Category: Connecting In

News report: Meditation reduces stress, changes your brain

Many studies have shown that meditation can be a powerful way to reduce anxiety and raise the body systems that calm us down after exposure to stress. The Washington Post last May reported findings of Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General from brain scans that showed that some parts of the brain expanded and others became smaller after sustained meditation.

This is part of a big change in thinking about our brains, which until recently were assumed to be fixed, unchangeable. Now we we have a word for the brain’s ability to change – neuroplasticity – as well as increasing evidence about what kinds of attitudes and activities encourage positive changes.

Paper: Mindfulness helps elementary students with stress

Researchers at the University of Colorado taught mindfulness techniques to a class of Denver 4th graders, who practiced it daily during homeroom check-in for 10 weeks. After comparing those students to a similar class without mindfulness, they reported improvements in pro-social behavior, emotional regulation and academic performance for those who practiced it. Their conclusion?

Mindfulness in urban classroom settings as a feasible option for students to help with personal stress and coping, as well as emotional and behavior regulation in schools and at home.

The methods came from two sources of mindfulness curricula for children:

  • MindUp, from the Hawn (as in Goldie Hawn) Foundation
  • Mindful Schools, which came out of a project in Oakland, California

Related: Mindfulness Goes to School: Things Learned (So Far) from Research and Real-World Experiences.

Article: Actually, Let’s Not Be in the Moment

Ruth Whippman takes on mindfulness in the New York Times: Actually, Let’s Not Be in the Moment

Mindfulness is supposed to be a defense against the pressures of modern life, but it’s starting to feel suspiciously like it’s actually adding to them. It’s a special circle of self-improvement hell, striving not just for a Pinterest-worthy home, but a Pinterest-worthy mind.

Mindfulness is a $4 billion market, she reports.

As much as I believe that mindfulness is good, her skepticism is on point. It applies to every relaxation practice – yoga, deep breathing and all the rest. Coping with stress is much more than just learning to relax. As I’ve repeated many times, social support has the strongest correlation to our psychological resiliency. Spirituality – in the sense of having values and bigger-than-self purposes – also matters.

Whippman cites a U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality report, Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-Being, which surveyed almost 18,000 journal citations covering 41 trials with about 3,000 participants. Its conclusion was that these practices are helpful, but more study is needed:

Meditation programs, in particular mindfulness programs, reduce multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress. Stronger study designs are needed to determine the effects of meditation programs in improving the positive dimensions of mental health as well as stress-related behavioral outcomes.

Paper: Adolescent stress management – there’s an app for that

Researchers who gave adolescents a mobile phone app for mindfulness and self- compassion, which have been repeatedly shown to help with stress, found that the young people were willing to use the app regularly. Given the ubiquity of mobile devices, this is good news.


The aim of the study was to test the feasibility of a mindfulness and self-compassion based program for adolescents, to be delivered though mobile phones. Twenty racially and ethnically diverse US adolescents enrolled in a study to use the app for 30 days, after which they provided satisfaction data and participated in focus groups to describe their experiences and offer suggestions for improving the app. Usage data were also captured. Results indicated that participants used the app on the majority of days over the intervention period, reported finding it helpful for managing stress, and provided suggestions for substantive areas for improvement. These findings suggest that a mobile app may be a feasible way to disseminate a mindfulness and selfcompassion based program widely among adolescents.

DOI link.

Mindfulness Reduces Texting While Driving

I titled an earlier post “We are so desperate to connect with others that we will risk our own lives and those around us to exchange 140 characters while driving.” (which the observant reader will have noticed is 136 characters).

If texting while driving is an indication of hunger for connection, driven by stress-induced mind/body imbalance, then we should expect stress management techniques to reduce the urge to text at inappropriate times. Sure enough, a study of 231 undergraduates at at Simmons College showed that those who scored higher on a mindfulness scale were less inclined to text while driving.

However, to be fair to the researchers, they didn’t see the problem entirely as one of disconnectedness. Their focus was on self-regulation of emotions and attention, which mindfulness has been shown to improve. However, two of the study’s three emotion-regulation questions were clearly relational:

  • “When I am feeling upset, I send or read text messages to distract myself.”
  • “If I am bored or annoyed with the people I am with, I will text someone else.”

Another study, which looked at the social influence on texting while driving among teens and young adults, found that “the more a person believes that their friends and peers approve of and engage in texting while driving, the greater their intention to engage in these behaviours .” Social pressure matters. And so do values, the same study concluded – those who believed it is morally wrong to text while driving are less likely to do so – and the moral influence against texting seemed to be stronger than the social one in favor.


How Well Connected are Your Brain and Body?

Adapted from my upcoming book, Stress, Science, Spirit: Connecting Out, Up and In to Thrive Under Pressure.

Ever heard of Heart Rate Variability (HRV)? It measures how well synchronized your breathing and heart rate are – but it is also increasingly recognized as an index for how well you are handling physical and emotional stress.

Every time you exhale, your heart slows down a bit. That’s why breathing techniques for relaxation always instruct you to exhale slowly. The more it slows down, the higher your HRV is likely to be and the better you are coping with stress, numerous studies have found. High HRV is good, in other words.

HRV gives a snapshot into the activation level of your vagus nerve, which is the communications superhighway between your brain and your body.

Research shows that people with high HRV – their hearts speed up and slow down more, synchronized to their breathing – are more resilient, physically and emotionally. Since the vagus nerve influences many of our body’s automatic systems, low HRV is associated with a wide variety of issues – emotional struggles, antisocial behavior, inflammatory and cardiovascular diseases, poor fitness and others. People with low HRV are much more likely to die after a heart attack (Robert E. Kleiger, J.Philip Miller, Thomas Bigger Jr., & Arthur J. Moss, 1987; Thayer, Yamamoto, & Brosschot, 2018).

Although our HRV is determined by genetics and your life experiences, you can change it. Early studies of HRV biofeedback has shown promise for helping to heal a variety of illnesses and injuries:

  • Major depression (Karavidas, et al., 2007),
  • Brain injuries (Lagos, Thompson, & Vaschillo, 2013),
  • Cardiac rehabilitation (Climov, et al., 2014),
  • Addictions – including food (Eddie, C. Kim, Deneke, & Bates, 2014; Meule, Freund, Skirde, Vögele, & Kübler, 2012; Penzlin, et al., 2015),
  • PTSD (Reyes, 2014),
  • High blood pressure (Guiping Lin, 2012),
  • Hostility (Lin, et al., 2015),
  • Chronic pain (Melanie E. Berry, et al., 2014).

HRV biofeedback is also showing promise in life-enhancing uses, including:

  • Improving sports performance by reducing anxiety (Paul & Garg, 2016),
  • Preparing military for combat deployment (Lewis, et al., 2015),
  • Grandmothers raising grandchildren (Zauszniewski, Au, & Musil, 2013),
  • Accelerated learning (Harmelink, 2016).

What do all of these have in common? They are interconnected via your “rest and digest” system (the parasympathetic nervous system). Central to it, the vagus (“wandering”) nerve connects the brain, gut (intestines, stomach), heart, liver, pancreas, gallbladder, kidney, ureter, spleen, lungs, fertility organs (in women), voice, ears and tongue.

High HRV indicates that your brain has greater control over the fight-or-flight system, so you are better able – consciously and unconsciously – to turn it down when danger passes.

Imagine that your body is a fire engine speeding down the road “Code 3” – siren screaming and lights flashing. The fire is out and the emergency is over, but you’re not the driver – you are in a back seat repeating to the driver over the intercom, “Slow down, slow down.” The driver will only ease off the gas and hit the brakes when she can hear your instructions.

“You” are your brain, the driver is your flight-or-flight system, the intercom is your vagus nerve and the speed at which your “slow down” messages are actually reaching the driver is your HRV.

If you are saying “slow down” 20 times a minute, but the driver only hears it five times, that’s low HRV. Your brain isn’t well connected to your body. As a result, neither your conscious mind nor your automatic nervous systems have much control, so the fire truck continues to barrel down the road as if there is still a crisis. In contrast, if most of your messages get through, the driver eases off the gas and the wear and tear on your body is reduced.

The usual goal of “stress management” would be to reduce the stressors, which would be like parking the fire engine – stop responding. Avoid “fires.” But how do you do that if it’s your job?

Instead, you can restore balance through activities and attitudes that help make the “intercom” between your brain and body work better, which will show up as increased HRV. Good news: the vagus nerve is two-way communications, so if you improve your HRV, you will help the back-seat driver’s messages get through.

You can improve your HRV directly through biofeedback, breathing exercises and other relaxation techniques. Even more significantly, your HRV will also reflect the strength of your social support, which is crucial to resistance and resilience to stress. A host of other activities will activate your vagus nerve, which has cascading effects that tell the fire engine (the fight-or-flight instinct) to slow down. Researchers have observed that this happens with yoga, meditation, gratitude, prayer, generosity, trusting and trustworthiness, compassion (for yourself and others), hugging a friend and even having a good cry.  These are the “connecting out (to people), in (to yourself and creation, being grounded) and up (values, ethics, spirituality) that Stress, Spirit, Science will describe in stories and practical advice.


Berry, M., Chapple, I. T., Ginsberg, D., Gleichauf, J., & Nagpal, M. (2014). Non-pharmacological Intervention for Chronic Pain in Veterans: A Pilot Study of Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback. Global Advances in Health and Medicine, 3(2), 28–33.

Climov, D., Lysy, C., Berteau, S., Dutrannois, J., Dereppe, H., Brohet, C., & Melin, J. (2014). Biofeedback on heart rate variability in cardiac rehabilitation: practical feasibility and psycho-physiological effects. Acta Cardiologica, 69(3), 299–307.

Eddie, D., Kim, C., Lehrer, P., Deneke, E., & Bates, M. E. (2014). A Pilot Study of Brief Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback to Reduce Craving in Young Adult Men Receiving Inpatient Treatment for Substance Use Disorders. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 39(3–4), 181–192.

Harmelink, A. (2016). Pilot Study of the Effects of Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback on Perceived Stress, Perceived Coping Ability, and Resilience in Accelerated Baccalaureate Nursing Students. Theses and Dissertations. Retrieved from

Karavidas, M. K., Lehrer, P. M., Vaschillo, E., Vaschillo, B., Marin, H., Buyske, S., … Hassett, A. (2007). Preliminary Results of an Open Label Study of Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback for the Treatment of Major Depression. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 32(1), 19–30.

Lagos, L., Thompson, J., & Vaschillo, E. (2013). A Preliminary Study: Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback for Treatment of Postconcussion Syndrome. Biofeedback, 41(3), 136–143.

Lewis, G. F., Hourani, L., Tueller, S., Kizakevich, P., Bryant, S., Weimer, B., & Strange, L. (2015). Relaxation training assisted by heart rate variability biofeedback: Implication for a military predeployment stress inoculation protocol. Psychophysiology, 52(9), 1167–1174.

Lin, G., Xiang, Q., Fu, X., Wang, S., Wang, S., Chen, S., … Wang, T. (2012). Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback Decreases Blood Pressure in Prehypertensive Subjects by Improving Autonomic Function and Baroreflex. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 18(2), 143–152.

Lin, I.-M., Fan, S.-Y., Lu, H.-C., Lin, T.-H., Chu, C.-S., Kuo, H.-F., … Lu, Y.-H. (2015). Randomized controlled trial of heart rate variability biofeedback in cardiac autonomic and hostility among patients with coronary artery disease. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 70, 38–46.

Meule, A., Freund, R., Skirde, A. K., Vögele, C., & Kübler, A. (2012). Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback Reduces Food Cravings in High Food Cravers. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 37(4), 241–251.

Paul, M., & Garg, K. (2012). The Effect of Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback on Performance Psychology of Basketball Players. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 37(2), 131–144.

Penzlin, A. I., Siepmann, T., Illigens, B. M.-W., Weidner, K., & Siepmann, M. (2015). Heart rate variability biofeedback in patients with alcohol dependence: a randomized controlled study. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 11, 2619–2627.

Reyes, F. J. (2014). Implementing Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback Groups for Veterans with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Biofeedback, 42(4), 137–142.

Zauszniewski, J. A., Au, T.-Y., & Musil, C. M. (2013). Heart Rate Variability Biofeedback in Grandmothers Raising Grandchildren: Effects on Stress, Emotions, and Cognitions. Biofeedback, 41(3), 144–149.