A study finds that planning while mindfully staying in the moment may improve responses to stressful events.

A new study has suggested that people can minimize adverse emotional reactions to stressful events by both planning ahead and mindfully staying in the moment in a non-judgemental manner.

However, the research also suggests that people who make plans but have relatively low levels of mindfulness may experience more significant adverse reactions to stressful events.

The researchers published the study in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

Stressful events can have a significant adverse effect on a person’s mental well-being. This can have a knock-on effect on the strength of their immune system and, consequently, their physical health.

According to the present study, there is a series of mechanisms through which stress can affect a person’s mental health. First, there is the initial stressful event. Second, is the person’s response to it, and finally, there is the emotional state that this reaction results in.

The study looked at two ways in which people react to stress. The first is known as proactive coping. This involves a person planning how they can avoid the stressful situation in the future.

The second is mindfulness. This involves a person staying in the present during a stressful event in a non-judgemental manner. This means maintaining an attitude of “openness and acceptance,” according to the study’s authors.

Previous research has found that proactive coping can reduce stress. Researchers have also noted a reduction in stress in people practicing mindfulness-based therapy.

The authors note that proactive coping is future-oriented, whereas mindfulness is present-oriented. They were interested in the relationship between these two different ways of responding to a stressful situation.

For Prof. Shevaun Neupert, Department of Psychology at North Carolina State University, and an author of the present paper, “It’s well established that daily stressors can make us more likely to have negative affect or bad moods. Our work here sheds additional light on which variables influence how we respond to daily stress.”

The authors looked at data from a study involving 223 people — 116 of the participants were aged 60–90, and 107 were aged 18–36.

At the beginning of the study, the participants filled in a survey to determine to what extent they typically practiced proactive coping. The survey posed a variety of statements and questions, such as: “I visualize my dreams and try to achieve them.” The participants ranked how true this was on a scale of 1–4.

Over the next 8 days, the researchers gave the participants a daily checklist of 15 yes or no questions, which enabled the researchers to determine the person’s relative level of mindfulness on that particular day. An example of one of the statements was, “I forgot a person’s name almost as soon as I was told it for the first time.”

To measure their negative emotional experience, the participants rated a series of negative feelings, such as ‘irritable,’ ‘nervous,’ and ‘ashamed.’ They indicated the strength of their responses between 1–5. This occurred on days 2–9.

Finally, the participants answered yes or no to a range of questions about specific stressful events. Stressors included social, family, and work-based situations.

The authors found associations between proactive coping and overall daily mindfulness with a reduction in negative emotional feelings.

However, they also found that people who had high proactive coping traits but low levels of daily mindfulness were more likely to have strong emotional reactions to everyday stressors.

The authors speculate that this may be because “when one regularly plans ahead through proactive coping, a person becomes more adept at that future-oriented state but at the cost of being more adept in a present-centered state.”

For Prof. Neupert, “Our results show that a combination of proactive coping and high mindfulness results in study participants of all ages being more resilient against daily stressors. Basically, we found that proactive planning and mindfulness account for about a quarter of the variance in how stressors influenced negative affect.”

“Interventions targeting daily fluctuations in mindfulness may be especially helpful for those who are high in proactive coping and may be more inclined to think ahead to the future at the expense of remaining in the present.”

– Prof. Shevaun Neupert

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