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There’s Strong Evidence That Mindfulness Helps Us Handle Stress

People suffering from an anxiety disorder lowered their physical reaction to stress following an eight-week course in meditation.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: andrewscater/Flickr)

These are anxiety-provoking times. And sustained anxiety is not just a nuisance: Much research links the chronic condition to a host of health problems. If you are prone, it’s time to get serious about mindfulness meditation.

Chances are you’ve read that before, but haven’t found the inspiration to take a class, or start a practice. Perhaps this will help: Just-published research provides what may be the best evidence yet that mindfulness meditation decreases the body’s physical reaction to stressful events.

In a small-scale but rigorously designed study that examined physiological responses to tense situations, mindfulness training was associated with lower levels of both a common stress-related hormone and several markers of inflammation.

In contrast, such indicators worsened among participants who had taken a more general class promoting healthy habits.

Mindfulness training “may be a helpful strategy to decrease biological stress reactivity and improve resilience to stressors in patients with Generalized Anxiety Disorder,” writes a research team led by psychiatrist Elizabeth Hoge of Georgetown University Medical Center.

Hoge and her colleagues add that this approach is “relatively inexpensive and low-stigma” — not to mention drug-free.

Their study, published in the journal Psychiatry Research, featured 67 adults diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. People suffering from this condition live in “a constant state of worry, fear, and dread,” according to Web M.D., with levels of unease that are “often unrealistic or out of proportion for the situation.”

All participants began by enduring a “social stress test,” in which they are instructed to speak in public for eight minutes, then spend five minutes on a mental arithmetic task. They perform both “in front of a panel of ‘evaluators’ dressed in white lab coats and holding clipboards and a large, conspicuous video camera.”

Blood was drawn from each participant just before and after their angst-producing “performance.” The researchers examined the samples for levels of “markers previously linked to acute and chronic stress.”

Over the next eight weeks, participants were randomly assigned to either a program of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or a Stress Management Education class in which they heard lectures on diet, exercise, sleep, and time management. Those in the mindfulness program were taught breath awareness and “gentle Hatha yoga” to focus the mind on the present moment and adopt “an accepting, nonjudgmental stance.”

After eight weeks, all participants repeated the stress test (using a different math problem), again having their blood drawn immediately before and after. The researchers report that, among people who had learned to practice mindfulness, a key stress-related hormone and two markers of inflammation were significantly lower than they were at the time of the first test.

Strikingly, these indicators were actually higher among those who had taken the alternative course. This suggests merely learning about stress-management techniques wasn’t effective at all, as those participants were actually more reactive when the test was repeated.

The results match the participants’ own evaluation of their mental and emotional states and suggest mindfulness training gives people vital tools to better handle their stress, making it less likely it will build to the point it causes physical harm.

“The value of an intervention that can improve resilience to psychological stress in this vulnerable population cannot be overestimated,” Hoge and her colleagues conclude. Given that 18 percent of Americans suffer anxiety disorders, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, it’s past time to move meditation into the mainstream.