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Being Mindful Affects Body’s Stress Response

A new study shows that how you think and feel about what causes you stress may affect the way your body reacts to those stressors.

Researchers from the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, found that certain women reduced their physical experience of stress by starting their day with identifying what stressed them and accepting how they felt about those things. This process of internal reflection is considered an aspect of dispositional mindfulness—the natural tendency to be aware of present-moment experiences in an accepting and nonjudgmental manner.

The investigators wanted to determine why stress levels in the body (physiological) vary from one individual to another even when stress levels in the mind (self-identified) are the same. One gauge of the body’s reaction to stress is the cortisol awakening response, or CAR, a measurement of how quickly and how high salivary cortisol levels rise within the first 45 minutes after waking up.

Investigators conducted the study among 43 premenopausal women. Over four mornings, all women reported what they were experiencing mentally—levels of perceived stress, anxiety, negative feelings and rumination. They were asked to describe their negative thoughts and emotions and to say whether they were able to accept those negative thoughts and feelings without judgment—indicators of dispositional mindfulness. Researchers also measured CAR to determine physical responses to stress.

Data analysis showed that women who were more able to articulate their thoughts and emotions and to accept them had lower cortisol levels. Similarly, those who were less able to identify their stress-related thoughts and feelings and who lacked acceptance of negative emotions experienced a higher cortisol response.

Study authors concluded that the tendency to describe and accept experiences may buffer the impact of mental stress on physiological arousal. Use of self-reporting was a limiting factor in the study. More research is needed among different demographic groups to test for consistency among results.

The study was published in Psychoneuroendocrinology
(2014; doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen .2014.05.012).