"More and more people report using meditation practices for stress reduction, but we know very little about how much you need to do for stress reduction and health benefits," explained lead researcher J. David Creswell.
In a study, published this week in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, Creswell and his colleagues set to find out exactly how much meditation makes a difference. To find out, researchers had two groups of participants prepare for a series of stress-inducing tests using two different techniques.
One group of 31 participants were taught to practice mindfulness meditation. They practiced for 25 minutes three days in a row. Mindfulness has been described by Jon Kabat-Zinn -- the founder of the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts -- as the "moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment."
"When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we're sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future," writes Kabat-Zinn.
The other group of 35 participants was put to the task of analyzing poetry -- also a seemingly relaxing task, depending on ones predilection for literary dissection.
After three days of prep, the participants were then made to solve difficult math and logic problems in front of "stern-faced evaluators." Afterwards, they rated their stress levels and offered saliva samples so cortisol -- the hormone released to help the body handle high-pressure situations -- levels could be measured.
Creswell and his fellow researchers found that the meditators were better able to handle the stress; they reported feeling less tense during the testing phase than did the poetry-readers. But oddly, the meditators had higher cortisol levels.
"When you initially learn mindfulness mediation practices, you have to cognitively work at it -- especially during a stressful task," said Creswell. "And, these active cognitive efforts may result in the task feeling less stressful, but they may also have physiological costs with higher cortisol production."