Everyone encounters stress over the course of their lives, but some experience it more often than others. Some jobs, like working in the military, certain fields of healthcare or in the fire or police department, put workers in highly stressful situations on a constant basis and that stress can have serious health effects. A new study published this week looked for better ways to handle that stress and found that mindfulness may go a long way in controlling the stress response.
What is stress?
The word stress encompasses the variety of ways the body handles tough situations. Whether you’re running a race, trying to get a paper done under a deadline or rushing to save a person’s life, certain situations call for your body to rise above its normal everyday abilities. Your body does this by activating a part of the nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system whose job is to ready the various systems of the body for rapid action. That includes increasing blood flow to your muscles, increasing your heart rate and breathing rate, getting your sweat glands going and improving your eyesight. All of those changes make up some of what you feel when you’re in a stressful situation and prep your body to work well under pressure.
Why is stress bad?
In the short term, stress makes a lot of a sense. It serves to get you through tough or dangerous situations as quickly, efficiently and safely as possible. But changes that make sense in the short term can become problematic if they stick around in the long run. For example, stress can boost your blood pressure and make your heart work harder than normal, which can lead to stroke and heart disease in the long run. Stress can affect your ability to sleep and can change your appetite, both of which can damage your health. Studies have shown that those who experience high levels of stress at work take more sick days than those who don’t and tend to be less healthy according to a variety of measures.
But the worst damage is arguably what’s happening in your brain. Those under chronic stress are often irritable, nervous, feel overwhelmed and have difficulty concentrating or remembering. Stress messes with your brain’s ability to function properly in the long term, which affects your quality of life in all areas of your daily routine. That’s been associated with feelings of emotional numbness, negative self-image, and eventual feelings of burnout.
How did the researchers try to fix these problems?
The researchers saw that some aspects of stressful jobs can’t be changed. Fighting a fire or flying a plane is inherently stressful and you can’t escape the stress unless you just quit those jobs. But they realized that managing the emotional response to stressful situations could help those workers control the negative effects of stress, even if they couldn’t change where they worked.
To do this they focused on mindfulness training. Mindfulness involves reflecting on your internal thoughts and emotions without judgment and helps you work on relaxation techniques. One of the goals is to try to be able to observe these internal processes without responding to them.
How did they test this and what did they find?
The researchers recruited 32 surgical ICU nurses in stressful positions and had them complete eight weeks of mindfulness training. They gauged their stress before, during and after using surveys that assessed work and psychological stress and by testing their saliva for markers of stress that indicated activation of the sympathetic nervous system. They found that saliva markers of stress went down by about 40% after the mindfulness training. The nurses also appeared better able to control their emotional response to stress according to the psychological assessments, even while their jobs remained stressful over the course of the study.
How can I use this information?
While the study is small, it provides more evidence that mindfulness training can be a powerful tool for those who work under chronic levels of high stress. Importantly, this study showed benefits even when the nature of work didn’t change. The nurses experienced just as much stress at work, but became better able to deal with it and control their response to it. Learning to be mindful and aware of your emotions could help lower the amount of stress you feel when things ramp up in your work and personal life.