Downloading your stress away
Second-year Psychology students participating in the University Honours College follow a workshop on Blogging Science, in which they learn to communicate science to the general public, by means of informing, giving an opinion, and relating issues in science to issues in society. This year a selection of these written blog posts is published on Mindwise. Today’s post is by Eleni Giannakoudi.
Which student does not know this situation: It is the end of the academic year, exams and assignments pile up, and instead of enjoying the sun at Hoornsemeer, you are spending your time at the university library. It goes without saying that your mind does not only wander around, but you are also stressed and every little thing annoys you. Now imagine you could avoid all these negative emotions by downloading an app. Sounds like a scam? Maybe. However, recent research on mindfulness apps shows that these apps might actually be as helpful as they promise (4). Despite being an ancient practice, it is out of question that mindfulness meditation experienced a proper boom in the recent years (6; 7). Mindfulness has been a widely discussed topic in scientific literature and popular press alike. If you pay attention, you will see that meditation studios devoted to the practice of mindfulness are popping up everywhere. The various benefits that mindfulness can bring have not only been supported by empirical reports of people who practice mindfulness in their everyday lives but were also confirmed by research (1; 2; 3; 5; 7). Today, mindfulness has become the holy grail for many who seek mental flexibility, calmness, or a way to cope with stress. App developers quickly recognized the need for a digital version of mindfulness training that fits to the busy lives we have. The result is an accumulation of over 1,000 available apps that claim to increase your mindfulness (4).
“Recent research shows that mindfulness apps might actually be as helpful as they promise”
Despite this high number of mindfulness apps, there was little scientific literature that assessed their effectiveness in improving well-being. A recent article by Economides, Martman, Bell and Sanderson (2018), targeted that exact issue by being the first study to use an active control group – and the findings are promising. The authors report that participants who were either new to mindfulness meditation or had not practiced meditation in the past six months, significantly benefited from using the mindfulness app Headspace. More specifically, using Headspace alleviated stress resulting from external stressors, reduced irritability and overall increased experienced positive emotions. Probably the most striking part of the results is that an improvement was already documented after an intervention period as short as ten minutes of guided meditation per day for ten days. These benefits were not found in participants who listened to ten-minute long excerpts of an audiobook for ten days, that covered information about meditation and mindfulness (4). In other words, the different results are attributable to the only difference between the groups – the session content (4).
“The mindfulness app alleviated stress resulting from external stressors, reduced irritability and overall increased experienced positive emotions.”
Now, this all sounds very wonderful, but how does this work? The magic word is: decentralization. Decentralization is a psychological process that occurs when we engage in mindfulness and it means that we observe our thoughts and emotions from a more distanced view, without judging them (4). This decentralization, which is part of the process of reperceiving that is central to mindfulness practice, is achieved by “intentionally focusing non-judgemental attention on the contents of consciousness” (7). This means that through observing the contents of your consciousness, you are not merely embedded in these contents anymore, but can take on a more distant and more objective view on your internal and external experiences (7). Mindfulness is basically a hot-air balloon, which we step in, that flies up to the sky and allows us to see the world (or in this case, the things that happen in our daily lives) from a more distant perspective. Decentralization consequently expands our cognitive and behavioural flexibility, which in turn provides us with the resources for maintaining our well-being (1; 4). In other words, investing ten minutes a day into using a mindfulness app might, in the end, save you a lot of time by reducing the experience of negative emotions and allowing you to focus more easily.
So, the next time you feel overwhelmed and want to treat your mind, download a mindfulness app, close your eyes and let the journey begin.
“Mindfulness is basically a hot-air balloon, which we step in, that flies up to the sky and allows us to see the world (or in this case, the things that happen in our daily lives) from a more distant perspective.”
Note: Picture by Wajahat Mahmood on Flickr
(1) Beshai, S., Prentice, J. L., & Huang, V. (2018). Building blocks of emotional flexibility: Trait mindfulness and self-compassion are associated with positive and negative mood shifts. Mindfulness, 9(3), 939-948. doi:10.1007/s12671-017-0833-8
(2) Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4), 822-848. doi:10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.522
(3) Davis, D. M., & Hayes, J. A. (2011). What are the benefits of mindfulness? A practice review of psychotherapy-related research. Psychotherapy, 48(2), 198-208. doi:10.1037/a0022062
(4) Economides, M., Martman, J., Bell, M., & Sanderson, B. (2018). Improvements in stress, affect, and irritability following brief use of a mindfulness-based smartphone app: A randomized controlled trial. Mindfulness, 1–2(1–2). doi:10.1007/s12671-018-0905-4
(5) Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 57(1), 35-43. doi:10.1016/S0022-3999(03)00573-7
(6) Pascoe, M. C., Thompson, D. R., Jenkins, Z. M., & Ski, C. F. (2017). Mindfulness mediates the physiological markers of stress: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 95156-178. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2017.08.004
(7) Shapiro, S. L., Carlson, L. E., Astin, J. A., & Freedman, B. (2006). Mechanisms of mindfulness. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 62(3), 373-86.