Posted: 07.29.2014 | by AMRA

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We know that stress, anxiety, and worry can take their tole on the body, in part through the activity of stress hormones such as cortisol, which is produced by the adrenal gland. If one is under stress or prone to worry and anxiety, can one’s level of mindfulness reduce the body’s responsiveness to it?

Daubenmier et al. [Psychoneuroendocrinology] explored the degree to which the ability to accept and describe stressful mental events (as measured by the Kentucky Inventory of Mindfulness Skills or KIMS) helped protect a cohort of 43 overweight/obese premenopausal women from stress-related increases in cortisol after waking up in the morning.

The women were administered standard measures of perceived stress, negative affect, anxiety, and rumination and had their cortisol awakening response (CAR) assessed over the course of four mornings — CAR is a measure of how steeply cortisol levels rise in one’s saliva during the first 30-45 minutes after awakening. It’s thought that CAR reflects the body’s response to thinking and ruminating about stress upon waking up.

All four measures of psychological distress were significantly positively associated with steeper CARs — the more anxious, worried, or unhappy the research participants were, the faster their waking cortisol levels rose. On the other hand, the participants’ abilities to mindfully describe and accept their negative thoughts and emotions were significantly negatively associated with CAR steepness — the more mindful they were, the less dramatic the rise in their cortisol.

The greater their ability to describe their thoughts and emotions, the greater their protection from the effects of anxiety and negative mood on cortisol. The greater their ability to accept their thoughts and emotions, the greater the protective effect against rumination and worry.

For example, a one standard deviation increase in negative affect on the Positive and Negative Affect Scale (PANAS) increased cortisol in their saliva by an average of 4.15 nmol/L (an increase that is statistically significant at the p=.003 level) for those with the lowest acceptance of their thoughts and emotions, but the same increase in negative affect had no effect on cortisol for those with the highest levels of acceptance.

The ability to describe and accept thoughts and emotions accounted for an additional 13-27% of cortisol-rise variance over and above the measures of psychological distress. When it comes to the effect of stress on the body, the author’s pithily conclude, “it’s not what you think, but how you relate to it.”

Reference:

Daubenmier, J., Hayden, D., Chang, V., & Epel, E. (2014). It’s not what you think: Dispositional mindfulness moderates the relationship between psychological distress and the cortisol awakening response. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 48:11-18. [PMID: 24971591]

[Link to abstract]