Cultivating a new relationship with the mind: insights on learning and applying mindfulness for health and wellbeing

Tatar, Betül (2022) Cultivating a new relationship with the mind: insights on learning and applying mindfulness for health and wellbeing. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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The human mind has a profound capacity to re-experience past events. These re-experiences, termed ‘simulations’ within the grounded cognition theory, are a common mechanism in both reward and aversion-related domains. For example, simulations can lead to unhealthy food desires and anxiety. Mindfulness practices have grown in popularity in the secular West to address issues of health and wellbeing, which may partly arise from simulations. Mindfulness-based interventions typically span over several months and train individuals to cultivate non-judgmental present-moment awareness. While these interventions are effective, their time and attentional demands may not be realistic for many individuals. As such, brief interventions as short as several minutes have gained empirical and popular interest in the last few decades. Brief interventions often focus on a single component of mindfulness such as ‘decentering’ – the metacognitive insight that the events of the mind are transient. Previous research demonstrates the effectiveness of decentering in regulating both reward-related processes (e.g., eating behaviour) and negative affect (e.g., anxiety). The grounded cognition account identifies simulations as a clear target for intervention, where decentering may reduce the effect of simulations on motivational/affective states like food desires and anxiety. However, there is very limited research on whether and how decentering targets the simulation-state link, and how decentering can be best taught. Further, studies of decentering predominantly rely on quantitative methods, which cannot illustrate specifically how people experience decentering. To address these gaps, this thesis investigates how individuals learn and apply single-session brief decentering strategies in the domains of food cravings and pandemic-related anxiety. Specifically, it assesses the potential effects of decentering on the relationship between simulations and motivational/affective states (Chapters 2 and 5). It also addresses methodological gaps in research through two qualitative studies (Chapters 3 and 4) and a mixed-methods experiment (Chapter 5).

Chapter 1 introduces grounded cognition theory as the central theoretical framework of this thesis (Papies et al., 2022), illustrating the shared cognitive mechanisms underlying the domains of food cravings and anxiety. Further, this chapter justifies the rationale for selecting food cravings and anxiety as domains of investigation for this thesis. Briefly, both domains present costly real-world problems of health and wellbeing. Both are multidimensional phenomena that have various biopsychosocial correlates. Importantly, according to grounded cognition theory, vivid mental simulations play a central role in both domains and are clear targets for decentering intervention.

Chapter 2 presents two experiments in the domain of food cravings that examine whether decentering is best learned in a domain-specific way or more generally, and assess the effect of decentering on the relationship between consumption simulations and food cravings. Salivation to foods is used as the main outcome variable, serving as a physiological measure of desire. Findings provide insufficient evidence on the need for domain specificity, and mixed evidence on whether decentering decouples the association between consumption simulations and desire for attractive food.

Chapter 3 presents the first qualitative interview study that explores how individuals learn and apply a brief decentering strategy in the domain of food cravings. Findings suggest that participants experience decentering as a change in their relationship to attractive food stimuli, where thoughts and feelings about foods are perceived as more transient. Various factors facilitate the learning and application of decentering, such as the use of metaphors. Chapter 4 builds on these findings with a focus group study in the domain of pandemic anxiety. This study shows that while participants perceive their anxiety-provoking experiences as transient mental events, some misunderstand the metacognitive concept of decentering. The final empirical chapter (Chapter 5) takes the qualitative findings as the basis for a well-powered mixed-methods experiment. This chapter investigates whether a brief decentering strategy curbs anxiety related to the pandemic, assessing the effect of decentering on the relationship between negative mental imagery (i.e., simulations) and anxiety. The quantitative results demonstrate that decentering can reduce both levels of anxiety, and decouple the link between imagery and anxiety. Qualitative findings provide a more nuanced understanding of these findings, revealing that again, a substantial number of participants misunderstand decentering.

In the final chapter of this thesis (Chapter 6), I discuss the key theoretical and applied conclusions of this work, evaluate its overall strengths and limitations, and propose avenues for future research. Overall, this work contributes a grounded cognition account of learning, (mis)understanding, and applying brief decentering, highlighting the importance of qualitative and mixed-methods inquiry in mindfulness research.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
Colleges/Schools: College of Medical Veterinary and Life Sciences > School of Psychology & Neuroscience
Supervisor's Name: Papies, Dr. Esther K.
Date of Award: 2022
Depositing User: Theses Team
Unique ID: glathesis:2022-83250
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 03 Nov 2022 09:18
Last Modified: 03 Nov 2022 09:19
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.83250
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