Doing This Can Cut Your Stress Levels By 25%, New Study Says
Stress is near unavoidable these days. Turn on the television or check your emails, and chances are you're going to see or read something that gets your heart pumping just a little bit faster. Many people have simply learned to cope and live with constantly being stressed out, but is that really the healthiest option?
Chronic stress is a much bigger health problem than many may assume or realize. For instance, recent research published in the scientific journal Biological Reviews reports that all of the emotional pressure and inflammation placed on the brain by constant stress may result in a significantly higher risk of dementia and Alzheimer's. And that's not even the half of it: Chronic stress is linked to a litany of physical and mental conditions including but not limited to depression, heart disease, and diabetes.
It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this near-universal problem. Even worse, one survey reports half of Americans are concerned they'll never recover from all the pandemic-related stress they've been feeling. Somewhat humorously, another 25% wouldn't mind traveling to a cabin in the woods to escape their daily stressors, while 15% prefer the notion of living on a deserted island to de-stress.
As attractive as an island getaway sounds, that's just not a realistic solution for most of us with daily responsibilities and obligations. So what's the best way to overcome chronic stress? Noteworthy new research from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences published in Psychosomatic Medicine is offering up a new strategy, shown to reduce chronic stress levels by 25% on average after six months. Read on to learn more, and next, check out 3 Major Secrets to Living to 100, According to Experts.
Calm the mind, and the body follows
Study authors report that meditation-based mental training can seriously help lower long-term chronic stress levels. While this of course isn't the first time meditation has been named as a great way to unwind and relax, this research, in particular, is especially groundbreaking because its conclusions are based on concrete, physiological findings as opposed to potentially biased self-assessments from participants.
It's incredibly difficult to truly quiet the mind. Attempt to block all thoughts for a few moments and you'll probably start thinking about how you shouldn't be thinking! Meditation and mindfulness training come in many forms, but the general message of such practices can be boiled down to being totally present in the moment and serenely acknowledging fleeting thoughts as they enter the mind without placing emotional weight on them. In other words, you may not be able to stop that intrusive thought about Friday's big deadline from entering your head, but you can let it drift away just as quickly as it appeared in the first place.
The research team concludes that consistently practicing meditation training that promotes mindfulness, gratitude, and compassion tangibly reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol in hair. After six months, study subjects saw the amount of cortisol in their hair decrease by an average of 25%.
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Self-reporting and the placebo effect
Plenty of prior research had concluded that meditation programs can lead to less stress, but pretty much all of those simply relied on self-reporting from participants. Study subjects would take part in a mindfulness program for a few weeks or months, and then fill out surveys on their stress levels in comparison to before starting the program.
The problem with this approach is that participants enrolled in such studies knew they were expected to feel less stressed. Just that very knowledge can often produce a placebo effect in which the individual convinces themselves they're enjoying said benefits.
"If you are asked whether you are stressed after a training session that is declared as stress-reducing, even addressing this question can distort the statements," explains first study author Lara Puhlmann, doctoral student at MPI CBS. "In mindfulness research, we are therefore increasingly using more objective, i.e. physiological, methods to measure the stress-reducing effect more precisely."
Stress and its affect on hair
So, instead of just asking participants if they were feeling less stressed this time around, the research team decided to focus on levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their hair.
Cortisol is one of the main hormones released by the body when we're stressed out, serving to help keep us energized and alert. When stress becomes constant and chronic, however, all that cortisol pumping through the body eventually makes its way to and accumulates within the hair. In the simplest of terms, the more cortisol found in one's hair, the more chronic stress in their life.
In all, three groups of roughly 80 participants took part in this project, which lasted for nine months in total. The meditation training was divided into three 3-month phases, with each focusing on specific Western or Far Eastern mental practices. Participants were guided on how to better focus their attention and achieve mindfulness, as well as building gratitude/compassion and learning to better understand other peoples' perspectives and thoughts. Subjects attended 30-minute sessions six days per week.
Now, generally speaking, hair tends to grow at a pace of 0.4 inches per month, so researchers measured each participants' hair cortisol levels every three months within the first inch or so of hair starting at the scalp.
A long-term stress-busting strategy
Sure enough, by the time six months had passed subjects' cortisol levels had dropped by an average of 25%. Notably, after three months only minimal cortisol declines were noted. This finding specifically tells us that meditation and mindfulness training isn't going to completely beat stress overnight – or even over the course of a few months. Meditation for stress relief should be considered a long-term play that requires some serious time commitment and diligence. At the nine-month mark, cortisol levels remained significantly lower than at the beginning of the project.
"There are many diseases worldwide, including depression, that are directly or indirectly related to long-term stress," Puhlmann concludes. "We need to work on counteracting the effects of chronic stress in a preventive way. Our study uses physiological measurements to prove that meditation-based training interventions can alleviate general stress levels even in healthy individuals."
For more, check out The Best 20-Minute Workout to Reduce Stress.