One of the most compelling reasons people seek out mindfulness training and start to practice meditation is its reputation for reducing stress. According to the American Psychological Association’s 2019 Stress in America Survey half to 2/3 of Americans experience physical or emotional symptoms of stress, often with negative consequences to individual health as well as costs to the broader community.
Indeed, there is plenty of research correlating mindfulness practice with reduced self-reported distress, ruminative thinking, anxiety, depression and cravings, as well as increased quality of life, empathy, and compassion. Through the seemingly magical and paradoxical process of attending to and allowing experience to be as it is, with kindness, and without needing to alter it in any way, our relationship to experience itself changes. In her article The Alchemy of Mindfulness, Tara Bennett-Goleman explains that, just as an alchemist magically transmutes base materials into gold, the practice of mindfulness “can change how we relate to, and perceive, our emotional states”, transforming our reactions to disturbing emotions without rejecting the emotion itself.
Although it feels magical, it’s not. There are a number of mechanisms proposed for how this happens. On a biological level, most animals possess relatively similar threat processing circuitry that helps us survive and live long enough to reproduce in a challenging world. Especially in humans, there is also a cognitive mechanism involving interpretation and choice. Mindfulness practice impacts stress on both levels through:
Stepping out of Automatic Pilot
Physiological measures and imaging techniques show changes in the brain and body correlated with mindfulness practice. The central nervous system’s fight/flight reactions are calmed so that higher thinking is more accessible. Changes occur in areas of the brain managing emotion and memory. The Default Mode Network (DMN) is the circuitry in our brain that is active when we are self-referencing, making judgments, and thinking about the past and future. These functions become problematic when we get stuck in ruminating and worrying, being overly self-critical, or getting caught up in judging and blaming – factors related to a number of mental health disorders. Meditation is correlated with reduced activation and functional connectivity of the DMN. When the DMN is quiet, the Task Positive Network (TPN) is engaged, focusing attention on the present moment, such as when we meditate on the breath or other body sensations. With repetition, we learn how to switch out of doing into being mode, interrupting painful patterns of thinking and behavioral habits that cause us stress.
Attention to moment by moment experience gives us more accurate information about our internal states, the external environment, and the interactions between them. Mindfulness practice is correlated with enhanced sustained and selective attention as well as attentional control. With practice, we are better able to shift our attention to where it is most beneficial and sustain it there, even when distractions are present. Having access to important information allows us to make better choices in responding to situations. Being more aware of our internal states also helps us make wise decisions about how we can best care for ourselves when we are feeling stressed or depleted.
Research shows that mindfulness practice creates the ideal state of mind for exposure to feared stimuli with response prevention, leading to an extinguishing of a conditioned fear response. Through practice we dissolve the false connections we’ve made between experiences and imagined danger. We build trust in ourselves to cope effectively with difficulty and our window of tolerance for discomfort and uncertainty expands. This frees us from the hyper-vigilance and attitude of defensiveness many of us wear like a constricting suit of armor in an attempt to protect ourselves. Instead of expending our energy “tilting at windmills”, our practice can help us build trust in ourselves to face whatever arises.
Sometimes called “meta-awareness”, the ability to observe thoughts and emotions rather than being caught up in them makes space to examine the facts of a situation more closely and choose an appropriate response. Research indicates this is perhaps one of the most important benefits of practicing mindfulness. Much of the time we are completely fused with our thoughts, reacting as though they are inseparable from us and accurate reflections of reality. But, our thoughts and emotions are merely interpretations of events – narratives we’ve created based on the biology of our sensory organs as well as memories, predictions, assumptions, and guesses, in order to make meaning of experience. This isn’t a problem when our narratives lead to beneficial actions and outcomes, but much suffering is created when there is a significant gap between the facts and our storyline. With practice, mindfulness leads to “dereification” – we begin to recognize thoughts simply as mental events rather than the things they seem to represent. A consistent practice of mindfulness helps us decenter, stepping back from thoughts and emotions so we can see them for what they really are and respond appropriately. We are better able to shift our awareness from self-referencing onto experience itself.
Mindfulness practice cultivates equanimity. This is because getting still and observing ourselves more closely reveals certain truths. We see by experience that everything is impermanent and that our tendency to grasp at and cling to what is wanted and to struggle against what is unwanted is at the core of our suffering. We also see that nothing is as personal as we think it is and that our relentless self-referencing is also the basis for much of our distress. With practice, we begin to let go of these harmful habits and patterns, creating greater ease and balance in our lives, even in the face of great difficulty.
Always we hope someone else has the answer,
some other place will be better,
some other time it will all turn out.
This is it; no one else has the answer,
no other place will be better,
and it has already turned out.
At the center of your being,
you have the answer;
you know who you are and you know what you want.
There is no need to run outside for better seeing.
Nor to peer from a window.
Rather abide at the center of your being;
for the more you leave it, the less you learn.
Search your heart and see the way to do is to be.
Austin, J. A. (1997). Stress reduction through mindfulness meditation: Effects on psychological symptomology, sense of control, and spiritual experience. Psychotherapy Psychosomatic, 66(2), 97-106.
Baer, RA, Carmody, J, & Hunsinger, M (2012). Weekly Change in Mindfulness and Perceived Stress in a Mindfulness‐Based Stress Reduction Program. Journal of Clinical Psychology: Volume 68, Issue 7; 755-765.
Chang, V. (2004). The effects of a mindfulness-based stress reduction program on stress, mindfulness self-efficacy, and positive states of mind. Stress and Health, 20, 141-147.
Khoury, B et. al. (2015). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for healthy individuals: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research Volume 78, Issue 6, 519-528.