Be Mindful: How To Manage Stress?

July 05, 2023; Unhurry Expert Research Team

How to manage stress is an unanswered question for most of us! According to new research from the University at Buffalo, if dispositional mindfulness can teach us anything about how to manage stress and anxiety, then it might be an unexpected lesson on its ineffectiveness at managing stress as it is happening.

When the goal is “how to better manage stress,” mindfulness may not be of much help! As per the findings published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the cardiovascular responses of 1,001 participants during stressful performance tasks contradicted the previous research done on pop culture assertions of how mindfulness helps manage stress and cope with it.

Earlier reports revealed how mindfulness helped manage active stressors, but the recent paper revealed a contrary response. When under stress, mindful participants displayed cardiovascular responses consistent with greater care and engagement. In other words, they were sweating the small stuff.

Even more curiously, although the participants demonstrated no physiological signs of positive stress responses, they reported having a positive experience later.

Thomas Saltsman, a researcher in UB’s psychology department and the paper’s lead author revealed, “What’s surprising, and particularly striking about our results, is that mindfulness didn’t seem to affect whether people had a more positive stress response at the moment. Did more mindful people feel confident, comfortable, and capable while engaged in a stressful task? We didn’t see evidence of that, despite them reporting feeling better about the task afterward.”

Tips on how to manage stress?

Mindfulness has its benefits but they are limited when people are actively engaged in stressful tasks, like taking a test, giving a speech, or sitting for a job interview. Instead, being mindful helps people’s perception of their stress experience after the stress ends.

According to Thomas Saltsman, “Although our findings seem to go against a wholesome holy grail of stress and coping benefits associated with dispositional mindfulness, we believe that they instead point to its possible limitations. Like an alleged holy grail of anything, its fruits are likely finite.

Saltsman describes dispositional mindfulness as having focused attention on the present. It is a mindset that tries to avoid pondering on past realities or considering future possibilities or consequences. It is about being non-judgmental and relaxing critical interpretations. Mindfulness can be approached with formal training, but people can also be higher or lower in mindfulness, which was the focus of their study.

Those high in dispositional mindfulness had greater well-being and they did not dwell on past events and claimed to manage stress well.

Saltsman says, “Although those benefits seem unambiguous, the specific ways in which mindfulness should impact people’s psychological experiences during stress remain unclear. So, we used cardiovascular responses to capture what people were experiencing in a moment of stress when they’re more or less dispositionally mindful.”

By measuring cardiovascular responses, Saltsman and the other researchers, including Mark Seery, an associate professor of psychology at UB, can record participants’ experiences during moments of stress like giving a speech or taking a reasoning-ability test.

The responses included heart rate and how hard the heart is pumping. Seery says, “When people care more about the task they are completing, their heart rate increases and beats harder. Other measures, like how much blood the heart is pumping and the degree to which blood vessels dilate, indicate how confident or capable one feels during the task. One thing these results say to me, in terms of what the average person is expecting when they casually get into mindfulness, is that what it is doing for them could very well be mismatched from their expectations going in. And this is an impressively large sample of more than a thousand participants, which makes the results particularly convincing.”


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