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Mindfulness on Heart Rate and Anxiety in College Students

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    Mindfulness is an attention to and awareness of events and experiences as they occur. A growing amount of literature supports a mindful based approach for treating, reducing or aiding in the prevention of emotional distress such as: depression and anxiety (Jensen, Niclasen, Vangkilde, Petersen and Hasselbalch,2016) Mindfulness has been practiced universally and more recently, become a popular practice used by clinicians; mindfulness being especially prevalent and effective in the field of psychopathology. Mindfulness is the state of being in the present moment and being consciously aware of something. It is the state of shifting ones focus on the current moment, accepting one’s thoughts, feelings and paying attention to their breath. According to (Baum,2010) during times of extreme stress, there is a brief moment in which we choose how to act upon that stress, and in that moment, we ourselves hold the power to effectively regulate our stress response. While nearly everyone has the capability to be mindful, a mindful state is not the representative state of mind for most people. In fact, reaching a state of mindfulness is an effortful approach because one must override the automatic response to judge their current internal and external situation and to react with the aim of correcting the situation accordingly (Baum, 2010).

    Mindfulness is said to be an attribute of consciousness that promotes well-being (Brown,2003). Consciousness is a state that involves both attention and awareness. Awareness is the background detector of consciousness, that is constantly monitoring our inner and outer environments. One can be aware of stimuli without the stimuli being at the center of attention. Attention is a process of focusing conscious awareness, providing sensitivity to a limited range of experiences (Westen,1999) as cited in (Brown, 2003). Granted, attention and awareness are fairly constant features of normal functioning, mindfulness can be considered to boost the attention and awareness of a current experience or present reality (Brown, 2003).

    Mindful interventions can take the form of guided meditation, deep breathing exercises, visualization, attentiveness to the senses, mindfulness -based cognitive therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction. One of the most commonly used forms of a mindful approach is Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). This technique has been said to improve emotion regulation and aid in the improvement of cognitive performance on tasks (Bellinger, Decaro and Rolsten, 2015). MBSR has been utilized in a variety of settings like: classrooms, rehabilitation centers, studios, clinical settings, as well as being practiced individually. It has also become a popular technique used on college campuses by campus health services. Not only has MBSR been linked psychological and physiological well-being, but it’s a form of therapy that is cost effective because for many college students, there aren’t sufficient funds at their disposal to mediate effectively in treatment (Mahmoud, Staten, Hall and Lennie 2012).

    College can be a time of critical stress and pressure for students. Academic performance paired with several other variables including: lack of time for study, timed testing environments, lack of rest, maintaining personal lives and in most cases, working a full- time job, can be major contributions to both objective and subjective levels of anxiety and stress (Shearer, Hunt, Chowdbury and Nicole, 2016). Any of these factors can contribute to a student’s perception of not having the energy or time to successfully cope with the unending responsibilities of the college experience. As students come to terms with increased academic, social, personal and common pressures of life, these pressures can lead to increased anxiety, loneliness, hopelessness, difficulties with sleeping, frequent or reoccurring illness and in some extreme cases, suicidal ideation (Baghast and Kelly, 2014). In an article published by the International Journal of Aging and Health, a cross- sectional study, researchers were interested in anxiety sensitivity, experiential avoidance, mindfulness traits and how they differed across different age groups. Researchers used a group of young adult students and older adults as their sample of interest. Results determined that younger adults reported higher levels of sensitivity to anxiety, experiential avoidance and lower levels of trait mindfulness, whereas adults reported higher levels of trait mindfulness. Also, anxiety sensitivity, experiential avoidance, and low mindfulness appeared to be significant links for anxiety-related symptoms in younger and older adults (Mahoney, Segal and Coolidge, 2015).

    While some college students can adjust to the overwhelming challenges that arise from this new life experience, others struggle with the ever-increasing stressors. The impact of stressors experienced by college students is facilitated by the individual’s ability to effectively cope with stressful situations. An increase of anxiety symptoms during phases of enormous stress can lead to serious long- term physiological problems such as: hypertension, lowering of immune system defenses, and higher levels of muscle tension. Along with the physiological problems, anxiety is associated to an array of psychological health problems that can range from: anxiety, depression, interpersonal problems, maladaptive coping skills and poor ability to regulate emotions (Baghurst and Kelly, 2014).

    Anxiety is a state of intrinsic emotional turmoil that is related with emotion regulation and healthy coping behaviors. Emotion regulation is one potential framework for understanding the mechanisms of mindfulness. Emotion regulation is conceptualized as the process by which people modify the experience, expression, and response to emotions (Mankus, Aldao, Kerns, Mayville and Mennin, 2013). Mindfulness could facilitate effective emotion regulation through improved ability to flexibly process emotional experiences through “being” when attention is assigned to the experience and one’s attributions of the experience, rather than simply “doing” (Mankus et al, 2013).

    Adaptive coping behaviors include evaluating the stressful situation, actively seeking support, reflecting on possible solutions, and taking actions to resolve the situation (Mahmoud, Staten, Hall and Lennie,2012). Such behaviors aid in resolving the situation and result in positive psychological and emotional adjustment. On the contrary, unhealthy coping behaviors include efforts to withdraw from the taxing situation or avoid seeking solutions. These negative coping behaviors can include, but are not limited to: self-blame, denial and avoidance; which may result in a failure to resolve the stressful situation and can be associated with increased anxiety (Mahmoud et al, 2012). Mindful strategies have been shown to be useful adaptive coping strategies by researchers.

    Because emotions are complicated and interconnected processes, emotional regulation can be assessed in a variety of ways (Mankus et al, 2013). Common variables under investigation when examining anxiety symptoms in previous physiological research include: self -report measures, heart rate variability (HRV), blood pressure, cortisol (stress hormone) levels, fMRI, and EEG information. Self-report is among the most commonly applied measure of anxiety in research because it assesses how an individual perceives their own anxious symptoms. However, as with all self-report measures, they are subject to demand characteristics and the major self-report measures also have disadvantages and may be more or less applicable to certain populations. Physiological measures of emotional regulation may be better indicators of enduring psychological change that results from a mindfulness training. One autonomic indicator of flexible emotion regulation is heart rate variability. HRV emphasizes the degree to which the parasympathetic and sympathetic effect heart rate (Mankus et al, 2013).

    Heart rate variability (HRV) is a physiological marker of the person’s ability to regulate the stress response. It reflects the body’s ability to respond to environmental challenges, as well as to self-regulate. Although it’s rather counterintuitive, a higher HRV can be more adaptive because it reflects the body’s capability to self-regulate as a response to stressful situations (Shearer et al, 2016). That is, heart rate might increase in an immediate response to perceived stressors, but a person with good stress management skills should be able to bring their heart rate back down quickly, resulting in greater HRV.

    A study conducted by Shearer, Chowbury and Nicole (2016), studied the effects of brief mindfulness meditation across a 4 -week span and participants underwent heart rate and heart rate variability examination after completing a series of cognitive tests. The goal of the researchers’ work was to explore the relationship between mindfulness trait and stress response, working memory, and mood regulation. The researchers explored different techniques like: mindful meditation, eyes-closed, and silence. It was determined that mindfulness significantly impacted levels of anxiety. Mindfulness breathing exercises showed higher levels of HRV, suggesting that those who participated in mindfulness were more attuned to the present moment and may have been better able to cope with academic stressors (Shearer et al, 2016).

    Another study aimed to test the effectiveness of a short-term intervention program on anxiety and stress in college students as compared to a control group that received no intervention Over the course of an 8-week span, researchers Chaló, Pereira, Batista and Sancho, (2016) Participants in the intervention group used the biofeedback program to learn to change their arousal and promote their relaxation. Researchers used a Biofeedback modular program, which is a computerized program that teaches one how to change their own physiological response. The biofeedback 2000 is device that monitors physiological data through skin attached sensors. This device is non-invasive and measured electro dermal activity, heart rate, inter-beat intervals in pulse, body temperature and increased movement (Zwan, Vente, Huizink Bögels and Bruin, 2015). The group that received the biofeedback training reported a significant reduction in their symptoms of anxiety compared to the group where no intervention was employed. These results were consistent with other studies that have larger numbers of samples.

    Similarly, studies have proposed that mindful breathing practices would increase positive thinking, mood and aid in lowering anxiety levels. Along with mindful breathing, researchers Cho, Ryu, Noh and Lee, (2016) also applied a cognitive reappraisal treatment as compared to no treatment at all, each of these treatment conditions lasted for six days. Participants completed several questionnaires both before and after to assess the following: testing anxiety, positive thoughts and positive affect. Results of the study showed to be consistent with their hypothesis; mindful breathing practices and cognitive reappraisal practices generated larger effect sizes in reducing test anxiety. Additionally, the mindful breathing condition scored significantly higher on positive thoughts than the cognitive reappraisal and control conditions (Cho et al, 2016).

    Likewise, researchers Bellinger, Decaro and Rolsten, (2015) set out to examine whether mindfulness improves the emotional response to anxiety-producing testing situations, freed working memory resources, and improved performance. The researchers studied the effects of mindfulness in a (1) a high stakes test environment taking place in a laboratory; they also further extended their study by applying a (2) a regular college classroom setting. Each of the environments studied by the researchers also used a 15-minute mindful breathing exercise. The results concluded in their findings suggested that pre-dispositional mindfulness had benefited high-stakes test scores by reducing anxiety levels, both in the demanding mathematical laboratory settings and again during a replication comparing quiz and test scores in calculus (Bellinger et al, 2015).

    Mindfulness research has provided effective information and evidence that the technique can be a powerful tool to utilize as a therapeutic technique for a variety of stressors. However, the research regarding effectiveness of mindfulness on emotion regulation in brief sessions is limited. Further research must also determine how long mindfulness programs must be in order to balance its’ effectiveness with its’ efficiency (Shearer et al, 2016).

    The recent gap in literature that influenced our research study is that a considerable amount of literature regarding mindfulness has studied the effects of mindfulness over longer periods of time and in regulated intervals. The purpose of our study was to address our research question of whether mindfulness has an immediate effect on heart rate along with perceived levels of anxiety in students. We hypothesized that the mindfulness exercise will show decreased levels of perceived anxiety as measured by self-report, as well as a lower heart rate levels in the group who receive the mindful intervention.

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