Stress is something we all experience, and it takes a toll on our health. A recent survey from the American Psychological Association says that more than half of Americans experience extreme levels of stress, which could lead to a higher risk of heart attack and stroke. Experts say individuals need to find a way to reach a state of calm, which is why an increasing number of people are turning to mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness simply means to be fully present and aware of where we are and what we are doing, while not overly reacting or becoming overwhelmed by the world around us. When practicing mindfulness meditation, an individual typically sits with their eyes closed, either cross-legged on a cushion or up straight in a chair, and focuses on their breathing or sensations in their body. While experts say the focus should not be on the benefits, but the practice, reasons to practice mindfulness include lower stress, better ability to focus, and reduced mental chatter.
Research continues to show the relationship between the body and the brain, and new studies find that consistent mindfulness practices could help ease stress and anxiety. One study, published in the journal, Psychiatry Research, looked at 89 people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). The team randomly assigned the participants to either an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) or Stress Management Education course. Developed at the University of Massachusetts Medical School by Jon Kabat-Zinn, MBSR incorporates weekly meetings with instructions for home practice. Participants in the MBSR course are taught techniques and exercises, such as breath awareness, yoga, and body scan meditations. Click here to read a related article on the subject.
Previous studies were thought to be riddled with potential placebos, so extra care was taken to craft an experiment closer to a randomized clinical trial. The point of this study was to test in-the-moment stress before and after the program. To do this, researchers called upon an old lab standard, the Trier Social Stress Test. Before the courses started and right after they concluded, the researchers put the participants through eight minutes of public speaking, followed by a round of videotaped mental math in front of a panel of researchers.
The participants’ blood was drawn to take measurements of stress hormones, in this case cortisol and adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), and inflammatory proteins, IL-6 and TNF-α. At the end of the eight-week period in which participants took their respective courses, those in the MBSR group reacted to stress better and had a lower hormonal and inflammatory response, with significantly reduced levels of ACTH, IL-6, and TNF-α, than those in the education course, or control group. In fact, the control participants were actually more stressed the second time they did the test, possibly because they knew and anticipated what they would feel and experience.
This isn’t the first study to elude to the benefits of mindfulness meditation. A 2014 meta-analysis in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that meditation was linked to significantly reduced anxiety, depression, and insomnia. A 2009 study from Harvard University, also using MBSR, found that people had a significant reduction in volume in the amygdala, the part of the brain that governs stress.