Distress Produces Less Stress with Mindfulness


“If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.” ― Amit Ray


Psychological distress is related to an increase in physiological stress responses. That is, when the individual is anxious, ruminating, or having negative emotions, the physiology including the hormonal system reacts. The increased activity can be measured in heightened stress hormones in the blood and increased heart rate, blood pressure etc. These physiological stress responses on the short-term are adaptive and help to fight off infection, toxins, injury, etc. But when these stress responses are long lasting (chronic) they can themselves be a source of disease.


Chronic stress can produce a myriad of physical problems including mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and personality disorders; cardiovascular disease, including heart disease, high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks, and stroke; obesity and other eating disorders; menstrual problems; sexual dysfunction, such as impotence and premature ejaculation in men and loss of sexual desire in both men and women; skin and hair problems, such as acne, psoriasis, and eczema, and permanent hair loss; and gastrointestinal problems, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), gastritis, ulcerative colitis, and irritable colon. Needless to say, chronic stress can be very harmful.


Unfortunately, psychological distress is often persistent and chronic and resulting in chronic stress which in turn can produce disease. Many of the symptoms of psychological distress have been shown to be related to a lack of mindfulness. Anxiety is often rooted in a persistent dread of future negative events while rumination is rooted in the past, with persistent replaying of negative past events. Since mindfulness is firmly rooted in the present it is antagonistic toward anything rooted in the past or future. Hence, high levels of mindfulness cannot coexist with anxiety and rumination. This has been repeatedly demonstrated (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/category/research-news/anxiety/ and http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/category/research-news/worry/). In addition, high mindfulness has been shown to be related to high levels of emotion regulation and positive emotions (see http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/category/research-news/emotions/). So, mindfulness would appear to be an antidote to psychological distress.


In today’s Research News article “It’s Not What You Think, It’s How You Relate to It: Dispositional Mindfulness Moderates the Relationship Between Psychological Distress and the Cortisol Awakening Response”



Daubenmier and colleagues investigated whether mindfulness could blunt the stress hormone response to psychological distress. They measured the cortisol awakening response. Cortisol is a stress hormone whose levels are very low during sleep. Upon awakening they increase. How much they increase is related to the level of chronic stress the individual is under. So, the increase in cortisol shortly after awakening is a good measure of the individual’s level of chronic physiological stress.


They found that, as expected, that the magnitude of the cortisol awakening response was positively related to the individuals’ levels of psychological distress. But, high levels of mindfulness were related to a smaller cortisol awakening responses to psychological distress. In particular, two facets of mindfulness, the ability to describe and the ability to accept thoughts and emotions were negatively related to the cortisol awakening response. This suggests that the ability to consciously label or accept negative thoughts and emotions may buffer their impact on stress hormone activation. In other words, if thoughts and emotions are experienced with mindful awareness they have a less stressful impact.


Mindfulness by focusing the individual’s awareness on the present moment, improving their ability to experience, label, and accept their responses to stress, while interfering with rumination rooted in the past and anxiety rooted in the future, provides a greater tolerance for psychological stress. This would predict that mindful individuals would have less illness as a result of psychological stress. Future research will be needed to verify this prediction.


So, be mindful and be less stressed by psychological distress.


All the suffering, stress, and addiction comes from not realizing you already are what you are looking for. – Jon Kabat-Zinn
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


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