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Mindfulness Can Avert Bodily Responses to Emotional Stress

New research finds acceptance of moment-to-moment thoughts and feelings can greatly reduce the impact of stress on your health.
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(Photo: Valery Vishnevsky/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Valery Vishnevsky/Shutterstock)

Emotional stress is undeniably uncomfortable. But the real danger it poses is the damage it can do to our bodies, causing or exacerbating health problems ranging from headaches to high blood pressure.

If we could experience emotional pressure strictly on an intellectual and emotional level, rather than a physical one, we’d certainly be better off. Newly published research suggests there’s a secret to doing just that: Mindfulness.

Confirming previous research, a study finds that “strong identification with, or judgment of, negative thoughts and emotions” can trigger a hormonal stress response that increases production of cortisol. Too many such releases have been linked to an array of health issues, ranging from memory loss to vulnerability to infections.

However, according to a research team led by Jennifer Daubenmier of the University of San Francisco’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, this unwelcome dynamic gets short-circuited “if those thoughts and emotions are experienced with mindful awareness.”

People who are willing to live with unwanted outcomes refrain from doing physical damage to themselves.

“These findings support the idea that the tendency to describe and accept distressing experiences may buffer the impact of psychological distress on physiological arousal,” the researchers write in the journal Psychoneuroendochronology.

Their study featured 24 overweight or obese women who enrolled in an intervention program at USF. The extent to which they practiced mindfulness—which involves being fully aware of what is happening in the present moment, and accepting it in a non-judgmental way—was determined by their answers to a series of statements. Similar tests measured their anxiety level and inclination to ruminate.

All then collected saliva samples at home for four days—first upon awakening, and then a half-hour later. Cortisol secretion typically peaks 30 to 45 minutes after waking up; researchers measured the difference between the two readings to determine whether their levels of the hormone were elevated.

“Anxiety, negative affect, and rumination were positively related to the cortisol awakening response at lower levels of dispositional mindfulness, but not at higher levels,” the researchers report. “These findings suggest that the reported tendency to consciously label or accept negative thoughts and emotions may buffer their impact” on the body.

Daubenmier and her colleagues note that a high level of acceptance apparently put the strongest damper on this unwanted physical response. This suggests people who are willing to live with unwanted outcomes refrain from doing physical damage to themselves.

Much research in recent years has pointed to the benefits of mindfulness, ranging from higher test scores for students to greater resiliency for combat soldiers. This research points to something more basic: It suggests that if we can acknowledge and accept the unpleasantness life throws at us (or at least that portion of it we are unable to change), we can avoid hurting our bodies.

If stress arises because we fear we can’t handle a certain situation, or we’re annoyed that something is coming between us and our desires, it is, by definition, a product of our minds. Clearly, it’s to our advantage to keep it there.