 2 Scale reliabilities for measurements in study 2
Mindfulness Nonreacting Observing Acting with awareness Nonjudging Describing Social skills Emotional expressivity Emotional control Social sensitivity Social expressivity Emotional sensitivity
Measures Mindfulness was assessed once more with the 39-item FiveFacet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ; Baer et al. 2006). All items were assessed with Likert scales that ranged from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree), and scale information is provided in Table 2. We reverse coded items for mindful acting with awareness and nonjudging again. High scores for both mindfulness facets reflect high levels of these two mindfulness facets. Social skills were once more assessed with an abbreviated 39-item version of Riggio’s (1986) six-dimensional Social Skills Inventory (SSI; Riggio and Carney 2003). Items were assessed with Likert scales that ranged from 1 (strongly
Mindfulness group (n=44)
Comparison group (n=48)
.77 .63 .83 .90 .87
.81 .84 .85 .71 .90
.79 .81 .86 .90 .83
.81 .89 .87 .92 .89
.73 .79 .87 .88 .80
.71 .79 .81 .84 .77
.76 .60 .75 .81 .73
.87 .78 .80 .86 .73
Notable means still hovered above the midpoint, suggesting that, in general, people are moderately attentive to their own and the behavior of others. Nevertheless, our results provide cursory evidence that mindfulness exercises lead people away from increased or excessive self-consciousness toward a more balanced awareness of their surroundings, which is subsequently reflected in increased levels of verbal encoding skills. While certainly modest in nature, this is a first finding which demonstrates a meaningful connection between mindfulness and one important communication skill that is implicated in the supportive communication process. H2 predicted that people would report increased levels of mindfulness after the 2-week intervention. Significant group× time interactions emerged for mindful nonreacting [F(1,90) 5.00, p=.028, partial η2 =.05], mindful observing [F(1,90) 5.01, p = .028, partial η 2 = .05], acting with awareness [F(1,90) 13.56, p<.001, partial η2 =.13], and describing [F(1,90) 7.16, p<.01, partial η2 =.07]. Table 3 shows that participants reported improved acting with awareness, observing, nonreacting, and describing abilities, whereas levels for observing actually decreased among comparison group participants. Effects were rather modest but in predicted directions. Strongest effects emerged for acting with awareness; participants who completed the mindfulness exercises reported being less on automatic pilot and more attentive to present activities, thoughts, and feelings, whereas comparison group participants reported an increase in automatic and inattentive behaviors. These results are entirely in line with extensive research using the FFMQ (Bohlmeijer et al. 2011; Christopher et al. 2012).
disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). Table 2 features relevant descriptive information for the SSI. The social control subscale was accidentally omitted.
Results and Discussion We used repeated measures ANOVAs to examine the data. Power (with α=.05 and r=.40 among repeated measures) was in excess of .99 for large effect sizes (f=.40) and .80 for medium effect sizes (f=.25). We conducted ten 2 (group: mindfulness, comparison)×2 (time: pretest, posttests) repeated measures analyses of variance (ANOVAs) with each of the five mindfulness facets and each of the four social skills as dependent measures. H1 predicted that mindfulness interventions would ameliorate skill deficits that emerged in study 1, such that people would report reduced levels of social sensitivity and emotional control. Significant group×time interactions emerged for social sensitivity only [F(1,90) 7.44 p<.01, partial η2 =.76]. Recall that study 1 showed negative correlations for social sensitivity and acting with awareness in a nonjudgmental manner. People who are socially sensitive may, at times, be overly attentive to their own self-presentational behaviors as measured by the SSI (e.g., “I can instantly tell how others feel about me”). Specifically, we predicted that mindfulness exercises would permit people to engage in moderate levels (but not excessively low levels) of social sensitivity. Results suggest that mindfulness participants reported significantly lower social sensitivity levels after the 2-week exercises, thus supporting H1 with respect to one social skill (see Table 3).
Table 3 Mean pretest and posttest changes in mindfulness facets and social skills for study 2 Mindfulness group (n=44)
Mindfulness Nonreacting Observing Acting with awareness Nonjudging Describing Social skills Emotional expressivity Emotional control Social sensitivity Social expressivity Emotional sensitivity
Comparison group (n=48)
2.52 (.50) 2.78 (.42) 2.34 (.52) 2.60 (.68)
2.70 (.46) 2.95 (.52) 2.43 (.53) 2.76 (.88)
2.76 (.76) 2.88 (.51) 2.65 (.55) 2.68 (.67)
2.65 (.41)* 2.84 (.58)* 2.41 (.54)*** 2.65 (.70)
3.67 (.18) 4.25 (.16) 4.96 (.14) 5.12 (.15) 4.89 (.13)
3.77 (.19) 4.41 (.17) 4.55 (.14) 5.13 (.16) 4.76 (.13)
3.85 (.17) 4.42 (.16) 5.12 (10) 5.00 (.15) 4.80 (.13)
3.96 (.18) 4.56 (.16) 5.14 (13)** 4.98 (.15) 4.80 (.12)
For each scale, means are presented with standard deviations in parentheses *p<.05; **p<.01; ***p<.001
Study 3: Mindfulness and Communication Coping Strategies In study 3, we tested whether mindfulness interventions meaningfully impact people’s communicative coping abilities. Theoretically, study 3 was anchored in the MCM, which assumes that mindfulness plays a crucial role in how people cope with difficult emotional experiences (Garland et al. 2009, 2011). Communicative coping strategies are the actual interactive attempts people use to manage stressful emotions and can be executed (a) more or less skillfully and (b) discursively and in social interaction, and (c) across a set of diverse interpersonal relationships (Bodenmann 2005). Beneficial communicative coping strategies include talking to others about one’s emotions, asking for help, or asserting one’s views. Dysfunctional communicative coping strategies include blaming others, expressing anger and aggression, or avoiding talk with others all together. In addition, we explored positive and negative reappraisals because they seem to play a particularly crucial role in the coping process (Garland et al. 2009, 2011; Neacsiu et al. 2010). We adapted the mindfulness intervention for study 3 from Linehan’s (1993) dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), which is organized around four skill modules, namely core mindfulness skills, interpersonal effectiveness skills, emotion regulation, and distress tolerance skills. DBT has been designed particularly for nonmeditation clients and has been effectively used in treating depression, anxiety, and eating disorders (Neacsiu et al. 2010). We drew on core mindfulness and emotion regulation modules only because these modules focus on skills that play an important role in the support process. We predicted that the mindfulness intervention would result in increased levels of communicative coping resources and positive reappraisals (H1). We also predicted that mindfulness training would encourage people to use fewer dysfunctional communicative coping resources and negative reappraisals (H2).
Method Participants A total of 123 students (nMindfulness =51; nComparison =72) from upper-division communication classes at a large university in the Midwestern USA participated in study 3 as part of a course assignment. We assigned students from two classes to the mindfulness group, whereas students in three other classes served as the comparison group. Two students were excluded from the analyses
because they indicated that they were in DBT at the time of the experiment. The average age of the participants across both groups was 21.7 years (range=18 to 49 years). The mindfulness and comparison groups differed somewhat with respect to age (MMindfulness =22.6, SDMindfulness = 4.47; MComparison =23.7, SDComparison =6.86) and sex (e.g., Mindfulness nfemale =32; 62.7 %; Comparison nfemale =44, 61.1 %). The majority of the sample consisted of white/ European Americans (n=87), Asian or Asian-Americans, (n= 17), and African-Americans (n= 12). Seven participants belonged to other ethnic groups. Procedures The research design for study 3 was once more a pretest/ posttest quasi-experimental design. To assess equivalence across the mindfulness and comparison groups, participants completed anxiety, anger, and depression scales; all of which have been found to be correlated with mindfulness (Bohlmeijer et al. 2011) and coping (Field et al. 2007). Items for these scales were assessed on Likert scales, ranging from 1 (not at all) to 4 (very much). Anxiety was measured with 20 items (e.g., “I feel calm”) from the state anxiety subscale of the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI; Spielberger 1980). Anger was measured with nine items (e.g., “I feel irritated”) from the state anger subscale of the State-Trait Anger Expression Inventory (STAXI; Spielberger 1988). Participants were instructed to evaluate anxiety and anger items with respect to how they felt at the moment. Lastly, we measured depression with 20 items (e.g., “I felt that everything I did was an effort”) from the Center for Epidemiology Studies Depression scale (CES-D; Radloff 1977). Participants evaluated each item with respect to how often they felt this way during the past week. Scale information is featured in Table 4. No significant group differences emerged as a function of these three measures. Because these three measures served solely to assess group equivalence, they are not further examined. Procedures for study 3 were largely identical to those of study 2. Immediately following the entrance survey, which contained the anger, anxiety, and depression scales, both groups completed a pretest. After the pretest, mindfulness participants received a workbook with descriptions of exercises and worksheets to be completed over the course of 2 weeks. Once more, we spent one 55-min class period discussing the study and daily exercises for week 1. After the first week, we introduced the exercises to be completed during week 2. Students practiced the mindfulness exercises in their own time outside of class. After the 2-week period, students in both mindfulness and comparison groups completed the posttest consisting of
the same scales used in the pretest. The order of scales was randomized across both pretest and posttests. All surveys were completed in class and during class time. All instructions were provided in class. However, this time, we neglected to collect student workbooks at the end of the 2-week session. Thus, we could not assess the extent to which students actually completed the 2-week regimen.
how skills as they liked at any given time and in conjunction with the what skills. Participants were asked to record their daily practice experiences on a diary sheet, which was included in the workbook. The sheet consisted of a table with seven columns (one column for each day) and six rows (one row for each mindfulness skill; i.e., three what and three how skills). Participants were encouraged to briefly record which core mindfulness skill they had practiced and to indicate their emotional experiences and thoughts after they had practiced that skill.
Mindfulness Stimuli Measures Study 3 mindfulness exercises were adapted from the core mindfulness and emotion regulation modules outlined by Linehan (1993). Participants practiced two core mindfulness exercise clusters in weeks 1 and 2. For week 2, participants practiced the same emotion regulation skills used in study 2 in addition to the mindfulness skill clusters. The two mindfulness exercise clusters were unstructured, such that they did not specify a certain sitting position, time frame, or mental image. The two skill clusters tapped three “what” (i.e., what one does when practicing mindfulness) and three “how” skills (i.e., the qualities related to the ways these activities are done). The three what skills encouraged students to either (a) observe (e.g., notice bodily sensations; watch thoughts like clouds as they come and go), (b) describe (e.g., put words on thoughts and feelings), or (c) participate (e.g., act with awareness). Students were asked to only engage in either one of these three what skills at a time. The three how skills encouraged students to be (a) nonjudgmental (e.g., see but do not evaluate, acknowledge but do not judge), (b) one-mindful (e.g., do one thing at a time, let go of distractions), and (c) effective (e.g., focus on what works, let go of vengeance, anger, and self-righteousness). Students were encouraged to apply as many of these three
Table 4 Scale information for measurements in study 3
Communicative coping and reappraisal strategies were assessed with items from the multidimensional Revised Ways of Coping (RWOC) scale (Neacsiu et al. 2010). In the pretest, participants were asked to evaluate how often they used the behavior or had the thought to deal with particular stressful events over the last 1 month. In order to capture changes due to the mindfulness intervention, participants were prompted to think of the last 2 weeks while completing the posttest. All items were assessed on scales that ranged from 1 (never used) to 4 (regularly used [5 to 7 times per week]). Higher scores indicate that people use an increased amount of that coping strategy. The full RWOC scale consisted of 59 items and features strong reliabilities (Neacsiu et al. 2010). We devised four subscales, namely a beneficial communicative coping scale (8 items; e.g., “Talked to someone who could do something concrete about the problem”), a dysfunctional communicative coping scale (7 items; e.g., “Took it out on others”), a positive reappraisal scale (18 items; e.g., “Concentrated on something good that could come out of the whole thing”), and a negative reappraisal scale (8 items; e.g., “Criticized or lectured myself”). Table 4 features reliability information for all scales.
Mindfulness group (n=51)
Anxiety Anger Depression Reliabilities (α) Beneficial communicative coping Dysfunctional communicative coping Positive reappraisal Negative reappraisal
Comparison group (n=72)
1.95 (.50) 1.21 (.38) 1.69 (.40) Pretest .72 .80 .87 .83
.88 .87 .89 Posttest .63 .63 .80 .77
1.88 (.54) 1.20 (.28) 1.66 (.42) Pretest .75 .74 .89 .76
.91 .85 .76 Posttest .62 .72 .84 .73
Results and Discussion Power (with α=.05 and r=.45 among repeated measures) was in excess of .99 for large effect sizes (f=.40) and .88 for medium effect sizes (f=.25). We conducted four 2 (Group: mindfulness, comparison)×2 (Time: pretest, posttests) repeated measures ANOVAs with each of the four coping strategies as dependent measure. Significant group×time interactions emerged for beneficial communicative coping strategies [F(1,119) 5.63, p=.019, partial η2 =.045], dysfunctional communicative coping strategies [F(1,119) 7.45, p<.01, partial η2 =.059], and positive reappraisal [F(1,119) 11.04, p<.01, partial η2 =.085]. Table 5 features mean pretest and posttest changes for mindfulness and comparison groups. An inspection of these means shows relatively modest changes across groups, yet they were all in predicted directions. Although these changes were small, they provide preliminary evidence that mindfulness plays a meaningful role in the supportive communication process. People in the mindfulness group reported significantly decreased levels for dysfunctional communicative coping skills after the 2-week mindfulness practice. In addition, the mindfulness group also reported significant increases in positive reappraisals after the practice, a finding that resonates with the work by Garland and colleagues (2011, 2013; Hanley et al. 2014). We also found group differences for beneficial communicative coping. However, these differences largely occurred in the comparison group, which actually reported a decrease in beneficial communicative coping after the 2-week intervention. To wit, participants consisted of students, whose stress levels commonly increase as the semester progresses; it might be that these stresses caught up with students, such that they led to a depletion of beneficial coping mechanisms, a point that has been made recently by Floyd et al. (2007).
General Discussion The presence of emotional support and the ability to mindfully engage with difficult sensory experiences are two resources
that significantly contribute to our well-being. However, the connection between mindfulness and supportive communication has yet to be systematically explored. This project is a first attempt in that direction and forms the beginning of a research agenda that examines the role of mindfulness in the emotional support process. Our mission was to generate initial empirical evidence for the connection between mindfulness and several crucial communicative factors that implicate the emotional support process, namely verbal and nonverbal expressivity and perception skills as well as communicative coping skills. The results of our three studies paint an intricate picture about the connection between mindfulness and enacted emotional support. Briefly, study 1 suggests that people who can mindfully attend to and describe internal and external stimuli also tend to manage verbal information more effectively, both when receiving it and sending it. Being aware of thoughts and feelings is closely connected to our stream of consciousness which consists to some extent of words and images (Seager 2007). Being able to mindfully present thoughts and feelings is certainly important for both provider and recipient when discursively managing a supportive conversation. Interestingly, skills that tended to encourage self-focused attention (e.g., emotional control, social sensitivity) were significantly associated with lower mindfulness, specifically reduced levels of acting with awareness to inner experiences and reduced levels of nonjudging felt emotions. We speculated that mindfulness training would perhaps moderate selffocused attention in study 2. Indeed, this was so for social sensitivity only (and not emotional control; the ability to monitor one’s own public displays of emotions). Social sensitivity, the way it is conceived by Riggio (1992), assesses a person’s ability to interpret the verbal communication of others. People who are socially sensitive are keenly aware of the appropriateness of their own actions and usually care a great deal what others think of them. Therefore, it might be that people who score high on this skill are somewhat selfconscious and may thus not be able to fully engage with the other person (Riggio and Carney 2003). Study 3 examines whether mindfulness interventions influence people’s coping abilities; results suggest improvements for positive
Table 5 Mean pretest and posttest changes in coping variables for study 3 Mindfulness group (n=51)
Comparison group (n=72)
Beneficial communicative coping Dysfunctional communicative coping
2.59 (.06) 2.22 (.07)
2.61 (.06) 1.89 (.07)
2.75 (.05) 2.19 (.06)
2.59 (.05)* 2.12 (.06)**
Positive reappraisal Negative reappraisal
2.61 (.06) 2.37 (.08)
2.73 (.07) 2.14 (.07)
2.66 (.05) 2.27 (.07)
2.54 (.05)*** 2.21 (.06)
For each scale, means are presented with standard errors in parentheses *p<.05; **p<.01; ***p<.001
reappraisal, while people also reported using less dysfunctional communicative coping strategies. The benefits of mindfulness on people’s coping abilities are slowly emerging. But the benefits of mindfulness conjure up an obvious question: If contemplative practice alone can improve a person’s coping abilities, then what role if any does supportive communication play in people’s lives? The answer lies in social evolution: People live relational lives; seeking and emotional support is essential to how we function (Baumeister and Leary 1995). In our view, mindfulness improves people’s abilities to provide emotional support. Once practiced, mindfulness makes for more compassionate and beneficial emotional support. Curiously, our model challenges the traditional skills/competency perspective that permeates interpersonal communication, itself anchored in the rhetorical tradition (i.e., debate and argumentation; Burleson 1981). The rhetorical approach to communication implies that emotional support proficiencies can be increased by training helpers “how and when to convey helpful intentions” (Burleson 2003, pp. 579). Burleson and Goldsmith (1998) outlined a theory of conversationally induced reappraisals. The theory underscores that effectively engaging a target to reframe events is not accomplished in single, brief messages nor is there a onefits-all tactical cluster that works for everyone. Rather, providers encourage targets to articulate emotion-focused narratives and the continued articulation, refinement, and repetition of this narrative that helps the recipient to make sense of what is felt and what happened and, in so doing, to develop more functional (e.g., less stress-producing) reappraisals. But before the distressed person can be encouraged to reinterpret upsetting events, a discursive environment needs to be established within which the person can safely and comfortably disclose aversive emotions and experiences. For example, providers might ask “tough questions,” in such a way that they express tentativeness, which is usually viewed as indecisive in other communicative functions (e.g., “It sounds like you might have felt upset because he said to you to not go in the backyard, or not?”). Communicative devices such as these generate the discursive space within which the upset person can explore what is felt. Of course, there are also times when a person is simply not ready to process difficult emotions and encouragements to discuss what happened may cause more harm than benefit. Mindfulness assists providers in knowing when to use what communicative strategy The results of our study offer some preliminary support for our speculations: What is called for when helping others is an attention to present sensory experiences, rather than a focus on how one might appear to others. The mindful mode encourages providers to accept the target’s needs and to observe and notice what these needs are. In addition, the mindful mode also allows people to detach from potential pressures that they may feel when offering help and may ward against emotional
contagion. What is worth further testing is whether a mindful mode can “prime” potential helpers to experience socioaffective emotions that subsequently influence message production. For instance, work by Singer (Klimecki et al. 2013; Singer and Bolz 2013) and Algoe (Algoe 2012; Algoe et al. 2013; Kok et al. 2013) suggests that compassion and empathy broaden attention and facilitate social connections with others. Perhaps compassion could serve as the affective “precursor” to beneficial supportive message production because compassion functions to synchronize cognitive, affective, and behavioral mechanisms of self and other when support is provided. Our studies have a number of limitations. First, using quasi-experimental design for studies 2 and 3 is problematic because the design suffers from an unlimited number of internal validity threats. Randomized experimental trials are necessary to further examine the causal mechanisms of mindfulness in appraisal-based emotional support. Second, we did not assess group equivalence for study 2, and two social skill subscales used in study 1 featured somewhat low reliabilities. These issues certainly impacted our results. At the very least, the results of our studies and particularly those associated with study 1 need to be replicated.
Human Subjects Approval The three studies have been approved by the Institutional Review Board at the university which is affiliated with the first author. Participants for study 1 received a consent agreement page. Participants for studies 2 and 3 provided informed consent. Conflict of Interest The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
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