Let's talk about stress
(This is the first installation in a six part series on the known benefits of mindfulness and meditation. For the intro, click here.)
I wrote my dissertation about the experiences of people of color in primarily white meditation communities (for a seven part explanation of the findings, click here). Having been involved in meditation communities for my entire adult life, and having been disturbed by the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in said communities, this was a personal and important topic for me.
It seemed natural enough, then, to invite two of my heroes onto my committee. First, the aforementioned Richie Davidson. Second, Ann Gleig, a truly ass kicking Buddhologist at the University of Central Florida (look for her upcoming book, out this summer) who studies just the sorts of things I was writing about.
It seemed natural enough, too, to invite board members from nearly all the major meditation communities in Madison, Wisconsin to my dissertation defense.
In fact, all this seemed like just the thing: get the message out, get folks involved, and let’s all have a good think together.
Or that’s how it looked to me until about 60 minutes before my defense, when I realized that 22 people were coming. All of them really important to me in one way or another. Suddenly, it did not seem like “the thing” at all. I started to sweat. My breathing got tight. I could feel a rising heat in my chest. I was panicking.
Thankfully, I teach mindfulness to people all over the place, and so I thought, maybe this would be a good time to try some.
So I stepped into my office, did some mindful movement, and then quietly counted my breaths for ten minutes. Just like that, the panic passed. I was still energized, but no longer frozen. When it came time to defend my findings against the 90-minute onslaught of tête-à-tête challenges from my committee, I was ready.
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As it turns out, my experience with the stress of defending my dissertation lines up pretty well with the research findings.
Novice meditators who undergo an 8-week training in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), show significant decreases in a number of measures related to stress. First off, they self-report lower stress levels and a greater capacity to handle stress. Second, their cortisol levels go down. Third, the amygdala, that almond-shaped cluster of neurons so famous for its role in PTSD and other related syndromes, calms. And that’s just after 30 or so hours of mindfulness training.
After a little more training, participants’ “baseline” state of stress goes down, not only when they are meditating, but when their minds are occupied with something else, showing reductions in amygdala activation of up to 50 percent. Unsurprisingly, more and more practice produces stronger and stronger results.
As Jon Kabat-Zinn found nearly thirty years ago when he began rolling out the MBSR program for chronic pain patients, this development of a non-reactive attention has big effects on participants’ ability to work skillfully with pain. For example, experienced Zen practitioners are both able to withstand higher levels of pain and their brains show less reactivity to the stress of experiencing that pain.
(For an example of how I used mindfulness with an inmate suffering from chronic pain, click here.)
Finally, long-term meditators recover more quickly from real-life stressors (such as the Trier Interview), pointing to the ability to regulate emotions under duress as a skill that can be learned and sustained, rather than just a quirk of the genetically blessed.
* * *
However, a question that I get a lot these days is: well, does that mean if I’m not handling my impossibly demanding job, then I’m failing at mindfulness?
In a word: no.
The fact that mindfulness can help people manage stress (which it can) does not mean that we should put people in impossibly stressful situations for years at a time without a break. Which is exactly what is happening to nurses, doctors, therapists, social workers, and many of the other professionals to whom I teach mindfulness.
While there is no room here to unpack the complexities, anyone familiar with these fields knows there are systemic factors that must be addressed. Mindfulness is not a panacea, and it is not a way of avoiding making real changes to crazy-making work environments.
What mindfulness can do, and what it does well, is help us regulate our emotions, direct our attention, and return to our purpose. In the context of genuinely supportive environments -whether corporate, medical, or otherwise – our ability to manage stress with mindfulness can be one part of what helps humans thrive in their careers and in their relationships.
Devon and I will be teaching in Kauai, Ashland, Key West, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Denmark, and other places in the next few months. For more info, please click here.