Some of the strongest evidence for the effects of Mindfulness training on health and well-being has come from research on the role of the training in reducing stress. Conducting research on Mindfulness forms part of the charitable constitution of Tenterden Mindfulness Group (TMG), and in 2022 we began a study aimed at assessing the efficacy of the TMG training courses in reducing stress and enhancing resilience.
One of the shortcomings of previous studies is the way that stress has been defined and measured. A prevalent view is that stress is caused by the events and people we have to deal with in our day-to-day lives. The problem is that if you believe your boss or your job are the cause of your stress, you’re bound to feel stressed whenever you go to work. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and creates victimhood: you end up being a victim of circumstance.
The TMG study draws on research which offers a unique, evidence-based way of addressing these problems, which began by defining stress as negative rumination – in other words, churning over emotional upsets. Think back to the last time you had an argument with someone that you lost. For how long afterwards did you go over and over it, each time creating imagined scenarios in which you end up winning? Nothing about the argument changes – churning is not learning – but in the process you not only make yourself miserable but also prolong unnecessarily the physiological demand on your body.
Whenever we respond to demand there is an increase in our heart-rate and blood pressure, mainly through an increase in adrenaline. Adrenaline is not a ‘stress hormone’, just a hormone doing what it’s designed to do, which is to facilitate action. Normally, peaks of activation are followed by troughs of recovery, in a natural cycle, but you need only think about emotional upsets to provoke and maintain the peaks. This is what rumination does, linking up the peaks and minimising the opportunity for recovery.
Situations that make an emotional demand on us only become a source of stress if we continue to churn over them, which is why stress, defined as rumination, has a significant impact on both our physical health and our well-being. There are of course particularly distressing situations that might push people over a threshold, leading to post-traumatic stress disorder, but PTSD requires intensive professional care. The TMG research is instead focussed on the effects of Mindfulness training on participants’ ability to cope with everyday demands.
For the TMG study, participants in the 8-week Finding Peace courses are assessed at the start and at the end of the course, but are not informed about the aims of the study until the final meeting. The assessments comprise measures of both rumination and a complementary index of resilience called detached coping. Detachment here doesn’t mean an uncaring attitude but rather the ability to maintain perspective, in other words to not catastrophise by turning molehills into mountains. Resilient people don’t turn pressure into stress because they can keep things in perspective, and tend not to continue ruminating about emotional upsets.
The scores on the assessments for the course participants will be compared with those from a control group of people who are tested at the start and end of an eight-week period during which they don’t attend a Mindfulness course. If the course is effective in reducing stress and enhancing resilience, we would expect to find a decrease in rumination and an increase in detached coping amongst the course participants, but no change for the control group.
So far, a sufficient number of responses from the course participants has been collected to allow a preliminary statistical analysis, and the results are encouraging: the frequency of rumination did indeed decrease significantly from the first to the second testing, and the capacity to maintain perspective had increased significantly. However, the control assessments have yet to be collected, and these are essential; in the absence of their scores for comparison, any changes in the trained groups could simply be response bias or random variation. Watch this space!