Mindfulness will not help you react better to stress, according to a new study from the University at Buffalo. The researchers found that being mindful, or calmly present in the moment, is largely ineffective when it comes to managing stress.
The findings contradict the widely accepted theory that mindfulness offers stress relief and coping benefits.
The experts measured the cardiovascular responses of 1,001 participants as they were engaged in stressful performance tasks. While it has been suggested in previous research that mindfulness may help people manage active stressors, the researchers found the opposite to be true.
During the stressful task, mindful participants exhibited cardiovascular responses consistent with engagement. In other words, they were actually “sweating the small stuff.”
Despite their negative stress responses, however, mindful participants reported having a positive experience after completing the task.
Study lead author Thomas Saltsman is a researcher in UB’s Department of Psychology.
“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 in the moment,” said Saltsman.
“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.”
There is no question that mindfulness has benefits, but it appears to be limited in providing relief during stressful tasks like taking a test or giving a speech. The research indicates that when it comes to managing stress, being mindful may only benefit people’s perception of their stress experience after the fact.
“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,” explained Saltsman. “Like an alleged holy grail of anything, its fruits are likely finite.”
Dispositional mindfulness is a mindset that tries to avoid ruminating on past realities or considering future possibilities or consequences, explained Saltsman. In this mindset, an individual is focused on the present without judgement or critical interpretations.
Mindfulness can be achieved with formal training, but people can also be dispositionally higher or lower in mindfulness – which was the focus of the current study. People with high levels of dispositional mindfulness report greater well-being and do not dwell on the past.
“Although those benefits seem unambiguous, the specific ways in which mindfulness should impact people’s psychological experiences during stress remain unclear,” said Saltsman. “So we used cardiovascular responses to capture what people were experiencing in a moment of stress, when they’re more or less dispositionally mindful.”
Study co-author Professor Mark Seery said that when people care more about the task they are completing, their heart rate increases and beats harder.
“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’s actually doing for them could very well be mismatched from their expectations going in,” said Professor Seery. “And this is an impressively large sample of more than a thousand participants, which makes the results particularly convincing.”
The study is published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.