Stress can affect our ability to stay present. Mindfulness can help with stress. This is a tale of mutual consequences.
In recent years, a phenomenon that has caught the collective attention of our culture has to do with how we pay attention. Mindfulness (nonjudgmental, moment-to-moment awareness), it seems, is everywhere—from the way we meditate and manage our mental health to the way we eat and communicate. Hundreds of studies have fueled the fascination with mindfulness with their promising findings. Being mindful in daily life is associated with higher life satisfaction, agreeableness, self-esteem, and optimism. Practicing mindfulness meditation can lead to higher levels of self-compassion and well-being. Mindfulness-based interventions, such as MBSR, can reduce anxiety, depression, anger, and rumination. In short, mindfulness can be abundantly beneficial for our psychological health.
In our day-to-day motion of existence, it’s not always easy to stay engaged with the present moment in front of us. Often, our attention is everywhere but on the now. In fact, our minds spend a great deal of time wandering—tangled in a labyrinth of thoughts and feelings from past and future. What affects our ability to sustain mindfulness? As a recent study shows, stress appears to be one factor that can impact our mind states and, in turn, their influence on our well-being.
183 women in two conditions (low stress vs. chronically stressed) completed daily reports twice a day for three one-week increments over the course of a few months. In their reports, the participants reflected on the stressful events they had encountered that day, the quality of their interactions with their partners, their mood, and the emotions they felt. They were also asked about their mind states—how engaged they were with what they were doing within the last 30 minutes (engagement with the moment), how often they didn’t want to be where they were, doing what they were doing (rejection of the moment), and how often they thought about something else instead of thinking about what they were doing (mind wandering).
The results of the study showed that women who were chronically under stress had lower levels of engagement with the present moment and more mind wandering. In fact, the more stressed they were, the more the participants tended to reject the present moment and have more unpleasant or neutral mind wandering. The mind wandering, in turn, was associated with higher negative moods in the evening. The study also showed that our connections affect our mind states. Specifically, the quality of our interactions may also influence our ability to stay mindful. On days when participants felt positively connected with their partners, they reported greater engagement with the present moment in the evening and less mind wandering.
How does stress affect our ability to stay present?
Researchers suggest that stress might deplete the resources necessary for managing attention and remaining in the present. Furthermore, when we feel stressed, we might use mind wandering as a tool to escape the present moment and to “zone out” from the strain it carries. Stress might also make us more likely to actively reject the present moment by having thoughts like, “I don’t want to be here”—a practice that, according to the study’s lead author Alexandra Crosswell, is toxic physiologically and is the root of suffering in Buddhist philosophy.
The inevitability of stress in our daily lives has likely stocked our toolboxes with a variety of customized tools for stress management—from exercise to social support to cognitive reappraisal (and a lot in between). According to research, another tool that might be beneficial to include in our arsenal is mindfulness.
How can present moment awareness be a valuable coping mechanism against stress?
Dr. Crosswell suggests 3 pathways:
1. Mindfulness can foster clarity.
Often, stress can make our minds dart back and forth, right to left, sprinting across endless scenarios from past and future. This mental scramble is not only exhausting, but it can also leave us with clouded judgment.
“Mindfulness practices and other forms of meditation can help us accept our current reality and see our circumstances with increased clarity,”says Crosswell.
Clarity, in turn, makes for a valid springboard from where we can take action.
2. Mindfulness can engage our biology to cope with stress.
One of the most powerful ways we can influence the physiology of the stress response is through our breath.
“Taking long, slow breaths activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which not only puts a break on the body’s stress response, but also activates the physiological processes needed to heal and recover from stress. Focusing on and slowing the breath—a practice often involved in mindfulness—is a tool that can be used in the moment, at any moment,”says Crosswell
As an added reassurance, a wealth of scientific literature offers strong evidence for the effectiveness of engaging our biology to cope with stress.
3. Mindfulness can lead to a faster recovery.
Experiencing acute stress can leave us feeling psychologically and physically frazzled. Research shows that mindfulness can be a possible key to a faster recovery.
“People who receive training in mindfulness meditation still experience negative emotions like anxiety and sadness,”explains Crosswell
“but they are able to recover from those experiences more quickly. Paying attention to the present moment may help chronically stressed individuals ignore the constant barrage of repetitive thoughts about their demanding circumstances—a thought pattern that is bad for both mental and physical health.”
In turn, a more effective recovery from acute stress can provide a protective buffer from the damage that repeated stress arousals can unleash on our bodies.
In the end, the art and science of this seemingly simple, ancient practice of paying attention to the present could gift us with insights that stretch well beyond how to manage stress in our modern lives. It can teach us how to befriend the moments that compose the narrative of our lives. And ultimately, as Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, it can teach us how to befriend ourselves.
Many thanks to Alexandra Crosswell for her time and insights. Dr. Crosswell is an Assistant Professor at the Center for Health and Community at the Department of Psychiatry at UCSF. She is also a WYLD Guide!
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