the SCIENCE

Stress and Mindfulness

Mark Williams, co-founder of Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), on the history of stress.

Photo © iStockPhoto.com/GeorgePeters

In a typical day, you might find yourself rushing around and and juggling responsibilities more than you'd like to. But on a biological level, Williams says, you're rushing around just as if you were escaping from a predator. 

"But nobody can run fast enough to escape their own worries," says Williams. 

Williams is a Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford, and he co-founded Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) with his colleagues Zindel Segal and John Teasdale. The MBCT program is based on Jon Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. MBCT is designed for people who suffer from recurring bouts of depression. 

In the clip below, Williams gives a brief history of stress and how mindfulness counteracts the common tendency we have to bluster through the day. 

Transcript of video: 

One of the things that we're particularly interested in is whether stress has got worse over the last 20, 30, 40 years, and one of the surprising things is that it seems to be the case. But if you look at just children and young people and students, their stress and anxiety levels in the 1950s for example, and you track that carefully, '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, and '90s, what you find is that people by the '80s and '90s were now the average level of anxiety was equivalent to clinical levels in the 1950s. The whole bell-shaped curve has shifted towards people being more anxious and that means that people now in their 30s and 40s are going to be more stressed because those are the grown-up people of the children of the '70s, '80s, and '90s. 
 
Some of the common or garden signs that people are suffering from stress are, well, there are "communal gardener" (inaudible) things that you recognize, things like feeling tired, getting irritable with people. One of the major things you notice if you're under stress is that you rush around a lot, you move from one task to the other—sometimes even before one task is finished, you're onto the next one. But what we know from the neuroscience, from looking at the brain scans of people that are always rushing around, who never taste their food, who are always going from one task to another without actually realizing what they're doing, is that the emotional part of the brain that drives people is on sort of high alert all the time. So it's not…when people think that "I'm rushing around to get things done," it's almost like, biologically, they're rushing around just as if they were, you know, escaping from a predator. That's the part of the brain that's active. But nobody can run fast enough to escape their own worries. 
 
Mindfulness really refers to awareness. It's what we all recognize when we're doing something knowing that we're doing it so, if we're walking and it's a beautiful day we might actually appreciate the fact that we're walking, we actually know that we're walking as we're doing it. And mindfulness, usually through meditation practices, cultivates that ability to do things knowing that we're doing them. 
 
One of the things that people need when they're stressed is to find within themselves a place of stillness. And mindfulness, through meditation practices, is one of the things that can really benefit people by enabling them to find stillness in the middle of a frantic world. When you get stressed, whether it's anxiety, depression, worry, ruminating, brooding, one of the things you notice is that your attention begins to fade away, your attention gets hijacked by other things. You want to focus on one thing but your concentration goes. One of the things that people have always told us about mindfulness training is that, after a few weeks of training, they can really attend to things, they can really focus better, their concentration improves, their memory improves as a result.