By: Mark Flanagan
Your eyes dart up to the office clock, the minute hand creeks to 3:19. Great. Only an hour and 41 minutes to kill, then you trade staccato horn yelps with the rest of the city as you inch your way back home… and think of your unpaid bills, the garden that really didn’t get enough weeding, your son’s behavioral problems in school, and that ever increasing pouch around your midsection. Your mind tumbles and trips over itself as it attempts to navigate traffic and wrestle with your worries. Even if you get home without a collision, your body will still feel like it was hit by a truck. Who wants to weed then?
Your eyes dart again. 3:20. Great.
In American society, multi-tasking (especially mental multi-tasking) is a considered a requisite for everyday life and concentration on one single item is generally seen as un- or under-productive. The irony is, the more we take on, the less we seem to be able to accomplish.
Some recent studies highlighted in this two part post have begun to illuminate how and why focused and controlled awareness can allow us to get more done, and feel better about it.
Part one will touch on the body’s response to stress, how stress can be triggered by worry, and how mindfulness can bring about a sense of control and thus reduce the stress. Part two will focus more on the experience of mindfulness, using the example of addiction to demonstrate how the addictive process can be interrupted by focused, mindful thought.
However, reading this post might require that you forgo posting viral videos all over your friends’ Facebook wall (only for a minute or two, I promise).
Stress: Physiology, Perception and Health
The human body is well adapted for dealing with external threats by activating the stress response. In the short term, the human stress response serves to mobilize energy stores such as glucose, increase cardiovascular rates which provides oxygen for vital organs and muscles, and decrease processes, such as digestion and growth, not needed for immediate survival.
However, external physical threats are not the only way to activate the stress response. Due to the advanced social and cognitive patterning in humans, chronically experienced stress (excluding traumatic events and brain injury) generally comes in the form of psychosocial stress. Psychosocial stress manifests as a result of concerns about social relations and anticipation of future challenges.
While most stress events for mammals are brief, for some human groups perpetual fears, like the ones experienced in the introductory example, warrent perpetual stress. When the stress response has been on too long, it becomes harmful rather than protective. Stress induced hypertension, depression, reproductive troubles, impaired cognition, and reduced firing of some neuron types are but some of the problems that can result from an untreated chronic stress response. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, these problems have huge impacts on our health care system, as more than 25 percent of Americans have two or more chronic conditions which require continuing care.
Biomedical literature has suggested that stress-oriented perception and weak social networks are a large component of psychosocial stress. According to neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky, individuals are more likely to produce a stress response and are at more risk for stress-sensitive disease if they:
1. Feel that they have little control over stressors or are chronically disempowered.
2. Feel that they do not have predictive information about how long or intense the stressor will be.
3. Do not have many outlets to vent frustration caused by stressors.
4. Interpret the stressor as a sign of worsening circumstances.
5. Do not have adequate social support for the confinement caused by stressors.
While strong social networks and support systems are important for reducing the harmful effects of long-term stress, the other four predictive factors for stress sensitive disease involve a perception of harm, suggesting that how an individual perceives and interprets their reality is central to understanding psychosocial stress.
Studies on neurocognitive processes indicate that mindfulness meditation increases awareness and the creation of alternatives to mindless, automatic behavior – reducing the stress response by guiding conscious thought away from uncontrollable past or future scenarios and towards a non-attached acceptance of present circumstances, rather than battling unwanted thoughts.
Ellen Langer has beautifully demonstrated the power of controlled perception in manifesting drastically improved physical health of elderly individuals who were encouraged to reminisce mindfully about or relive their 20’s and 30’s in a retreat setting with various activities and visualization exercises. Participants were guided on how direct their thinking so that they were able to experience the reality that they desired, rather than responding to every thought that happened to cross their mind. Both groups were significantly stronger and had a greater range of motion than before the week long mindfulness experiment.
In addition, a recent study conducted by Hölzel et al. (2011), documented increases in grey matter after eight weeks of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in a group of 16 meditation-naïve participants. Grey matter increased in the hippocampus, posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum. According to the study, these areas are associated with learning, memory processing, and emotional regulation – which includes the ability for self-referral and perspective taking. This ability to take perspective and break the stream of unconscious, preconditioned responses is a process by which psychosocial stress could be mitigated.
Mindfulness in Action
Being fully present empowers an individual to take small, bite-size steps and thus create real, tangible changes to external environments.
Take for instance the phenomenon of writers block. This has been a frequent struggle for me and even as I was writing this post, inhibiting thoughts flooded my mind which I immediately accepted as truth: I’m taking a long time to write this post, I must be sub-par; How will I make this post be the most creative possible? If I can’t do that, then what am I wasting my time for?; What if my readers aren’t interested—at all?
While common reasons for not being able to write are attributed to not knowing what to say, not being skilled enough, or simply fearing what others will think of your prose, an experience of writers block can generally be resolved by free-writing or free-listing. Both exercises force the author to experientially work through the contradictions, doubts, and – more often than not – the very nuggets of wisdom or topical analysis that the author originally sought from outside sources.
During free writing, the author is obliged to not worry about future or ultimate outcome, but rather about developing ideas step-by-step, or as they come to the writer. This has the effect of getting the proverbial idea-ball rolling, which encourages even more present moment thinking, until the writer enters more-or-less of a “flow”. As the author learns to trust him or herself more and more, less emphasis is placed on whether the piece will be an astounding success or an abysmal failure. The emphasis, instead, is placed on focusing the authors own experience of the processing of ideas, which has the continued effect of reducing stress and increasing productivity by increasing the experience of control and self-efficacy.
By engaging in this process of moving forward little by little, less time and mental capacity can be allocated to worrying about the outcome of a given problem, since the practical challenge of completing the next step takes precedent over predicting conclusions.
Because the brain has less opportunity to scenario build and apply internalized interpretations to forecast social responses, non-immediate threats have the reduced ability to trigger feelings of anxiety, fear, and lack of control. The experience or perception of an experience can change the brain and as the brain changes, emotional affect – and corresponding physiological responses – change as well.
Mindfulness, it seems, has a huge potential for addressing stress induced illnesses; however, most mindfulness studies have focused on either clinical outcomes or physiological and anatomical changes. Less discussion in the scientific community has sought to understand how this mindfulness interrupts the stress response from a experience motivational level. How does being mindful allow one to increase their sense of agency and thus reduce feelings of doom or lack of control?
Some insight into this question has come from mindfulness and addiction studies which will be discussed in part two of this post.
If you want to learn more about the harmful effects of psychosocial stress, check out the website for the PBS documentary “Stress: Portrait of a Killer” which features the work of Robert Sapolsky.
Mark Flanagan is a graduate student in anthropology at Georgia State University. His previous post on Neuroanthropology was Hard Drinkers, Meet Soft Science.