Stress is inevitable in life. Learning to deal with it individually can help in relieving its burden. Otherwise, it can take its toll on the body. Here, we look at what the current scientific research can teach us about how to lower stress using mindfulness.
How stress affects your body
Basically, stress is the body’s method of reacting to a threat. It can be caused by an acute stressful experience like being in an accident or a persistent issue over longer periods of time, which is known as chronic stress. Most healthy individuals can remain healthy when confronting stressful events.
However, recent historical events such as lockdowns have presented new challenges for people coping with stress. These include feelings of isolation, fear of illness, and uncertainty around jobs and finances, among many other things.
When stress is not managed properly, it can have a negative effect on your health. This is because stress depletes the body’s energy quicker than normal, as it is constantly reacting to what it perceives as a threat.
Long-term stress can cause adverse behavioural and health outcomes. These can manifest in symptoms of depression and anxiety. Research suggests that mindfulness could help alleviate stress. But what is mindfulness?
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the exercise of purposefully bringing your attention to experiences in the present moment without judgement. It tends to centre around meditation practice, and has roots in a range of disciplines, including Buddhist traditions.
Meditation practice comes in various forms with countless variations. Here are some basic examples:
- Breathwork mindfulness: closing one’s eyes and focusing on the breath.
- Body scan: attention is directed at various areas of the body to notice bodily sensations.
- Yoga: a Hindu discipline including breath control, meditation, and adopting specific postures or poses.
- Transcendental meditation: a phrase or word (often in Sanskrit), known as a mantra, is repeated in the mind.
What happens in all these forms of meditation is your mind runs off. This is normal. Central to meditation is passively noticing the mind has wandered and, in an accepting, non-judgmental way, returning to focusing on the breath. This noticing and returning to a state of presence is mindfulness.
So, how can you lower stress using mindfulness?
How to lower stress using mindfulness
Let’s explore three studies that tested the effectiveness of mindfulness in various stressful situations.
Nurses and high-stress workplaces
A study in Religions looks at the potential of using meditation as a self-care strategy among Korean nurses. Especially in recent years, the working environment for nurses is highly stressful. In Korea, the authors highlight, the national average turnover rate for nurses was 15.2% in 2021. Moreover, the average turnover rate of nurses’ first-year employment was 45%, meaning nearly one out of two first-year nurses quit after less than a year.
So, the authors studied how mindfulness could help. They had two groups with 45 nurses each: one group meditated and the other did not. They measured the nurses’ depression and resilience (ability to maintain health despite experiencing stress) using self-report evaluations.
Mindfulness for nurses
What did they find? Well, the authors saw “considerable differences” between the groups and concluded that the “meditators were, on average, less depressed and more resilient”. Moreover, the turnover rate for the meditators was nearly half that of the non-meditators.
The benefits of the practice mentioned by the meditators included the ability to focus on the present moment, positivity, and self-compassion.
Overall, this study suggests that workplaces concerned with how to lower stress could use meditation practices to help increase resilience and, therefore, help workers cope with the challenges they face.
The study involved a five-day mindfulness program centred on reducing stress in a restorative natural setting. Regular meditation sessions, walking, yoga in the morning and evenings, and a day of silence constituted the program. Interviews were conducted a few days after the retreat and also three months after.
How nature can support mindfulness
The natural setting helped the attendees understand mindfulness to lower stress. The authors highlight how focusing on nature resembles meditation. Nature can capture your attention effortlessly and can help people experience the presence and acceptance that is key to mindfulness.
One participant described how she became “more aware of how nature affects my mood, and if I am low on energy, it can be energising to take a walk, or to be in nature and get a bit happier”. The participants described connectedness to nature and how this was restorative.
Additionally, nature also forced participants to accept unpleasant experiences too, such as the bugs and discomfort experienced in meditation poses. Learning to accept these things encouraged a deeper mind‒body connection, which helped nurture feelings of acceptance and calmness.
In short, nature offers a supportive and accessible tool for those whom meditation is effortful. It can support mindfulness and help in opening and connecting to inner experiences. The outcomes of which, for these students experiencing stress, were felt as happiness, more energy, calmness, and awareness.
Finding calm in crisis
The study recruited 80 participants to meditate and 80 non-meditators in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. Several 30-minute guided meditations were delivered online from various mindfulness programs. This was followed by questions and discussion for another 30 minutes. Self-compassion, anxiety, depression, and stress levels were assessed.
Before the study, the two groups had similar levels in depression, anxiety, and stress. What happened after?
Consistency is key to mindfulness practice
The results suggested that the interventions increased self-compassion levels and decreased anxiety, depression, and stress levels, whilst the non-meditators did not show any significant changes.
This shows that even online interventions are a valuable way of helping people cope with stress.
However, the benefits of the practice “disappeared” after the three-month follow-up. The negative scores for emotional stress returned. The authors highlight how this is common in studies such as this, therefore pointing to one of the most important parts of mindfulness: consistency.
Mindfulness is a practice that must be regularly performed for its beneficial effects like lowering stress. This is so the feelings of presence and acceptance it produces can be strengthened and gradually be implemented in day-to-day life.
How to lower stress using mindfulness
In summary, the three articles highlight the power of mindfulness and meditation to lower stress, even in highly stressful working environments or during a crisis. It can be performed in a remote retreat in nature or just at home via online guided meditations. Either way, the results show increased presence, calmness, and acceptance of the situation, which help to lower stress.
However, mindfulness practice must remain consistent. And if you find yourself experiencing chronic and uncontrollable stress, it is always worth seeking out professional medical help. Mindfulness is a tool to support you, not a cure.
Ensuring vital research stays open
Mindfulness can help us understand how to lower stress naturally as we face life’s challenges. We’re producing content exploring cutting-edge insights in mindfulness research. If you want to read more, see our article on Mindfulness.
MDPI makes all its research immediately available worldwide, giving readers free and unlimited access to the full text of all published articles. Tackling stress requires a constant, coordinated, and concentrated global effort. Open Access supports this by ensuring vital work in journals like those highlighted here is available to all.
Are you looking to contribute to this global effort? Why not consider submitting to one of our journals; see our full list of journals for more.