Written by Jennifer Jabson Tree, MPH, PhD
We all experience stress—good stress (e.g., a promotion at work) and bad stress (e.g., family crisis). You may be experiencing one or both types right now.
Representative health surveillance data tells us that about 35 percent of the US population experiences excess stress, or stress existing to the point of biological dysregulation or one’s perceived ability to manage the stress.
The experience of stress and excess stress is not distributed evenly across the general population. It is socially patterned. In addition to the stressors we all experience, those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender (GLBT) are at greater risk for excess stress due to forms of discrimination at all levels of society. This kind of chronic cumulative stress is called minority stress.
As a public health researcher, I care about social patterns in stress because they compromise people’s basic human right to health. Excess stress is associated with all the most costly and deadly leading forms of chronic disease, including cancer and heart disease.
I know you came here to read about stress and mindfulness, so here it is. Mindfulness is a way of thinking. We all have some degree of mindfulness in the way we think about and interact with our environment. Mindfulness is about simply paying attention, in a specific way, on purpose, in the present moment nonjudgmentally.
Scientific studies show that the more mindful one is, the less stress one feels.
People who complete mindfulness-based stress reduction programs report their stress is reduced by more than twice the amount of stress reduction shown by other behavioral approaches. And it is something that everyone can do regardless of physical abilities and place of residence.
Mindfulness-based training is about training one’s mind to think differently. To focus and to attend only on the very moment one currently occupies—and to do it on purpose. Sounds easy enough, right? Focused attention. You’re doing it right now.
Mindfulness can be hard because our brains are thinking machines. We have between 65,000 and 75,000 thoughts a day. The good news is that the mind can’t be in two places at once, and with training and practice we can learn to pay attention on purpose. And this reduces stress.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction programs are usually delivered in a clinical setting by a trainer, but face-to-face delivery is not always feasible in rural locations. However, these programs can also be delivered online and reduce stress by 10 percent upon completion.
Now, back to my GLBT folks. A 10 percent reduction in stress among GLBT people in rural areas could be enormously beneficial to health and quality of life.
In public health we like to apply scientifically tested interventions to resolve health problems. Unfortunately, there was no evidence concerning sexual minority people and their acceptance or efficacy of mindfulness-based stress reduction programs or their efficacy in this unique population. So I tested the feasibility of an eight-week online program in two studies with rural gay, lesbian, and bisexual people.
Overall, 24 people enrolled in the study and 17 completed the program. In addition, 94 percent completed some form of mindfulness activities daily, including meditation. Participants enjoyed the program and found it easy to use. Perceived stress decreased by 23 percent in women and by 40 percent in men. Women demonstrated a 12 percent reduction in overall minority stress. You can read the full article for free at mental.jmir.org/2019/8/e15048.
We all experience stress, and mindfulness can help.
Some people experience excess stress caused by additional exposure to discrimination and stigma because of society’s treatment of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and this has a negative effect on health. But while we work together to change stigmatizing social contexts, mindfulness is a positive activity that can help to reduce stress.