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The Key Component of Mindfulness That Lowers Stress

New research finds a mindfulness mobile app really works—so long as the program focuses on acceptance.

Yes, most of us are stressed out these days. And, yes, we're aware that mindfulness meditation can help cushion the corrosive effects of stress on our bodies. But who has time to take a class, or practice for hour after hour?

It turns out that may not be necessary. New research reports a two-week mindfulness meditation program delivered via a smartphone app effectively reduced tense participants' physical reactivity to stress.

Importantly, this effect was only found when the program emphasized acceptance of the present moment, and whatever uncomfortable emotions it may be bringing up.

"These results are consistent with Buddhist mindfulness training," writes a research team led by Emily Lindsay of the University of Pittsburgh and David Creswell of Carnegie Mellon University. "In the Buddhist paradigm, monitoring (of one's internal state) leads to sensory clarity and insight, whereas acceptance reduces craving and aversion, the necessary causes for suffering."

These lab results confirm the wisdom of that ancient equation.

The study, published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, featured 153 adults from the Pittsburgh area, all of whom described themselves as stressed. Each completed a two-week program, which featured a daily, 20-minute audio lesson, followed by a three- to 10-minute homework assignment.

For one-third of participants, the app-based program emphasized awareness of their physical and emotional state, which was referred to as "sensory clarity." They were taught to notice subtle sensations, both physical (such as muscle tightness, temperature, or fatigue) and emotional (including fear, impatience, and enthusiasm).

For another third, this training was followed by a second component: acceptance, or equanimity. They were instructed to "mentally welcome all physical and emotional body experiences," and to describe them using "a gentle, matter-of-fact tone."

The final third were taught a completely different coping method, in which they were "instructed to freely reflect and let their minds drift," "reframe or reappraise past and anticipated events," and "analyze and solve personal problems."

At the end of the two-week period, all took part in two tests that have been shown to produce stress: one in which they gave a five-minute speech, and another that involved complex mental arithmetic. "Evaluators maintained a cold and non-accepting attitude, giving critical feedback," the researchers note.

Afterwards, all took part in a series of physical trials designed to test their body's stress response. Those who focused on both monitoring and acceptance experienced significantly lower rates of the "stress hormone" cortisol, as well as systolic blood pressure, than members of the other two groups.

There were no significant differences in the responses of the other two groups. This strongly suggests that focusing on the present moment isn't sufficient to dampen stress; an attitude of acceptance is crucial.

The study—believed to be the first to gauge the effectiveness of a systematic smartphone-based mindfulness program—suggests "it's possible to learn skills that improve the way our bodies respond to stress with as little as two weeks of dedicated practice," Lindsay said in announcing the results. "Rather than fighting to get rid of unpleasant feelings, welcoming and accepting these feelings during stressful moments is the key."

So if you want to make it through another stressful day without harming your body, you might turn on your meditation app before you check your news feed.