If you have something stressful coming up and you only have a few minutes to mentally prepare yourself, what can you do? Mindfulness is a phrase used for many practices traditionally taught in an 8-Week Mindfulness Course, including mindful awareness of breath, awareness of body sensations, mindful movement, mindful walking and loving-kindness practice. Research evaluating the 8-Week Mindfulness Course shows a reduction in depression and anxiety, improvement in physical pain and improved well-being, but which of the practices in the 8-Week Course is the most useful? Gratitude is another contemplative practice with evidence showing improved mood and resilience against stress when practised over time but it falls outside the mindfulness umbrella. New research provides some insight into what three of these specific practices can provide in the short term.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin randomised 156 undergraduate students who were not regular mediators to perform a 12 minute practice in either Breath Awareness, Loving Kindness, Gratitude or an Attention Control (visualising their living space). Questionnaires were completed before and after the practices. The participants were then asked to place their arm in an ice bath for three minutes. They were timed to see how long they would last, asked how aversive the ice bath was and if their contemplative practice helped them cope. They were then given the opportunity to stay after the ice bath to complete one further task. They had some surprising findings.
Upon completing the 12 minute meditation, those who practiced Gratitude were the only ones who experienced an improvement in positive feelings while the Loving Kindness group experienced a reduction in negative feelings. Otherwise there were no differences between the groups and the control.
However, those who practiced Loving Kindness and Breath Awareness were better able to tolerate the ice bath than both the Control and the Gratitude Group. The Loving Kindness and Breath Awareness groups were 4.43 times more likely to complete the ice bath task, found it less aversive and were more likely to volunteer to help with the extra task than the Gratitude group. The Gratitude training group had poorer outcomes than the control group with the ice bath. Those who practiced Breath Awareness found it to be the most helpful practice for coping with the ice bath.
The authors are careful to point out not to dismiss practicing gratitude. There is plenty of evidence to support the benefits of a regular gratitude practice in improving mood and coping with stress. However this is the first study to compare different brief practices and the impact on coping with an immediate stressor. So if you know you have an imminent stressful event, pause and bring your awareness to your breath. It’s easy, and it will help.