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Mindfulness Might Not Remedy Stress How You'd Expect, Study Suggests

Anxious woman reading notes outside an office full of people

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Key Takeaways

  • Practicing mindfulness in a moment of crisis might not relieve stress, a new study suggests.
  • This nonjudgmental awareness of the present might be most beneficial as a reflective tool or remedy for premature feelings of stress.
  • During moments of panic or stress, deep breathing and grounding techniques work best to ease the mind.

The practice of mindfulness is often considered a remedy to stress. While experts assert its benefit to psychological well-being, recent findings suggest a greater awareness of the present moment might not make that moment any less stressful.

A study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin measured the physiological responses of participants as they performed stressful tasks. Results showed mindful participants displayed no evidence of a more positive psychological response during the stressor.

The Study

Researchers measured the cardiovascular responses of 1,001 participants during a stressful performance task, such as giving a speech. These responses also helped to determine the degree to which participants cared about the stressor in the moment.

The study focused on dispositional mindfulness, which refers to a mindset of nonjudgmental focus on the present. Individuals that are dispositionally higher in mindfulness engage in less rumination and are generally more relaxed in their approach to life.

While the cardiovascular responses revealed that participants cared about the stressor, there was no evidence that mindfulness elicited a more positive psychological response during the event. These findings suggest that the benefits of dispositional mindfulness might come after the active stressor has passed.

The study's lead researcher Thomas Saltsman, PhD, approached the study wondering whether a low heart rate indicated feelings of calm or feelings of indifference toward the event. On the flip side, an increase in heart rate could indicate a positive reaction of excitement or a negative reaction of performance anxiety.

“We actually see that, broadly, when people feel more capable or confident, the arteries tend to dilate," Saltsman says. "When they’re feeling incapable, the arteries tend to constrict so blood can’t move as efficiently.”

It's possible mindful participants showed no difference because they were more focused and cared about what they were doing.

Thomas Saltsman, PhD

I think there’s been a trend in psychological literature that dispositional mindfulness on its own can do a lot of this work in terms of shifting momentary responses. We’re not seeing very much evidence of that. This is just adding nuance to the story.

— Thomas Saltsman, PhD

Judy Ho, PhD, a neuropsychologist and associate professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, considers mindfulness a healthy habit for psychological well-being. But she views these findings as helpful in expanding our understanding of how exactly mindfulness benefits us.

“It does make sense in some ways that (mindfulness) might not actually mitigate the physiological response in the moment," Ho says. "You actually don't want to be too calm in those moments. You want to be activated so you can do whatever you need to survive.”

Saltsman is careful to ensure the findings of this study do not discount the general benefits of mindfulness.

"I think that just like anything, there are limitations to what it can shift and accomplish," Saltsman says. "I think there’s been a trend in psychological literature that dispositional mindfulness on its own can do a lot of this work in terms of shifting momentary responses. We’re not seeing very much evidence of that. This is just adding nuance to the story."

Mindfulness for Reflection

Although the findings show mindfulness didn't have a positive effect on stress response during the event, participants self-reported having a positive experience afterward. This point helps to paint a clearer picture of how and when mindfulness is most useful. But Saltsman cautions that a casual relationship with mindfulness—i.e., downloading an app you look at once a month—won't deliver all its potential benefits.

"These aren’t necessarily people who have had training, and we do have some evidence that they were relatively meditation-naive," Saltsman says. "(Mindfulness) may be more helpful as a tool to improve reflective coping. How do you look back and make sense of the stressful experience you just had?”

In a moment of crisis, mindfulness might not be the most realistic or helpful coping strategy. But using mindfulness as a tool for reflection can have major benefits. In fact, reflecting is something Ho recommends as a daily gratitude practice.

At the end of the day, take some time to reflect on the moments you were especially mindful of, then assess your mood regarding those moments. This then has the dual benefit of giving you an opportunity to consciously affirm you'll incorporate that positive act or event into the following day.

"Think about those moments and how you felt," Ho says. "Generally, people find that [when] they’ve had a couple of reflective moments of mindfulness, their moods are better both during and afterward."

Judy Ho, PhD

Your mind is just anticipating crisis when maybe there isn’t one. If you have a presentation and you're worried a week ahead of time, you might get into that fight or flight response. That's when mindfulness is great. It brings you back to [the] present moment and reminds [you] that you have time to prepare.

— Judy Ho, PhD

Saltsman compares developing a mindfulness practice to riding a bike. Regardless of your athletic ability, in order to ride a bike you first need to learn. In the same way, whether you have an innately mindful disposition or not, you first have to foster mindfulness in your daily life in order to shape that momentary stress response.

"If you don’t learn how to actually practice and exercise those skills, it's not going to do very much in terms of momentary responses,” Saltsman says.

Perhaps just as important as an individual's perception of stress after the event is the stress experienced before the event. Here, mindfulness is useful.

"The temporal application of mindfulness is important, and I think that’s a big takeaway from this study," Ho says. "Your mind is just anticipating crisis when maybe there isn’t one. If you have a presentation and you're worried a week ahead of time, you might get into that fight or flight response. That's when mindfulness is great. It brings you back to the present moment and reminds you that you have time to prepare."

Dealing With Active Stressors

While mindfulness might not be a lifesaver in the midst of a stressful situation, there are other strategies at your disposal.

"Deep breathing is always great," Ho says. "Zeroing in on breathing taps into your ability to manage the stressor as it's coming. And breathing physically increases blood flow, helping you feel more singularly focused."

Increasing awareness of your physical environment can help as well. Grounding exercises like digging your feet into the floor, pressing your back into the chair beneath you, or connecting with physical objects in the vicinity can aid in pulling you out of a stress response.

One grounding technique Ho points to as especially helpful during moments of panic is the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise. The five-step method begins by finding your breath, then visually acknowledging five things around you, then identifying four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.

Shifting your focus to the surrounding physical environment, rather than what might be happening in the moment, can help quiet the mind and alleviate stress. Finding ways to regroup can guide you in moving forward.

What This Means For You

Although mindfulness might not be as beneficial as we'd thought in moments of stress, developing an awareness of the present moment still promotes healthy psychological well-being.

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