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Mindfulness training busts stress

  • Story Highlights
  • Yoga poses, breathing methods help workers cope with e-mails, work stresses
  • Mindfulness is to pay attention to present and recognize sources of stress
  • Body is always being rushed; mindfulness training emphasizes need to slow down
By Val Willingham
CNN Medical Producer
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(CNN) -- "Just the facts" has always been Lillian Waugh's motto. A historian and former professor of women's studies at West Virginia University, Waugh is a stickler for facts and details. And because she was always the "go to" person at WVU, she was constantly in demand -- and busy.

Lillian Waugh says playing the cello is a mindfulness technique she practices.

Lillian Waugh says playing the cello is a mindfulness technique she practices.

"I was a multitasker at work," she said.

Waugh's job was so stressful it started to affect her health. So when the university began a study on how to handle stress at work, she jumped at the chance to participate.

The study included 103 participants. Half were given written instructions on how to handle stress at work; the others, including Waugh, were taught techniques to cultivate mindfulness, such as yoga poses, breathing methods, stretches and meditation -- all designed to help workers cope with too many e-mails, ringing phones and the occasional nasty co-worker.

Lead investigator Kimberly Williams said the goal was to relieve stress. "Mindfulness means to pay full attention to what you are doing, moment by moment," she said. "We taught them how to recognize sources of stress, how stress impacts them, and then what they could do to come out of the vicious cycle of stress reactivity."

The program lasted eight weeks and participants were followed for an additional three months. Williams said they found those who received the mindfulness training "had significantly less daily hassles, psychological distress and significantly fewer medical symptoms" -- like lower blood pressure and fewer aches and pains -- than those who were handed a pamphlet.

Waugh says she was thrilled to find that after practicing mindfulness techniques, the back pain that had plagued her for almost a decade went away. She also said she "communicated better with fellow employees and actually had a better attitude towards my job."

"The one thing I came away with was the ability to put myself in a place where I could gain perspective on everything I was doing at the moment," she said. Video Dr. Gupta: Watch more on the benefits of mindfulness training »

Mindfulness is not new. It goes back to the time of Buddha, who believed that the mind should always be fully in the present -- not looking back at the past or anticipating the future. Being mindful of the here-and-now, Buddha said, reduces stress and brings inner peace.

Today, mindfulness training involves learning to become aware of mind, body and emotions. Yoga, tai chi, and meditation all teach mindfulness.

Williams said the popularity of mindfulness techniques is a positive development, because when done correctly, the methods have been shown to "actually lift stress from your body."

Numerous studies have shown that stress can take its toll on the human body. "[Stress] increases your heart rate, your blood pressure and your respiration; you go into a state of hyper-arousal," said Williams. "And over the long-term, we internalize the response, which can lead to neck pain, back pain, digestive disorders, sleeplessness. ... And many people deal with those problems by overeating, drinking or smoking."

The mindfulness exercises in the WVU study included "deep tasting," where participants spent time eating a raisin: They looked at it, smelled it, and took small bites to savor the taste. "It brings an awareness to the body that normally is always being rushed," said Williams, who emphasized the need to slow down.

"If you give all of your attention to something, you get deeply touched by that experience," she said. "We all know what it's like to eat our favorite food: We slow down, we savor it, we take our time. And that is what makes it so enjoyable."

Study participants were also taught to breathe by taking deep breaths through the nose, feeling the air fill their lungs and exhaling fully. Williams said that with a couple of those breaths, not only does "your blood pressure go down, and you stay calm," but you can better handle annoying colleagues or situations. "You often can bring out the best in people if you stay calm and loving."

Along with the breathing techniques, participants were also taught how to meditate -- even at their desks. They were told to find a comfortable time, free of distractions, and quiet their mind.

According to the study, even 10 minutes of meditation can help. "[Meditation] can take the anxiety out of a stressful workday," said Williams.

West Virginia University is not the first -- or only -- institution in the country that has tested the effects of mindfulness techniques on stress. UCLA completed a study a few years ago that found the same thing the WVU study found: Mindfulness exercises are excellent stress-busters.

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Other researchers are looking at ways to mitigate the dangerous side effects of stress by using mindfulness exercises. Yale University is recruiting patients for a smoking cessation study that includes a mindfulness training component. The six-week program will focus on learning mindfulness techniques to deal with stressors and triggers that cause people to light up.

For Waugh, mindfulness training was a life-saver. Although she is no longer a full-time professor, she still practices mindfulness and attends yoga classes every week. She also has gone back to playing the cello, another mindfulness exercise that soothes her soul. She said these methods have helped her stay healthy and improve her outlook on life -- and those are "just the facts."

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