Acceptance is the Key – Using Acceptance-Based Mindfulness to Promote Emotional Regulation

One of the leading researchers in the area of emotional regulation difficulties and the advocacy of acceptance-based Mindfulness in treatment of these emotional regulation problems is  Kim Gratz.

In the first in a series of blogs about how different treatments address the intrinsic emotional dysregulation at the heart of addiction we consider Gratz’s view on emotional regulations and the role of mindfulness in alleviating some of this dysregulation (1).

The idea of acceptance of things as they are is central to acceptance based treatments such as Mindfulness, DBT and 12 step programs (“acceptance is the key”).

Difficulties in emotion regulation underlie many of the clinically relevant behaviors and psychological difficulties for which clients seek treatment, including substance use (2,3), binge eating (4,5).

In response, treatments for a variety of difficulties are increasingly incorporating a focus on emotion regulation and seeking to promote adaptive emotion regulation skills (6- 8 ).

There has been a great deal of research in the past decade indicating that efforts to control, suppress, or avoid unwanted internal experiences (including emotions) may actually have paradoxical effects, increasing the frequency, severity, and accessibility of these experiences (9-10 ).

Studies in this area have focused on thought suppression (i.e., deliberately trying not to think about something). Consistent with the findings of this research, another approach to emotion regulation emphasizes the functionality of all emotions (11,12) and suggests that adaptive emotion regulation involves the ability to control one’s behaviors (e.g., by inhibiting impulsive behaviors)



These studies show that attempts to avoid or suppress internal experiences may actually have paradoxical effects (referred to as ironic processes (13)) were attempts to suppress thoughts leads to them increasingly rebounding in one’s mind so this has the opposite effect, ironic, to what one hopes to achieve, to lessen these thoughts.  More recently, researchers have  found similar results when attempting to suppress emotions (14). All in all, these findings suggest that conceptualizations of emotion regulation that equate regulation with  the control or avoidance of certain emotions may be counter productive to emotion regulation.

Some researchers have suggested suggests that adaptive emotion regulation involves the ability to control one’s behaviors when experiencing negative emotions, rather than the ability to directly control one’s emotions themselves (7,15). This approach distinguishes emotion regulation from emotional control and, instead, defines regulation as the control of behavior in the face of emotional distress

According to this approach, although adaptive regulation may involve efforts to modulate the intensity or duration of an emotion (16) these efforts are in the service of reducing the urgency associated with the emotion in order to control one’s behavior (rather than the emotion itself).

In other words, this approach suggests the potential utility of efforts to “take the edge off” an emotion or self-soothe when distressed, rather than to get rid of the emotion or escape it altogether.

Moreover, when it comes to efforts to modulate the intensity or duration of an emotion, attachment to the outcome of these efforts is thought to have paradoxical effects (as directly trying to reduce emotional arousal to a particular level or make an emotion end after a certain amount of time is considered to reflect an “emotional control” agenda indicative of emotional avoidance).

Some researchers conceptualize emotion regulation as any adaptive way of responding to one’s emotions, regardless of their intensity or reactivity.

Given evidence that many individuals who engage in maladaptive behaviors struggle with their emotions (17,18), treatments that focus on teaching individuals ways to avoid or control their emotions may not be useful, and may inadvertently reinforce a non-accepting, judgmental, and unhealthy stance toward emotions. Instead, the fact  that such individuals may be caught in a struggle with their emotions suggests that they may benefit from learning another (more adaptive) way of approaching and responding to their emotions

Acceptance- and mindfulness-based treatments may be particularly useful for promoting emotion regulation and facilitating the development of more adaptive ways of responding to emotions. For example, the process of observing and describing one’s emotions (an element common across many mindfulness- and acceptance-based treatments,) to promote emotional awareness and clarity, as clients are encouraged to observe their emotions as  they occur in the moment and to label them objectively.

Through this process, clients are increasing contact with these emotions and focusing attention on the different components of their emotional responses (expected to increase emotional awareness). Further, the process of describing emotions is expected to facilitate the ability to identify, label, and differentiate between emotional states.

Moreover, the emphasis on letting go of evaluations such as “good” or “bad”) and taking a nonjudgmental and non evaluative stance toward these emotions


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Given that the evaluation of emotions as bad or wrong likely both motivates attempts to avoid emotions and leads to the  development of secondary emotional responses (e.g., fear or shame), learning to approach emotions in a nonjudgmental fashion is expected to increase the willingness to  experience emotions and decrease secondary emotional reactions.

Indeed, it is likely this nonevaluative stance (i.e., the description of stimuli as “just is,” rather than as “bad” or “good”) that underlies many of the potential benefits of observing and describing one’s emotions

Mindfulness training may also promote the decoupling of emotions and behaviors, teaching clients that emotions can be experienced and tolerated without necessarily acting on them. As such, these skills may facilitate the ability to control one’s behaviors in the context of emotional distress.

One factor thought to interfere with the ability to control impulsive behaviors when emotionally distressed  is the experience of emotions as inseparable from behaviors, such that the emotion and the behavior that occurs in response to that emotion are experienced as one (e.g.,anxiety and taking an anxiolytic). Thus, the process of observing one’s emotions and their associated action urges is thought to facilitate awareness of the separateness of emotions and the behaviors that often accompany them, facilitating the ability to control one’s behaviors when distressed.


1. Gratz, K. L., & Tull, M. T. (in press). Emotion regulation as a mechanism of change in acceptance-and mindfulness-based treatments. In R. A. Baer (Ed.), Assessing mindfulness and acceptance: Illuminating the processes of change. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

2. Fox, H. C., Axelrod, S. R., Paliwal, P., Sleeper, J., & Sinha, R. (2007). Difficulties in emotion regulation and impulse control during cocaine abstinence. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 89, 298-301.
3.  Fox, H. C., Hong, K. A., & Sinha, R. (2008). Difficulties in emotion regulation and impulse control in recently abstinent alcoholics compared with social drinkers. Addictive Behaviors, 33, 388-394.

4. Leahey, T. M., Crowther, J. H., & Irwin, S. R. (2008). A cognitive-behavioral mindfulness group therapy intervention for the treatment of binge eating in bariatric surgery patients.  Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 15, 364-375.

5.  Whiteside, U., Chen, E., Neighbors, C., Hunter, D., Lo, T., & Larimer, M. (2007). Difficulties regulating emotions: Do binge eaters have fewer strategies to modulate and tolerate negative affect? Eating Behaviors, 8, 162-169.

6. Gratz, K. L., & Gunderson, J. G. (2006). Preliminary data on an acceptance-based emotion regulation group intervention for deliberate self-harm among women with borderline personality disorder. Behavior Therapy, 37, 25-35.

7. Linehan, M. M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

8. Mennin, D. S. (2006). Emotion regulation therapy: An integrative approach to treatment-resistant anxiety disorders. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 36, 95-105

9. Hayes, S. C., Luoma, J. B., Bond, F. W., Masuda, A., & Lillis, J. (2006). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: Model, processes, and outcomes. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44, 1-25

10. Salters-Pedneault, K., Tull, M. T, & Roemer, L. (2004). The role of avoidance of emotional material in the anxiety disorders. Applied and Preventive Psychology, 11, 95-114

11. Cole, P. M., Michel, M. K., & Teti, L. O. (1994). The development of emotion regulation and  dysregulation: A clinical perspective. In N. A. Fox (Ed.), The development of emotion regulation: Biological and behavioral considerations. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 59, (pp. 73-100, Serial No. 240)

12. Thompson, R. A., & Calkins, S. D. (1996). The double-edged sword: Emotional regulation for children at risk. Development and Psychopathology, 8, 163-182.

13. Wegner, D. M. (1994). Ironic processes of mental control. Psychological Review, 101, 34-52.

14. Salters-Pedneault, K., Roemer, L., Tull, M. T., Rucker, L., & Mennin, D. S. (2006). Evidence of  broad deficits in emotion regulation associated with chronic worry and generalized anxiety disorder. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 30, 469-480.

15. Melnick, S. M., & Hinshaw, S. P. (2000). Emotion regulation and parenting in AD/HD and comparison boys: Linkages with social behaviors and peer preference. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 28, 73-86.

16. Thompson, R. A. (1994). Emotion regulation: A theme in search of definition. In N. A. Fox  (Ed.), The development of emotion regulation: Biological and behavioral considerations. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 59, (pp. 25-52, Serial No.

17.   Chapman, A. L., Gratz, K. L., & Brown, M. Z. (2006). Solving the puzzle of deliberate self harm: The experiential avoidance model. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44, 371-394.

18. Whiteside, U., Chen, E., Neighbors, C., Hunter, D., Lo, T., & Larimer, M. (2007). Difficulties regulating emotions: Do binge eaters have fewer strategies to modulate and tolerate  negative affect? Eating Behaviors, 8, 162-169

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