Learning To Stress Less: A Study For Novice Meditators
March 10, 2020
A new study takes the first step in proving the long-standing belief that it doesn’t matter how long you should meditate for but how often. Meditation can also teach us how to reduce overall stress!
Imagine you have to give an oral presentation to a panel of interviewers. The panel gives you no feedback, and no encouragement, and at the end of the presentation? They ambush you with a math test.
It sounds like a nightmare designed to create the maximum amount of stress— and that’s because it is.
It’s called the Trier Social Stress Test and it was developed by researchers who “require a valid and reliable acute stressor that can be used under experimental conditions.” The Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) is a catch-all method of creating psychological stress.
It goes a little something like this:
Subjects are asked to speak in front of a silent and judgemental audience.
Subjects prepare the speech in five minutes before they present – creating a sense of anticipation. Similar to how deciding to go on a roller coaster is scarier than the ride itself.
After that, researchers give subjects a math test to complete.
Of course, the Trier Test is not meant to replicate a real situation. It was carefully created to reliably generate the maximum amount of stress in a controlled environment.
Brief, daily meditation works…
A study conducted in early 2019 took the initiative to see if regular meditation practice could reduce the stress levels of participants undergoing the TSST.
Two groups of randomized subjects from the ages of 18-45 were chosen.
All subjects were novice “non-experienced meditators”—people who had little to no formal experience with meditation practice.
What was the difference between these groups?
Each group was assigned a different 13-minute activity every day.
The first group (the control) was assigned a 13-minute podcast to listen to.
The second group participated in a 13-minute guided meditation practice.
Using the Trier Test, the researchers examined the effects of daily meditation practice on mood, brain function, emotional regulation, and cortisol production—the hormone that is released when you’re feeling stressed.
The study’s total duration was 8 weeks.
Compared to the control group, the group that participated in 13-minute meditation practices for 8 weeks:
Were better able to focus and had increased attention
Improvements in their recognition memory, the ability to recognize events, objects, or people
Improvement in their working memory, the ability to temporarily hold onto information
Decreased negative mood, fatigue, and anxiety
Reduced stress and anxiety in the face of social stress (ie. The Trier Test)
That meditation was able to reduce the amount of stress and anxiety generated by the nightmarish Trier Test is remarkable, but there is a wrinkle in their findings.
Highlights and Discussion
Curiously, the highlights of the study specifically mention that “8 but not 4 weeks of brief, daily meditation was needed to demonstrate effects.”
Why 8 weeks and not 4 weeks? Is 8 weeks some sort of magic number to decrease stress and increase memory?
Recent studies using neuroimaging technology show that, after 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation, parts of the brain experience a structural change, especially in the default mode network— the part of the brain that activates when you’re thinking about other people or yourself, remembering the past, or planning for the future.
Surprisingly, a study from 2011 showed similar results, but with one small difference in methodology: the duration of the meditation was longer.
In the 2011 study, participants meditated for 8 weeks with weekly in person guided meditations and regular audio-only at home guided meditations. However, the meditations lasted for 27 minutes—twice as long as the 2019 study control group.
Is there such a thing as a minimum dosage of meditation?
It turns out that the 8 weeks of 13-minute meditations showed similar results as the 8 weeks of 27-minute meditations. Even though the 2011 study meditations were twice as long, novice meditators still produced the benefits of a daily practice, regardless of the duration.
These findings have supported a long-held belief among meditation practitioners: that how long you meditate for isn’t as important as how often.
Make a habit of daily meditation
The next time you’re tasked with an impassive panel of judges to create a 5-minute speech in 5 minutes, forced to fill all five minutes of the presentation, given zero feedback, and then ambushed with math, you’ll have your daily meditation practice to thank for your reduced stress level!
But seriously, while it’s likely none of us will ever encounter something as diabolically stressful as the Trier Social Stress Test, these types of stress situations come up all the time in life, and in the workplace.
The knowledge that even non-experienced meditators can better handle stress after only two weeks of 13-minute meditations is a massive boon to anyone thinking of getting into meditation—or anyone who already is.
Meditate with Muse
Muse has a whole slate of guided meditations less than 15-minutes long that can help you reduce stress, or prepare for a social stress situation like a presentation or public speaking engagement. Try out our Stress Collection in the Muse app with teachers like Ashley Turner, Andreanna Limbach, Bart Van Melik, and many more.