Feeling stressed and overwhelmed? Maybe mindfulness is the solution for you.

Hey all! Welcome back to another blog post. We hope you’re doing well :)

Can you believe it’s already April? We’re in the final home stretch…. which also means: EXAM SEASON! Many of us usually feel overwhelmed and stressed during this time, and it certainly doesn’t help that we’re in the middle of a pandemic… We’re not only facing academic stressors, but also social and psychological ones that stem from lack of interaction with others.

That's why in today’s post, we're introducing an effective strategy for stress reduction that has been heavily supported by research: MINDFULNESS.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness involves focusing on the present moment in a purposeful and particular way by observing what is going on internally and externally, with an attitude of acceptance and non-judgment (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p.4). Although it originally comes from the Buddhist tradition, it has become increasingly popular in the West. Mindfulness can be practiced in multiple ways, such as guided mindfulness meditation, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (Kabat-Zinn, 1994), and Integrated Body and Mind Training (Fan et al., 2014).

Photo from: zerotothree.org

What are the benefits of mindfulness?

1. As mentioned above, one of the stressors that is especially prevalent during this time is loneliness. Luckily, studies have shown that mindfulness lowers perceived feelings of loneliness. For example, in one study, college students were asked to complete a mindfulness intervention over the span of 8 weeks (Zhang et al., 2018). Those in the intervention reported feeling more mindful, less lonely, more supported, and developed a more positive outlook on the future.

2. It doesn’t just lower our psychological response to stress- it also reduces the activation of our physiological stress response! Specifically, studies have found that basal levels of cortisol, a hormone instrumental in the stress response (Sapolsky, 1994), are lowered after only 4 weeks of mindfulness training (Fan et al, 2014).

Another physiological marker of one’s ability to regulate the stress response is increased heart-rate variability (Shearer et al., 2016). In this study, they wanted to compare the efficacy of mindfulness and dog therapy in stress reduction. While our furry friends do seem to lower our self-reported stress levels, when met with a challenging cognitive task meant to induce to academic stress, only participants in the mindfulness condition experienced increased heart-rate variability (AKA an adaptive response to stress). This is evidence to support that mindfulness helps modulate our stress response, even in the long-run.

How does mindfulness lead to stress reduction?

By engaging in mindfulness, participants learn to re-perceive or decenter. In other words, they become less attached to their thoughts and feelings, and are able to take on a perspective that does not revolve around the self. This allows individuals to become less reactive and judgmental. In one self-report study, they found that acting with awareness, non-judgment, observation, and non-reactivity were the active components of mindfulness that are important in key psychological mechanisms (e.g., self-regulation, cognitive and behavioral flexibility, distress tolerance) involved in stress reduction (Brown et al., 2014). Long story short, our ability to disengage and not overly identify with the feelings associated with stress is what makes it work!

So... where can I access resources for mindfulness?

U of T has some great resources for mindfulness. For example, the Mindful Moments program has sessions available all throughout the week. Click the link to sign up!

Here is a guided mindfulness meditation video that I personally enjoy.

To learn more about research in mindfulness, watch this video by Kabat-Zinn, one of the leading scientists in mindfulness.

That’s it for today’s post! Let us know what you want to see next in the comments down below.

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