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.
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 has been described by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts as the moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.
“When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future,” writes Kabat-Zinn.
“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, associate professor of psychology in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
For the study, Creswell and his research team had 66 healthy individuals aged 18-30 years old participate in a three-day experiment. Researchers had two groups of participants prepare for a series of stress-inducing tests using two different techniques.
One group of 31 participants were taught to practice mindfulness meditation training program for 25 minutes for three consecutive days. The individuals were given breathing exercises to help them monitor their breath and pay attention to their present moment experiences.
A second group of participants completed a matched three-day cognitive training program in which they were asked to critically analyze poetry in an effort to enhance problem-solving skills.
After three days of prep, the participants were then made to solve difficult math and logic problems in front of stern-faced evaluators. Afterwards, they rated their stress levels and offered saliva samples so cortisol, the hormone released to help the body handle high-pressure situations, levels could be measured.
Based on their findings, participants who received the brief mindfulness meditation training had reduced stress perceptions to the speech and math tasks. Researchers said this indicates that the mindfulness meditation fostered psychological stress resilience. The mindfulness mediation participants also showed greater cortisol reactivity.
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.