Menus Subscribe Search

Findings

mindfulness-illustration

(Photo: Valery Vishnevsky/Shutterstock)

Mindfulness Can Avert Bodily Responses to Emotional Stress

• June 12, 2014 • 6:00 AM

(Photo: Valery Vishnevsky/Shutterstock)

New research finds acceptance of moment-to-moment thoughts and feelings can greatly reduce the impact of stress on your health.

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.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?


July 28 • 4:00 AM

A Belief in ‘Oneness’ Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.


July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.