Effects of Mindfulness on Heart Rate and Anxiety
Mindfulness is an attention to and awareness of events and experiences as they occur. A growing body of literature supports a mindful based approach for treating, reducing or aiding in the prevention of emotional distress like: depression and anxiety (Jenson et al, 2016). Mindfulness has been practiced universally and more recently, become a popular practice used by clinicians; mindfulness has been especially prevalent and effective in the field of psychopathology. Mindfulness is the quality of being in the present moment and being consciously aware of something, shifting ones focus on the present moment, accepting one’s thoughts, feelings and paying attention to their breath. According to (Baum,2010) “there is a moment of choice before we act upon stress, and in that space lies the power within us to regulate these emotions”. Although nearly everyone has the capacity to be mindful, a mindful state is not the typical state of mind for most people. In fact, reaching a state of mindfulness is an e?¬?ortful approach because one must override the automatic response to judge one’s current internal and external situation and to react with the aim of correcting the situation accordingly (Baum, 2010).
Mindfulness is said to be an attribute of consciousness that promotes well-being (Brown,2003). Consciousness is a state that involves both awareness and attention. Awareness is the background detector of consciousness, that is continually monitoring our inner and outer environments. One may be aware of stimuli without the stimuli being at the center of attention. Attention is a process of focusing conscious awareness, providing sensitivity to a limited range of experiences (Brown, 2003). Granted, attention and awareness are fairly constant features of normal functioning, mindfulness can be considered to enhance the attention and awareness of a current experience or present reality (Brown, 2003).
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Mindful interventions can take the form of meditation, deep breathing exercises, visualization, attentiveness to the senses, mindfulness -based cognitive therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction and other techniques. One of the most commonly used form of a mindfullness approach is Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). This technique has been said to improve emotion regulation and also aid in the improvement of cognitive performance on tasks (Bellinger, Decaro & Rolsten, 2015). MBSR has been utilized in a variety of settings like: classrooms, rehabilitation centers, studios, clinical settings, as well as being practiced individually. It has also become a popular technique used on college campuses by campus health services. Not only has MBSR been linked psychological and physiological well-being, but it’s a form of therapy that is cost effective because for many college students, there aren’t sufficient enough funds at their disposal to intervene effectively in treatment (Mahmoud, Staten, Hall & Lennie 2012).
College can be a time of acute stress and pressure for students. Academic performance paired with several other variables including: lack of time for study, timed testing environments, lack of rest, maintaining personal lives and in most cases, working full time, can be major contributions to objective and subjective levels of anxiety and stress (Shearer, Hunt, Chowdbury & Nicole, 2016). Any of these factors can contribute to student’s perception of not having the energy or time to successfully cope with the unending responsibilities of the college experience. As students come to terms with increased academic pressures, personal, social and typical pressures of life; these stressors can lead to increased anxiety, loneliness, hopelessness, difficulties with sleep, frequent illness and in extreme cases, suicidal ideation (Baghast & Kelly, 2014).
While some college students can adjust to the overwhelming challenges that arise from this new life experience, others struggle with the ever-increasing stressors. The impact of stressors experienced by college students is facilitated by the individual’s ability to effectively cope with stressful situations. An increase of anxiety symptoms during phases of enormous stress can lead to serious long- term physiological problems like: hypertension, lowering of immune system defenses, and higher levels of muscle tension; along with the physiological problems, anxiety is linked to array of psychological health problems that can range from: anxiety, depression, interpersonal problems, maladaptive coping skills and poor ability to regulate emotion (Baghurst & Kelly, 2014).
Anxiety is a state of intrinsic emotional turmoil that is related with emotion regulation and adaptive coping behaviors. Emotion regulation is one potential framework for understanding mechanisms of mindfulness; conceptualized as the processes by which individuals modulate the experience, expression, and response to emotions (Mankus, Aldao, Kerns, Mayville & Mennin, 2013). Mindfulness may facilitate effective emotion regulation through improved ability to flexibly process emotional experiences through “being” when attention is assigned to the experience and one’s attributions of the experience, rather than simply “doing” (Mankus, Aldo, Kerns, Maryville Minnen, 2013).
Adaptive coping behaviors include evaluating the stressful situation, actively seeking support, re?¬‚ecting on possible solutions, and taking actions to resolve the situation (Mahmoud, Staten, Hall & Lennie,2012). Such behaviors aid in resolving the situation and result in positive psychological and emotional adjustment. On the contrary, maladaptive coping behaviors include efforts to withdraw from the taxing situation or avoid seeking solutions. Maladaptive behaviors can include, but are not limited to: self-blame, denial and avoidance; which may result in a failure to resolve the stressful situation and can be associated with increased anxiety (Mahmoud, Staten, Hall & Lennie,2012). Mindful strategies have been shown to be useful adaptive coping strategies by researchers.
Because emotions are complex processes, emotional regulation can be assessed in a variety of ways (Mankus et al, 2013). Common variables under investigation when examining anxiety symptoms in previous physiological research include: self -report measures, heart rate variability (HRV), blood pressure, cortisol levels, fMRI, and EEG information. Self-report is among the most commonly applied measure of anxiety in research because it assesses how an individual perceives their own anxious symptoms. However, as with all self-report measures, they are subject to demand characteristics and the major self-report measures also have disadvantages and may be more or less applicable to certain populations of people. Physiological measures of emotion regulation may be better indicators of enduring psychological change that results from a mindfulness training. One autonomic indicator of flexible emotion regulation is heart rate variability, heart rate variability emphasizes the degree to which the parasympathetic and sympathetic effect heart rate (Mankus et al, 2013).
Heart rate variability (HRV) is a physiological marker of the person’s ability to regulate the stress response. HRV re?¬‚ects the body’s ability to respond to environmental challenges, as well as to self-regulate. Although somewhat counterintuitive, a higher HRV can be more adaptive because it re?¬‚ects the body’s capability to self-regulate as a response to stressful situations (Shearer, Hunt, Chowdbury &Nicole, 2016). That is, heart rate might increase in an immediate response to perceived stressors, but a person with good stress management skills should be able to bring their heart rate back down quickly, resulting in greater HRV.
Researchers (Shearer, Chowbury & Nicole, 2016), studied the effects of brief mindfulness meditation across a 4 -week span and participants underwent heart rate and heart rate variability examination after completing a series of cognitive tests. The goal of the researchers’ work was to explore the relationship between mindfulness trait and stress response, working memory, and mood regulation. The researchers explored different techniques; mindful meditation, eyes-closed, and silence. It was determined that mindfulness significantly effected anxiety levels. Mindfulness breathing reported higher levels of HRV, suggesting that those who participated in mindfulness were more attuned to the present moment and may have been better able to cope with academic stressors.
Over the course of 8 weeks, researchers (Chal??, Pereira, Batista & Sancho, 2016) aimed to test the efficacy of a brief intervention program on anxiety and stress in college students as compared to a control group that received no intervention. Participants in the intervention group used the biofeedback program to learn to change their arousal and promote their relaxation. Researchers used a Biofeedback modular program, the biofeedback 2000 is device that monitors physiological data through skin attached sensors. This device measured electro dermal activity, heart rate, bod temperature and increased movement (Chal?, Pereira, Batista & Sancho, 2016). The group who received the biofeedback training reported a significant reduction in their anxiety symptoms compared to the group where no intervention was made. These results are consistent with other studies that have larger numbers of samples.
Similarly, researchers (Cho, Ryu, Noh & Lee, 2016) proposed that mindful breathing practices would increase positive thinking, mood and lower anxiety levels. Contrasting to the mindfulness breathing, these researchers also utilized a cognitive reappraisal treatment as compared to no treatment at all and the treatments lasted six days. Participants complete several questionnaires both before and after to assess the following: testing anxiety, positive thoughts and positive affect (Cho, Ryu, Noh & Lee). Consistent with their hypothesis, mindful breathing practice and cognitive reappraisal practice yielded large effect sizes in reducing test anxiety. Additionally, the mindful breathing condition scored significantly higher on positive thoughts than the cognitive reappraisal and control conditions (Cho, Ryu, Noh & Lee,2016).
Likewise, (Bellinger, Decaro & Rolsten, 2015) set out to examine whether mindfulness improves the emotional response to anxiety-producing testing situations, freed working memory resources, and improved performance. The researchers studied the effects of mindfulness in a (1) high stakes test environment taking place in a laboratory; they also further extended their study by applying a (2) regular college classroom setting. Each study also used a 15-minute mindful breathing exercise. The results concluded in their findings suggested that dispositional mindfulness had benefited high-stakes test scores by reducing anxiety levels, both in the demanding mathematical laboratory settings and again during a replication comparing quiz and test scores in calculus.
Mindfulness research has provided effective information and evidence that the technique can be a powerful tool to utilize as a therapeutic technique for a variety of stressors. However, the research regarding effectiveness of MBSR on emotion regulation in brief sessions is limited and further research must also determine how long mindfulness programs must be in order to balance effectiveness with ef?¬?ciency (Shearer, Hunt, Chowdbury &Nicole, 2016).
The current gap in literature that influenced our research study is that a considerable mount of literature regarding mindfulness has studied the effects of mindfulness over longer periods of time and in regulated intervals. The purpose of our study was to address our research question of whether mindfulness has an acute effect on heart rate along with perceived levels of anxiety. We hypothesized that the mindfulness exercise will show decreased levels of perceived anxiety as measured by self-report, as well as a lower heart rate levels in the group who receive the mindfulness intervention.