Friday, July 4, 2014


There’s an old Zen saying that has something very profound to say about stress and meditation. It goes something like this. ‘You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes a day, unless you’re too busy, in which case you should sit for an hour.’ Well, new research shows that even short sessions of mindfulness meditation are effective at reducing mental stress.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have found that engaging in mindfulness meditation for twenty-five minutes for just three days can significantly lower stress and boost the ability to endure stress.

‘More and more people report using meditation practices for stress reduction, but we know very little about how much you need to do for stress reduction and health benefits,’ said lead author Dr J David Creswell (pictured left), associate professor of psychology in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, in a press release.

We have known for many years that the so-called ‘stress cascade’ is governed by the brain's hypothalamus, which communicates with the pituitary and adrenal glands, which in turn secrete stress hormones like cortisol. Too much cortisol in the bloodstream is not a good thing at all. Finding effective ways of preventing or blocking the body’s stress reaction from occurring is the name of the game.

The Carnegie Mellon University study was conducted on 66 healthy participants aged between 18 and 30. They were told to take part in a 3-day experiment where some participants underwent mindfulness meditation training programs for 25 minutes for three consecutive days. Others were told to learn breathing exercises that could help monitor their breath and pay attention to their present moment experiences. The researchers also included a matched control group where participants were told to improve their problem-solving skills through poetry analysis.

Following their programs, participants were given tasks to complete stressful speech and math in front of ‘stern’ researchers who recorded their stress levels by measuring cortisol levels in saliva samples.

The study findings showed that people in the mindfulness meditation group were less stressed when performing speech and math tasks. However, these participants also showed greater cortisol reactivity in saliva samples.

‘When you initially learn mindfulness mediation practices, you have to cognitively work at it -- especially during a stressful task,’ said Dr Creswell. ‘And, these active cognitive efforts may result in the task feeling less stressful, but they may also have physiological costs with higher cortisol production.’

The findings have been published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

Journal article: Creswell J D, Pacilio L E, Lindsay E K, and Brown K W, ‘Brief mindfulness meditation training alters psychological and neuroendocrine responses to social evaluative stress.’ Psychoneuroendocrinology. Vol 44, June 2014, 1-12.

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