Even before the coronavirus hit, the United States was considered one of the most stressed out countries in the world. Fear and anxiety brought on by the pandemic has only exacerbated the problem, with 8 out of 10 adults citing the pandemic as a significant source of stress in their lives.
Researchers have been studying the impact of stress on human health for decades, including its connection to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and mental health disorders. Far less is known about what individuals can do to strengthen their ability to cope with stress.
David Creswell, who runs the Human Health and Performance Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, has devoted much of his career to researching how individuals can cultivate the inner resources needed to navigate the stresses of modern life. “Almost everyone is exposed to lots of stress over the course of their lifetimes; yet many people do quite well,” he explains. “Our puzzle is trying to figure out what makes people resilient.”
“Almost everyone is exposed to lots of stress over the course of their lifetimes; yet many people do quite well. Our puzzle is trying to figure out what makes people resilient.”
David’s lab studies both stress management strategies—including self-affirmation, cognitive reappraisal, and social connection—and interventions like mindfulness meditation for understanding stress resilience. He points to Mind & Life as an important ally in his research journey. In 2014, David received a Mind & Life 1440 Grant to study the use of mindfulness training to transform social relationships among lonely older adults; other researchers in his lab have also received Mind & Life grants to advance their collective work.
“Mind & Life really prioritizes more junior researchers, helping to kickstart their careers,” says David. “It’s been a hugely impactful organization for me and so many people working in contemplative science.”
David, who grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, traces his interest in the benefits of meditation for human health and wellbeing to courses he took in psychology and Buddhism during his senior year in high school. For a research project, he visited a local Zen center and measured the heart rates of advanced meditators, before, during, and after meditation. The effects he documented piqued his interest in learning more. “Several decades later,” he reflects, “I’m basically doing the same thing—studying how meditation affects our brains and bodies.”
Research now offers evidence that developing a regular meditation practice can help people cope with stress, says David, pointing to a recent study at his lab showing that even 14 days of mindfulness meditation can reduce your loneliness and increase your social connections with others. While meditation is one tool in your toolbox, it’s critically important to feel emotionally connected and supported, he emphasizes. Meditation can help through increasing people’s desire to reach out to others.
Even more pointedly, David’s research underscores the importance of acceptance and equanimity training as part of a mindful approach to stress reduction. Part of what helps people avoid being consumed by loneliness and other stressful feelings is learning how to be nonreactive and nonjudgmental in response to their experience.
It’s not so much about accepting a given situation, but how you react to that experience. “Being equanimous means using mindfulness meditation as a skill for how to relate to negative experience and emotions,” says David. “You learn how to let these experiences arise and pass without reacting to them.”
David’s lab is also looking at how mindfulness meditation impacts not only one’s ability to manage stress, but their stress biology. He and his colleagues are finding that mindfulness training can influence how people physiologically respond to stress, leading to decreases in cortisol levels and blood pressure.
In one recent study, David and colleagues again turned their attention to lonely older adults, who are at a 26 percent greater risk of mortality than their peers who feel more socially connected, and who are more apt to suffer from high blood pressure, poor immune system function, and higher rates of depression and mental health problems.
Funded by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, the study consisted of a randomized control trial of 190 lonely adults, ages 65 to 85, living in Pittsburgh. Subjects were divided into two groups. One participated in a Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program for eight weeks; the other took part in a health education program focused on learning and problem-solving related to health promotion and disease prevention. Participants in both groups reported similar reductions in feelings of loneliness over time. The team also took blood samples of study participants at the beginning of the training and three months later. Their findings pointed to an added biological benefit of mindfulness meditation at post-intervention—reduced glucocorticoid resistance.
When asked what questions loom large in his own work and within the field of contemplative science more broadly, David points to the need for scaling up mindfulness research and outreach. Priority needs to be given to conducting coordinated, multi-site trials with large numbers of participants, he says. With a more expansive evidence base, it will be easier to convince policymakers and insurers to make resources available for delivering meditation training to people in need.
Says David, “The people who need these programs the most—those struggling with the stress of supporting themselves with limited means—are those least likely to take them up. That needs to change.”