A recent study finds no physiological indication that mindfulness actually helps people remain calm when they are stressed.

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Although many people believe that mindfulness can help reduce stress, a new study from the University of Buffalo (UB) in New York suggests that it provides little or no benefit when individuals are coping with active stressors.

Measurements of cardiovascular activity suggest that people who practice mindfulness continue to “sweat the small stuff” during periods of stress.

The research suggests that mindfulness may offer other benefits, but helping people remain calm and composed during stressful events is not one of them.

Lead study author Thomas Saltsman, of UB’s Department of Psychology, tells UB News Center:

“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.”

The study appears in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Saltsman describes mindfulness as focusing one’s attention on the present moment, putting the past and future out of mind while maintaining a neutral, nonjudgmental attitude.

People can develop mindfulness through training and continued practice.

The study investigated the physiological response to stress of people who consider themselves to be mindful. These people described a general sense of well-being and an ability to manage stress and not dwell on past events.

“Although those benefits seem unambiguous,” says Saltsman, “the specific ways in which mindfulness should impact people’s psychological experiences during stress remain unclear.”

Seeking a means of objective measurement, the researchers “used cardiovascular responses to capture what people were experiencing in a moment of stress, when they’re more or less dispositionally mindful.”

They recruited 1,001 UB psychology students for their study, 469 of whom were female.

As they monitored the participants’ cardiovascular activity, the researchers also presented performance stressors in the form of potentially anxiety-inducing activities, such as having to give a 2-minute speech on a specific topic or taking a timed reasoning-ability test.

The researchers tracked four cardiovascular values in particular. These were the participants’:

  • heart rate
  • ventricular contractility, which is a measure of the left ventricle’s contractile force
  • cardiac output, which refers to the amount of blood the heart pumps
  • peripheral resistance, which is a measure of net cardiac constriction vs. dilation

To understand the degree to which the participants became focused on the stressors, the researchers assessed their “task engagement.” When people are paying acute attention, their heart pumps more blood, and this is indicated by elevated heart rate and ventricular contractility values.

The self-described mindful participants were highly engaged by the stressors, though the meaning of this engagement remains unknown.

It is unclear whether this heightened engagement was due to being especially present in the moment because of mindfulness or whether it was due to the opposite, with participants still “sweating the small stuff” in spite of the mindfulness.

To try to understand the quality of the individuals’ engagement, the researchers tracked their peripheral resistance and cardiac output levels. Lower peripheral resistance and higher cardiac output readings suggest that people are perceiving stressors as challenges to overcome, not as threats, and vice versa.

Those self-reporting as mindful were just as likely to perceive a stressor as either a challenge or a threat as anyone else. There was no detectable bias toward one or the other perspective.

“One thing these results say to me, in terms of what the average person is expecting when they casually get into mindfulness,” says study co-author Mark Seery, “is that what it’s actually 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,” he adds.

Paradoxically, the mindful participants reported feeling more positively about the stress tests than others.

As Saltsman says: “Did more mindful people actually 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.”

The study suggests that this seeming contradiction may reflect the specificity of the research. The study authors write that “it seems reasonable to view the current work as capturing a novel boundary condition: Dispositional mindfulness was associated with benefits after an active stressor but not during one.”

Therefore, although these results seem superficially to contradict those of other research — the study authors admit that it may be “tempting” to see them as a refutation of those other studies — the paper cautions that interpreting them as such would be “ill-advised.”