Posts Tagged "stress"

The present of being present: cortisol and mindfulness meditation

Posted by on Apr 1, 2013 in Meditation/mindfulness therapy, stress | 1 comment seems that I write about stress a lot on Flashfree. Perhaps that is because like many, my life — namely my work — can be very stressful from time to time. However, according to the American Psychological Association, I’m not alone; most Americans suffer from moderate to high stress and the problem does not appear to be going away. Moreover? Work issues are the primary stressors in 77% of people.

From a midlife perspective, stress and its related hormone, cortisol, can cause a lot of health-related problems. In fact, not only does cortisol promote a fat dump in the midsection, but experts say that overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones has a cumulative affect, leading to heart disease, sleep issues, digestive issues, obesity, depression and worsening of skin conditions. It’s critical to counter stress’ negative effects before they take their toll and start to do permanent damage. One important strategy to achieve a better balance is meditation.
Fortunately, a team of researchers at UC Davis’ Center for Mind and Brain are devoting time to studying psychological and physiological processes in order to explain the benefits of meditation. The framework for this effort is the Shamatha Project, which is apparently the most comprehensive meditation study ever undertaken. Most importantly, this scientific twist on a centuries old practice may ultimately elevate meditation’s place in Western medicine.

To better understand the effects of meditation on stress, the research team recently took 60 people (between the ages of 22 and 69) who had some prior experience with meditation, measured cortisol and body mass index and their current degree of ‘mindfulness,*’ and then randomly assigned them to a three month meditation retreat or a waiting list. Those on the waiting list participated in the same, three-month retreat at a later date. (*Participants completed a mindfulness questionnaire that measured the degree that these people directed their cognitive resources to sensory experiences and how often they drifted, as well as their ability to let go of distressing thoughts.)

At the retreat, the group met two times a day for one hour, guided sessions and the rest of the time (around 6 hours) practiced solo meditation in 20 to 30 minute increments. Meditation practices were focused on mindful breathing and relaxation and promoted compassion and kindness toward others. Overall, the emphasis was on present awareness rather than meandering into the future of ‘what if’s.’ During the middle of the retreat, all were encouraged to enter into silence for a period of about four weeks. Aside from scheduled meals and group meditations, everyone was on their own to decide sole meditation, exercise and free time.

Did learning how to direct and focus attention away from uncontrolled, ruminating thoughts and worry and toward a chosen target reduce cortisol levels? The researchers say that they found a correlation between a high score for mindfulness and a low score in cortisol, both before and after the retreat. The results were greatest for participants who were able to achieve the greatest increases in mindfulness, that is, the more that they reported directing their thoughts to the present/immediate experience, the lower their resting cortisol levels were. Participants also experienced large improvements in overall wellbeing, daily mood and emotional functioning.

While the findings do not prove cause and effect, they do suggest that changing the mind paradigm to focus on the now rather than the future may ultimately help to reduce our tendency to think about the past or worry about the future and in turn, counter excessive cortisol release.

Tonya Jacobs, a postdoctoral researcher and the study’s lead author, explains that “the idea that we can train our minds in a way that fosters healthy mental habits and that these habits may be reflected in mind-body relations is not news; it’s been around for centuries. But, accumulating evidence might help the idea — that the present is the best present we can give ourselves — be better integrated into Western mentalities and health practices.

Mindful meditation may ultimately prove to be one of our strongest defenses against stress and its companion, cortisol!

Read More

Every breath you take

Posted by on Mar 11, 2013 in stress | 0 comments

We know that deep, focused breathing is a great stress buster, easy to practice and even easier to learn. However, it looks as though the breath you exhale may also be a harbinger of the very stress that you are letting go of. In fact, UK researchers have discovered that the breath has certain markers that may allow it to become a stress detective, if you will.

These markers are a mouthful, literally! Known as 2-methylpentadecane and indole, these very compounds appeared to increase following a stress exercise in 22 young adults who offered their breath for science! Using a scientific technique to analyze breath samples when the volunteers were calm and then stressed, and also measuring heart rates and blood pressures, the researchers were able to identify six compounds in breath related to stress but only the two mentioned above increased. What’s more, the stress response — faster breath and increased heart rate — appeared to change the normal composition of the breath.

I never thought that I’d be writing about breath profiling on this blog but it fascinating. Clearly, changes in breathing patterns have effects — either positive or negative — in the body. But would it be possible to develop a simple test to help suss out underlying stress, the type that over time, can lead to burnout, depression and of course, illness?

Only time will tell and larger studies are needed. But the very breath you take might be equal to the stress you make.

Meanwhile? Inhale. Hold. Release. Every breath you take matters.

Read More

Wednesday Bubble: Today’s stress? Tomorrow’s disability!

Posted by on Feb 6, 2013 in aging, stress | 0 comments


Stress. There’s no getting around it. And, if you feel that it’s out of your control and that you can’t cope with it, the ill effects are widespread.

Mental stress takes its toll in so many ways; from depression and mental exhaustion to memory issues, sleep disruption, and reduced quality of life, to heart disease, diabetes and possibly musculoskeletal disease, stress literally sucks the life out of an individual. What’s more, while stress may’ take no prisoners,’ but its effects are not uniform and actually vary from person to person. As I’ve written previously, factors such as active coping and attitude are as important as a lack of control over one’s work environment. However, what about long-term consequences? According to a recent paper published online in the Journal of Gerontology, little has been written about the long-term consequences of mental stress and its toll as we grow older. And, the few studies that have examined it have actually been relatively short.

Fortunately, that paradigm has changed, In fact, when researchers examined the association between self-perceived stress and its later toll in roughly 5,500 men and women, the picture they found was not pretty. Stress symptoms were first evaluated when participants were between the ages of 45 and 58 and then reexamined four years later. They included factors such as stomach or chest pain, dizziness, anxiety, lack of enjoyment, sleep issues, lack of energy and a gloomy outlook, which were rated by frequency. Twenty-eight years later, daily living scales were used to assess the degree of disability in the same individuals; these included the ability to feed oneself, to dress, to get out of bed, prepare meals, shop, do laundry or do housework.

As mentioned, stress was inconsistent among the participants; some were profiled as having mostly negative reactions to work and depressiveness while others perceived a decline in their ability to focus and think. Some participants primarily reported sleep disturbances or physical symptoms such as chest pain, stomach ache and dizziness. Only a third reported having no stress symptoms in midlife, whereas up to a quarter reported that their stress was constant. Most importantly, constant stress in midlife was linked to significant challenges in performing the most basic of activities later in life — up to four times worse. Even more troubling? Constant stress was a deal breaker when it came to physical activity; these people had up to three times greater risk for not being able to walk  a mere 1.2 miles!

Researchers say that it’s likely that “constant activation of stress responses lead to ‘wear and tear.” And while the health trajectory that leads from stress to disability is still unclear, what is clear is the need to intervene in midlife, take time to identify work stressors, change workloads and tasks, engage in regular physical activity and seek counseling if stress symptoms continue to interfere with life quality.

You only live in this body once; be sure to take care of it at all stages before lack of care takes a real toll.

Read More

Wednesday Bubble: Are you facing a lifetime of burnout?

Posted by on Jan 30, 2013 in stress | 3 comments

BurnoutStress. It can wreak havoc in so many ways. Researchers have shown that prolonged exposure to high levels of stress, especially when its source is work-related, can lead to burnout, i.e. emotional exhaustion, physical fatigue and a general weariness that affects thinking ability and focus. It can increase heart disease and metabolic syndrome, screw up the adrenal hormonal balance, cause systemwide inflammation and lower the ability to fight off disease and illness. It can lead to sleep disruption and significant mental health issues.

The bottom line is that stress hurts.

However, individual factors and characteristics also affect how vulnerable we are to burnout, and as I’ve written previously, active coping and attitude can often protect against the negative impact of daily stressors and protect health. More importantly, one’s orientation towards life, the way that the environment is perceived and whether or not it is manageable and meaningful is incredibly important; here, an ability to role with the punches can positively impact outlook as well as health.

But back to burnout; does it persist over time, never changing? Or do multiple factors influence the ability to b0unce back from the  burnout bonanza?

Findings of a nine-year study in almost 200 midlife women (ages 49 to 53) reveal some interesting findings demonstrating that some women with high levels of burnout can actually recover while others either stabilize or continue to worsen. The factors that influence this the most? Concurrent changes in life stress, work-related factors and coping ability/attitudes towards life. In fact, when women were divided into clusters reflecting patterns of burnout, the researchers found that high levels of life stress (e.g. concern for ailing parents, or concern for own health or their partner), coupled with a greater sensitivity to stress and job strain was a recipe for prolonged, worsening burnout. Women who had high levels of life stress but more control over their work environment were able to recover from burnout over time. Conversely, women with low levels of life stress, susceptibility to stress, anxiety and high levels of coping and a sense of control didn’t appear to be dealing with much burnout; the ability to draw on internal resources appeared to be protective in across a broad range of wellbeing indices.

It’s important to point out that the researchers did not have the ability to analyze private or individual stress separately from work stress and hence, these two factors are pooled. This means that the findings may have been affected. Still, studies have been fairly consistent in demonstrating the perils of stress and burnout in terms of health and overall wellbeing.

The lesson here is that if you are in extreme burnout, there is hope. Take a prolonged break to reevaluate your life, your decisions and your personal and social resources. If you don’t feel as though you have enough control in your worklife, and changing jobs or careers is an option, consider it; a new series on Flashfree –Reinventing Women — is profiling women who have made similar decisions to drastically change their lives. Exercise your prerogative to take better care of you; after all, you are only as good as the sum of your parts. And finally? Believe that things can change for the better. Nothing is forever and a lifetime of burnout is n0 life.

Read More

Extra! Extra! There’s no news like bad news…

Posted by on Jan 14, 2013 in stress | 0 comments

iStock_000008316709XSmallHow are your stress levels? If you have been following this blog for any period of time, you know that midlife is filled with natural stressors. And that that stress can boost cortisol levels, leading to abdominal fat and weight gain. (You may recall that cortisol is the hormone that is released when the body is exposed to stress.) However, short of incorporating mind-body strategies, more exercise and healthier eating habits in your life, what can you do?

Well, it appears that turning off the news may go a long way towards insuring that any initial exposure to negative headlines or news stories does not domino into a prolonged physical reaction. In fact, when researchers compared the effects of exposure to stress in men and women, they found distinct differences that may impact future habits.

What does regular exposure to 24 hour news cycles do to our brains?

When researchers exposed four groups of men and women to either 24 neutral (e.g. a park opening) or negative (e.g. murder or accidents) stories followed by a stress test, they found that that reading negative news stories had no effect on cortisol levels. However, when women were subsequently exposed to stress after reading the negative stories, their cortisol levels did increase significantly. Moreover, a day later, these very same women had greater recall of these negative or emotional stories compared to their male counterparts and compared to the groups who were only exposed to neutral stories.

Truly, there is no news like bad news, at least for women. In fact, researchers say that exposure to negative news media on a regular basis can take its toll, leading women to react more strongly and more stressfully to other situations and factors in their lives. They have a tendency to ruminate on what they’ve observed and may even elaborate and extenuate information in ways that lead to greater memory for and reaction to the negative in their lives.

Ultimately, the message is clear: by limiting regular exposure to negative news cycles, women may be able to modulate reactions to other daily stressors. The question lies whether or not deliberately balancing the good with the bad has the same effect.

Read More