Can Being More Mindful Reduce Stress?

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As frequently discussed in this blog, several mind-targeted therapies can be effective in reestablishing balance within a stress-related alteration in brain gut microbiome interactions. The techniques that have been successfully used to accomplish this goal include deep abdominal breathing, gut directed hypnosis, cognitive behavioral interventions and meditative practices. Even though different techniques are used to deliver these therapies, they share effects on different brain networks, including the salience, attentional and default mode network. Such therapeutic approaches have become increasingly popular in the last 10 years due to acceptance of the concept of altered brain gut interactions, and the availability of these therapies online, making it much easier for people to learn and practice them from home. The concept of community stress reduction programs is of growing interest with the rise of podcasts, books, and retreats that advocate a mindful perspective as a tool for health promotion. One of the most popular techniques is mindfulness-based stress reduction.

“Being aware of the mind-body connection is practicing mindfulness.”

Mindfulness is realizing that life is moving through you, not at you. More specifically, it is being present in the moment, not having to experience it in a particular way, but maintaining a quality of attention. This allows one to be less reactive to racing or lingering thoughts, emotions, or bodily sensations in our daily lives, and instead control one’s response rather than being on autopilot. Being aware of the mind-body connection is practicing mindfulness.

“The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program has been widely applied in various clinical settings and helped popularized the term “mindfulness,” a mental state centered and grounded in one’s bodily sensations and thoughts with openness and no judgment.”

Mindfulness based practices have quantifiable physiological effects. In a 2021 published study, a group of adults were randomized into a six-week Mindful Awareness Practice (MAP) program at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), which showed a reduction in blood pressure in participants with hypertension. This is consistent with other mindful meditation practices, indicating that mindfulness can directly benefit cardiovascular health. Techniques such as the relaxation response have been shown to affect blood pressure involving the transcription of genes and the nuclear factor NF-kB. This protein complex is known to control transcription from genes into proteins related to inflammation and stress, which implies that mindfulness can regulate the body’s stress response all the way down to the the cellular level.

“Mindfulness programs have been shown to reduce stress in … patients diagnosed with cancer, organ transplant recipients, patients with chronic illnesses …”

The impacts of mindfulness are present as well in the brain. According to one study, “mindfulness training implemented through a community-based programs led to self-reported reductions in perceived stress.” Additionally, the researchers found that self-compassion changes predicted post-intervention perceived stress levels. This suggests that one of the mechanisms through which mindfulness influences stress is by improving self-compassion. Those who practiced mindfulness became sympathetic to themselves, were less critical, and more accepting of their experiences, thereby reducing feelings of stress.

As described earlier, mindfulness is a mental state where individuals are aware and grounded in their bodily sensations and thoughts. They approach habitual and novel experiences with openness and without judgment. This state of mind can improve emotional regulation, reduce negative cyclic thinking, and create greater calmness and clarity. The community-based study highlights that mindfulness training can be a promising public health promotion approach. Mindfulness can be pivotal in disease prevention and overall mental health promotion by relieving stress and improving self-compassion.

“One method [to practice mindfulness] is through breathing meditation.”

There are various ways of practicing mindfulness in daily life. One method is through breathing meditation. Find a comfortable position, either sitting or lying down, and close your eyes for five minutes. Concentrating on one’s breath may be difficult at first, but quietly acknowledging the rising and falling of the abdomen or counting from one to ten and repeating it may make meditation easier.

If you are interested in joining a community-based mindfulness program, there are online programs such as UCLA MAPs and UMass Memorial Medical Center MBSR that organize classes throughout the year. Explore the Online Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course if a self-guided program is more feasible. Additionally, the meditation based program, Headspace, has successfully assisted individuals to be more mindful and meditate through their smartphone based application.

Richard Tirado a recent graduate from UCLA, where he majored in Biology and minored in Anthropology.

This article was reviewed and approved by Emeran Mayer, MD