Long-term meditation practitioners have a faster psychophysiological recovery from stress, study finds

New research published in Psychoneuroendocrinology has found that long-term meditation practitioners have a faster cortisol recovery from stress. The findings suggest the practicing meditation can improve the psychophysiological response to stress by reducing self-conscious emotions.

“Stress is responsible for a variety of negative health outcomes, and takes a toll on quality of life and well-being. Thus, research on behavioral approaches that can help to attenuate the stress response is of utmost importance,” explained study author Liudmila Gamaiunova, a PhD candidate at the University of Lausanne.

“I was intrigued by previous findings indicating that certain types of meditation could help to diminish the stress response. Equally, I was interested in why it might be the case, what are the mechanisms behind this relationship?”

The study compared 29 long-term meditation practitioners to 26 matched non-meditating controls. The long-term meditators had been practicing Buddhist meditation for least 3 years with a regularity of at least 3 hours per week.

Gamaiunova and her colleagues examined how the participants’ responded to the Trier Social Stress Test, a common experimental technique for inducing a stress response, in which the participants were asked at short notice to complete a 5-minute speech and a 5-minute math task in front of an unfriendly committee, a camera and a microphone.

The researchers found that long-term meditation practitioners had faster cortisol recovery from stress than controls. The long-term meditation practitioners also reported experiencing less self-conscious emotions after the stressful task.

“Even though it is early to talk about conclusive evidence of robust effects of meditation on the physiology of the stress response, this study, among others, demonstrates that contemplative practice might indeed be related to the way our body deals with threats,” Gamaiunova told PsyPost.

“The study shows that meditation is related to the physiological recovery from stress, and proposes an explanation supported by the data: mediators are more prone to use an emotion regulation strategy of acceptance, characterized by non-judgment and receptivity towards our experiences.”

A growing body of research suggests that meditation can help in the fight against stress. For instance, a previous study, published in Psychiatry Research, found that anxiety disorder patients had reduced cortisol responses to the Trier Social Stress Test after taking a mindfulness meditation course.

But the new study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“First, when we talk about meditative practices, we need to keep in mind that there exist a variety of contemplative approaches that do not always work in the same manner. An increasing number of researchers design studies that allow us to differentiate the effects of different types of meditations. Future studies should help us to gain insights on what types of contemplative practices are most related to the psychobiological stress response,” Gamaiunova explained.

“Second, stress response is quite complex: in order to understand how meditation practice affects our physiology, we need to investigate the complex dynamics of the stress response: are we getting stressed already anticipating something unpleasant? How long do we remain stressed after the danger is over? Meditation practice might affect some or all of the phases of our stress response.”

“Third, we need to understand the psychological mechanisms underlying the beneficial effects of contemplative training on our body. Do mediators learn to appraise the stressors differently? Do they experience the same emotions going through stress? How is meditation related to emotion regulation? These questions are very important for our understanding of what makes contemplative approaches effective,” Gamaiunova added.

“And, of course, we need more research on shorter interventions, as not everyone is able to dedicate thousands of hours to meditative practice.”

The study, “Exploration of psychological mechanisms of the reduced stress response in long-term meditation practitioners“, was authored by Liudmila Gamaiunova, Pierre-Yves Brandt, Guido Bondolfi, and Matthias Kliegel.