In a new study from Max Planck Institute, researchers found mental training that promotes skills such as mindfulness, gratitude or compassion reduces the concentration of the stress hormone cortisol in hair.
The amount of cortisol in hair provides information about how much a person is burdened by persistent stress.
Earlier positive training effects had been shown in acutely stressful situations or on individual days—or were based on study participants’ self-reports.
About 23% of people in Germany frequently suffer from stress.
This condition not only puts a strain on the well-being of those affected, but it is also linked to diabetes, heart diseases and depression, one of the world’s leading causes of disease burden.
One promising option is mindfulness training, in which participants train their cognitive and social skills, including attention, gratitude and compassion, through various meditation and behavioral exercises.
The concentration of cortisol in hair is considered a suitable measure of exposure to prolonged stress. Cortisol is a hormone that is released when we are confronted with an overwhelming challenge, for example.
In the study, the team analyzed the amount of cortisol every three months in the first three centimeters of hair, starting at the scalp.
This 9-month mental training program consisted of three 3-month sessions, each designed to train a specific skill area using Western and Far Eastern mental exercises.
The focus was either on the factors of attention and mindfulness, on socio-affective skills such as compassion and gratitude, or on so-called socio-cognitive skills, in particular the ability to take perspective on one’s own and others’ thoughts.
Three groups of about 80 participants each completed the training modules in a different order. The training lasted up to nine months, 30 minutes a day, six days a week.
After six months of training, the amount of cortisol in the subjects’ hair had decreased significantly, on average by 25%. In the first three months, slight effects were seen at first, which increased over the following three months.
In the last third, the concentration remained at a low level. The researchers therefore assume that only sufficiently long training leads to the desired stress-reducing effects.
The effect did not seem to depend on the content of the training. It is therefore possible that several of the mental approaches studied are similarly effective in improving the way people deal with chronic everyday stress.
The team also found showed that people who had undergone socio-cognitive or socio-affective training released up to 51% less cortisol under stress than those who had not been trained.
Overall, the researchers conclude that training can improve the handling of acute particularly stressful social situations as well as chronic everyday stress.
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The study is published in Psychosomatic Medicine. One author of the study is Lara Puhlmann.
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