Many studies have explored the impact of mindfulness meditation on people’s response to stress over the course of several weeks or even years. Yet few have looked at how one-time exposure to different types of meditation – in some cases for as little as a few minutes – can buffer against stress or potentially make it worse.
In a new study published in the journal PLOS One, scientists at the Center for Healthy Minds have discovered that brief meditation practices work differently in the face of stress, and not all seem to be equally helpful.
Across the three groups of meditation practices studied, loving-kindness meditation (wishing oneself and others to be happy and healthy) and breath awareness meditation (a simple awareness of each breath and a core mindfulness practice) appeared to help buffer against stress when compared to a control group that did not meditate, while participants who practiced gratitude seemed more reactive to stress, at least in the short-term.
Researchers say the findings are an important first step in parsing which practices may be useful and when.
“It’s common to group all ‘mindfulness practices’ together, but the reality is that mindfulness is an aggregate of different practices,” says Matt Hirshberg, a postdoctoral researcher who led the research. “This was a first, limited attempt to compare a core mindfulness-based intervention practice with other meditations that are sometimes conflated as mindfulness but may in fact do different things.”
In the study, roughly 150 college-aged participants were randomly assigned to four groups: loving-kindness meditation, breath-awareness meditation, gratitude meditation and a control group who did another practice that required attention, but not meditation specifically.
Participants took a test beforehand with questions to pinpoint their current emotional state at both conscious and subconscious levels. Afterward, they completed one of the four brief training exercises for 12 minutes as well as more tests to see how the training affected their emotional state.
Participants were then asked to complete a “cold pressor” test where they tried keeping their hand and arm submerged in ice water as long as they could during a three-minute period – an activity that has been shown to be stressful in other psychological studies. After the cold pressor test, participants rated their experiences and completed some of the tests again to measure how their emotional states had changed.
Curious how meditation practices may have affected people’s generosity, the team asked participants at the end of the experiment if they would be willing to stay to volunteer more time to do another test.
Researchers found that gratitude seemed to have the greatest boost in positive emotions immediately after the practice. However, after the cold pressor test, the gratitude group responded most negatively. The gratitude group was also less likely to donate their time afterward compared to the loving-kindness and breath-counting groups.
“This was a first, limited attempt to compare a core mindfulness-based intervention practice with other meditations that are sometimes conflated as mindfulness but may in fact do different things.”
Although the findings in the gratitude group were surprising, Hirshberg says they may make sense considering how gratitude practice often consists of recalling situations where others have acted kindly, an activity that orients attention toward one’s own experience. It might be that the self-oriented focus of gratitude made subsequent exposure to stress and pain more acute in contrast to rosy positive feelings that person experienced prior.
Hirshberg says one reason this may not have been the case in the other meditation groups is because the other practices are focused less on the self and more on others (loving-kindness) or neutral focal points like the breath.
This doesn’t mean we should write off gratitude as a helpful practice, he warns.
“I would not interpret these findings to suggest that gratitude is negative. There is enough research out there that shows its benefits but in this specific context, it didn’t seem as helpful,” Hirshberg says. “You may not want to increase somebody’s positive emotion through gratitude if you’re about to put them through a stressful situation because what these data say is that it might do more harm than good.”
Hirshberg says this study can serve as a proof-of-concept for future studies while helping expand notions of well-being to include more nuanced views that go beyond happiness and positive emotions.