Mindful Rhythmic Breathing
Mindfulness is a broad concept, which depending on the type of intervention can directly impact cognition (attention in particular) or emotion. Mindful compassion techniques are those that directly impact emotions. Previous studies have supported the effectiveness of compassion techniques in regulating emotions and reducing psychosocial stress (Cosley et al., 2010; Pace et al., 2009). Compassion is defined as sensitivity to the suffering of self and others and at the same time a deep commitment to reducing it (Gilbert, 2009).
One of the mindful compassion interventions that directly targets the autonomic nervous system is rhythmic breath, also labeled soothing breathing rhythm or mindful rhythmic breathing. It is a basic technique used in compassion training and, using in- and exhalations of 3 to 5 seconds, evokes a smoothened heart rate pattern called heart coherence (McCraty et al., 2009). This pattern is examined by measuring heart rate variability, which represents the variability in the intervals between heartbeats. Thus, it is different from the heart rate, which merely reflects the number of heartbeats per minute. The heart coherence pattern has been associated with more effective emotion regulation and stress reactions (Appelhans & Luecken, 2006; Geisler et al., 2010).
Description of intervention
The instruction was adapted from Heart Math (Childre & Martin, 1999). For the purposes of this study, an animation was created with a drop moving up and down, with time ascending and descending each lasting 4.5 seconds. Participants were asked to observe the movement of the drop on the screen and to breathe in time with the movement. On the ascent, they breathed in, and on the descent, they breathed out. At the same time, participants heard a recording guiding them through each breath in and out. The manipulation lasted 3.5 minutes.
Positive and pro-social experiences boost emotional resilience and increase the ability to regulate negative emotions and promote prosociality (Stellar et al., 2017). Experiencing positive emotions builds enduring physical, cognitive and social resources that support faster recovery from negative emotions. Following the logic of an upward spiral, positive emotions produce more positive emotions and strengthen the ability to effectively alleviate the effects of negative emotions and maintain life satisfaction, even during hardship and adversity (Fredirckson, 2001). Experiencing positive self-transcendent emotions was demonstrated to improve interpersonal relations (Gordon et al., 2012). More importantly, it was also shown to fortify emotional resilience also on physiological and neural levels (Kok, et al., 2013; Stellar et al., 2015; Simon-Thomas et al. 2012).
Gratitude it is ascribed to the prosocial, self-transcendent emotions, positive affective state that binds people together in social relationship. Experiencing gratitude is defined as feeling thankful for and appreciative of positive aspects of experience (Fredrickson, 2002; Wood, et al., 2010) or more simply feeling grateful for good things in life. Gratitude, especially, is related to physical and psychological resilience (Emmons & McCullough, 2004) and reduces interpersonal aggression (DeWall, & Lambert, 2012).
We propose that experiencing self-transcendent emotions should improve intergroup relations by the virtue of increasing resilience to negative emotions and increasing the sense of interconnectedness. It is likely that such effects of experiencing self-transcendent emotions may be greater on people characterized by the particular deficits those emotions can address like collective narcissists, who seem to be overly hostile and vindictive and who cannot regulate negative emotions.
Description of intervention
The method to induce gratitude was inspired by a recent wave of research that indicated that mindfulness reduces prejudice (Kang, Gray, & Dovidio, 2014; Lueke & Gibson, 2014; Parks, Birtel, & Crisp, 2014; Stell & Farsides, 2015). This literature examined different forms of mindfulness, usually combining the mindful practice of attention with the training of prosocial emotions such as loving-kindness or compassion. The prosocial emotion we used in this intervention was gratitude.
In order to control the object of feeling and avoid directing attention towards the in-group, we used the body scan mindfulness meditation. In this basic meditation, participants are asked to focus their non-judgemental attention on physical sensations of the body moving their attention from the feet to the head. In the mindful gratitude version of the body scan, we asked participants to send the feeling of gratitude to each body part to which they were directing their attention.