If there’s one mental practice that’s stood the test of time – and rigorous laboratory tests – it’s meditation. Mindfulness meditation in particular has done a good job of proving itself effective in reducing stress and depression, improving attention and cognitive performance, and even increasing grey matter density in the brain. But the question would-be meditators always wonder is, “how much do I have to do?” According to a new study in Psychoneuroendocrinology, just a little mindfulness training goes a long way, at least when it comes to quieting the mind in stressful situations. And for most people beginning a meditation practice, that’s not a bad place to start.
Mindfulness is a mental practice used to focus attention on the present moment, rather than on the usual “chatter” that’s going on in our heads. It also helps a person learn to not get caught up in his or her thoughts, but instead simply to acknowledge them and let them go. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) at UMass, has described mindfulness as paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment, curiously and non-judgmentally.
“More and more people report using meditation practices for stress reduction, but we know very little about how much you need to do for stress reduction and health benefits,” said lead author J. David Creswell. So he and his team from Carnegie Mellon University set out to determine whether low “doses” of mindfulness might have an effect on the stress response.
They divided participants into two groups: One group had three consecutive days of 25-minutes sessions of mindfulness training, in which they were taught to focus on the breath and to pay attention their experience in the present moment. The other group, who served as controls, was taught to analyze poetry, in an effort to boost critical thinking skills.
At the end of the respective training sessions, the two groups had to do two stress-inducing tasks: Completing speech or math tests in front of “stern-faced evaluators.” The participants rated their perceived stress levels during the tests, and gave saliva samples so the researchers could measure their levels of the stress hormones cortisol.
The people who’d gone through mindfulness training found the speech and math tests to be less stressful than those who had been trained in critical thinking. The cortisol reactivity was also higher in the meditators than in the control group.
What’s interesting is that while perceived stress levels were low, cortisol production was higher – this may be because practicing mindfulness takes some effort, at least at first. “When you initially learn mindfulness mediation practices, you have to cognitively work at it — especially during a stressful task,” said Creswell. “And, these active cognitive efforts may result in the task feeling less stressful, but they may also have physiological costs with higher cortisol production.”
The team is next going to explore whether long-term practice may make mindfulness more “automatic,” and have the effect of reducing cortisol levels. Given past research on experienced meditators, that’s probably a pretty good guess. And there are many other benefits that come with meditation, especially when it’s practiced over the years. Stress reduction may be one of the first ones that people notice, but others – less depression and rumination, and more self-awareness and satisfaction – may follow.