Lower Stress Through Meditation Focused on Acceptance
Finances, family, work, and especially, rush hour traffic. These all contribute to a US population that is constantly on edge and stressed by the 24-hour cycle of life. And this is without discussing politics. American adults experience stress in many ways and combat it through a variety of methods — from medications to alcohol to exercise.
Meditation has been shown to help in stress reduction, and westernized mind-body practices are in vogue more than ever. But there’s one aspect of meditation in particular that might prove best for beating stress: a focus on openness and equanimity, known as acceptance training.
A Carnegie Mellon University-led study offers the first scientific evidence that mindfulness meditation that included acceptance training techniques can reduce cortisol levels and blood pressure in response to stressful situations.
“Our study showed the importance of developing and practicing this accepting attitude towards experiences,” said Emily Lindsay, leader of the study and a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pittsburgh. “And the practice is very doable,” Lindsay said. “We saw significant differences in stress responses from just 20-minutes per day for 14 days.”
Acceptance training is believed to target equanimity, and help people view experiences with less judgment and criticism. “We wanted to know ‘what is it about mindfulness that drives stress reduction?’” said David Creswell, associate professor at CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. “We theorized that acceptance training — fostering a capacity to be open and curious, and developing an accepting attitude — might be that active ingredient.”
Published in Psychoneuroendocrinology, the study assigned 153 stressed adults to one of three smartphone-based interventions: one that received training in both present moment awareness and acceptance techniques, one that focused on present moment awareness and a control group that didn’t learn any mindfulness techniques at all. Participants completed one 20-minute daily lesson for two weeks. Then they were asked to deliver a 5-minute speech and solve advanced, mental math problems in front of a critical audience — highly stressful for most American adults. Their cortisol levels and blood pressure were measured.
Results revealed that participants in the combined awareness and acceptance arm of the trial had the lowest cortisol and blood pressure levels. Blood pressure levels were approximately 20 percent lower while cortisol responses measured 50 percent lower than those participants who did not have acceptance training.
“Not only were we able to show that acceptance is a critical part of mindfulness training, but we’ve demonstrated that a smartphone-based mindfulness program helps to reduce the impact of stress,” said Lindsay.
The study proved the accessibility of a unified mindfulness method for first-time users. None of the 153 participants had a yoga or meditation practice; everyone really started from square one. Lindsay and Creswell partnered with leading mindfulness teacher Shinzen Young, who developed the app for the study. Young and his team have partnered with many mindfulness studies, and generally create a bridge between the worlds of yoga/meditation and tech/science.
“Folks, overall, loved the program Shinzen developed,” said Creswell. “The instructions for developing and implementing these specific skills were very concrete.” This was exemplified in the study’s low dropout rate. Of the 153 participants, 150 completed all lessons.
Most mindfulness apps use some sort of acceptance training component. Phone apps such as Headspace, Brightmind, Mindful, and others offer an easy introduction for first-timers without the risks of having to pay for a class, buy a book, or make a pilgrimage to India. “Having a structure in place is important,” says Lindsay. “Oftentimes, people aren’t sure if they are ‘doing it right’.”
Building a foundation is important, but developing a mindfulness practice that revolves around your phone might seem a bit paradoxical. Screen time of any kind usually makes us less mindful. And studies have shown that just having your phone out and present in a conversation can significantly interfere with your sense of connection and feelings of closeness with another person.
“An in-person mindfulness program is preferred,” said Lindsay. “But more people have access to apps now.” The hope now is to spread mindfulness to a wider audience and phone apps might be that entry point.
But however people decide to take up a mind body practice, Lindsay says the focus should be on sticking with it. “It ultimately takes time to develop these skills,” said Lindsay. “It takes dedication.”
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Lindsay E.K., Young S., Smyth J.M., Brown K.W., & Creswell J.D. (2018). Acceptance lowers stress reactivity: Dismantling mindfulness training in a randomized controlled trial. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 87, 63-73. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29040891
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