By Crystal Goh
A new study explores whether women get more out of meditation than men when it comes to reducing negative emotions through mindfulness.
Men are from mars, women are from Venus: Whether you subscribe to this classic title coined by author John Gray or whether you firmly believe we are actually from the same planet and live to conform to social gender norms, one thing is undeniable: here on planet earth, the topic of sex and gender are receiving more attention in our socio-economic, political, and mental well-being landscape.
Just as different populations (meditators vs non-meditators; clinical vs community populations) use facets of mindfulness in different ways (Woodhead et al 2013), age and gender also influence how individuals respond to meditation and mindfulness. Studies investigating effects of mindfulness often use the Five Factor Mindfulness Questionnaire(FFMQ), which looks at how subjects score on five different facets of mindfulness.
Five Facets of Mindfulness Used in This Study
- Acting with awareness
Past studies show that men tend to score higher on the “non-reactivity” facet of the FFMQ, while women score higher on the “observing” facet.
Most recently, researchers from Brown University were interested in gender differences in meditation in college-aged men and women. They followed seventy-seven undergraduate students (36 woman, ages 18 to 24) as they completed a 12 week mindfulness intervention. The students participated in seminars, weekend retreats, and meditation labs, which included formal focused attention and open monitoring forms of meditation (3 hours per week, totalling 36 hours). Before and after the 12 week program, students completed questionnaires that measured their positive and negative emotions, their mindfulness, and their self-compassion.
How Gender Affects Mindfulness
Overall, after the 12 week meditation program, everybody increased in mindfulness and self-compassion, and both genders reported less negative emotions, but the same level of positive emotions. When the authors examined the results according to gender, however, they found interesting results.
Women’s negative mood decreased more, and their mindfulness and self-compassion improved more, compared to men. Women’s boosted mood was directly associated with enhancements in all five facets of mindfulness skills—the tendency to notice thoughts and emotions without judging or identifying with them—and all six subscales of self-compassion skills: more self-kindness and less tendencies to self-judge and over-identify with emotions.
For men, the improvements in mindfulness and self-compassion reported after the 12-week program were not directly associated with improvements in negative emotions. Additionally, men improved in mindful non-judgement and non-reaction but did not improve in their ability to mindfully observe and describe.
Women’s negative mood decreased more, and their mindfulness and self-compassion improved more, compared to men.
In this study, men and women did not start with different baselines of good or bad mood, and men actually meditated over seven hours more than the women. So why are women improving more than men when it comes to reducing negative emotions through mindfulness?
Negative Emotions and Gender
The authors argued that in mindfulness practice, the therapeutic mechanism for negative emotions may in fact be gender-specific. Previous studies have found gendered differences in emotional regulation techniques. In fact, the regions of the brain responsible for emotional regulation are actually less activated in men, compared to women, when reappraising a situation in order to regulate an emotional reaction, suggesting that less effort is required for men overall (McRae et al, 2008). Women’s brains engage the emotion-association regions more when negative emotions are induced, whereas men’s cognitive control regions remain more active (Koch et al, 2007).
Given these results, and considering previous research highlighting the differences in women’s tendency to “internalize” (ruminating about an event) vs men’s tendency to “externalize” (playing sports or video games, etc) it may be that women improve more after mindfulness based interventions because the practice works on changing the habit of internalizing the response to stress. In other words, the combination of approaching experience and emotions with non-reactivity, being less self-critical, and increasing kindness toward oneself has power to help both men and women, but may be particularly powerful for those who strongly identify with their emotions, or those who tend to cope with stress by internalizing.
It may be that women improve more after mindfulness based interventions because the practice works on changing the habit of internalizing the response to stress.
While the results from this study add to the growing number of studies pointing toward gendered differences in emotional regulation and how mindfulness can help, it is important to note that ongoing research is still needed.
Mindfulness practice emphasizes non-judgemental acceptance of internal experiences, and works against the urge to suppress one’s needs or to self-censor. In this way, no matter the sex and gender, mindfulness can increase awareness of internal pain or stress, and help to cultivate habits of practicing self-care.
About the Author:Crystal Goh is an affiliate at the Applied Neuroscience Lab, which develops social-engagement programs with non-profits in Asia and USA, combining Neuroscience, Meditation and Environmentalism. Previously, she was a sleep scientist and cofounder of brain imaging company Araya.
I’m not sure women should endeavour to contain negative emotions via a mindfulness straightjacket. Strong emotions are a form of meditation and ultimately act as signposts. Distrust, distress, anguish, abandonment, anger, disappointment, neglect, raw vulnerability and profound annihilation should be taken very seriously and ruminated on until you identify and vanquish the cause. If something or someone outside of you regularly evokes these emotions by virtue of their actions or inactions then this is very clear indicator from your soul that path you are on or the relationship you are engaged in – is in an unloving one. Emotions are beautiful things, should be inhabited utterly and respected as the guidance they are. I don’t think the goal of mindfulness is sanitising your soul to evade conflict and dilemma – or even to arrive at peace in yourself when perhaps the turmoil is justified and action must be taken in your external life to fix it. Women are different from men, our emotional nuance and intensity is a valid strength. I don’t think we should homogenise our gender to reach a false passivity. Negative emotions often drive positive change. Anger against injustice and the abuse of power translates into the protection of self and others. Despair translates into developing methods to alleviate poverty, anguish, sickness and build healthy, wholesome community. True compassion is based in social justice, care for others, commitment beyond oneself and in seeking peace for all by accepting and embracing negative emotions and letting it drive better choices and better, more truthful (and ultimately loving) relationships.