BY ELIZABETH HOPPER
According to new research, training in mindfulness may mitigate the impact of reading stressful news stories.
For many of us, the coronavirus pandemic has made it even more stressful than usual to keep up with what can seem like a nonstop news cycle. When we hear about breakthrough infections, changing guidance from experts, and regions where cases have gone up, we may end up finding that our attention has been depleted, or that we’re in a bad mood for the rest of the day.
However, according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Research, practicing mindfulness can serve as a reset when we’re feeling stressed by the news cycle. And doing so doesn’t have to involve a major overhaul of our routines—even as little as 10 minutes a day of meditation can be beneficial.
During May 2020, researchers recruited participants, who were primarily located in the United States and Canada, to participate in a 10-day mindfulness course. Thirty-two people were asked to meditate for at least 10 minutes a day on the mindfulness smartphone app Headspace; they were allowed to choose which meditations to do and could meditate for longer than 10 minutes if they chose to do so.
The participants were asked to report on their emotions, symptoms of depression and anxiety, and consumption of news about COVID-19 at the beginning and end of the study. They also received email prompts four times throughout each day, in which they reported on how they were feeling and whether they had recently heard or watched news about COVID-19.
The researchers found that participants who completed the mindfulness training course reported higher levels of positive emotions, both at the end of the study and during the daily assessments. Moreover, mindfulness seemed to attenuate the negative effects of hearing news about COVID-19. During the daily surveys, participants in a control group (who didn’t meditate) reported a more negative emotional state if they had recently been exposed to news about the pandemic. However, for participants who completed the mindfulness training, their emotions on the daily surveys were not affected by their news consumption.
Why did mindfulness help participants cope with potentially distressing news? While the study didn’t directly measure this, lead author Julia Kam, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Calgary and full member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, suggests several possible explanations. One is that mindfulness might enhance our capacity to rein in our emotional and physiological responses to stressors, so that the news is less likely to activate our fight-or-flight system. Another is that mindfulness might help us recover from stressors more quickly—so our emotional response system doesn’t stay in a heightened state for as long after turning off the news.
Of course, if you’ve been feeling especially jumpy or distracted because of our fast-paced news cycle, setting aside time to meditate might seem easier said than done. Kam explains that shorter mindfulness sessions can be a good idea when you’re just starting out and emphasizes the importance of taking a gentle and forgiving attitude if you find your mind wandering a bit. Much like training for a race, she explains, mindfulness is about practice: Your mind may wander more often at first, but with time it becomes easier to bring a wandering mind back to the present moment.
In other words, it’s not about becoming a mindfulness expert overnight; instead, the study authors explain that “even short bouts of daily mindfulness practice have the capacity to enhance our [emotional] experience amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Keywords; stress, COVID-19, meditation, mindfulness