How Mindfulness Could Backfire at Stressful Moments

Mindfulness may cause people to "sweat the small stuff" during active stressors.

Posted Nov 14, 2020

Gerd Altmann/Pixabay
Source: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

Anyone who thinks mindfulness is a silver bullet for calming the nervous system and reducing psychophysiological stress responses in the heat of the moment may want to think again.

A new study (Saltsman et al., 2020) unearths some potential limitations of dispositional mindfulness during active stressors—while someone is experiencing distress in the heat of the moment. Although higher dispositional mindfulness levels were associated with more positive emotions after a stressful event, the researchers found no association between dispositional mindfulness and positive momentary stress responses during active stressors. These findings were recently published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

For this study, a University of Buffalo research team measured 1,001 study participants' cardiovascular responses during stress-inducing performance tasks. Saltsman et al. also used a biopsychosocial model of challenge/threat appraisals to assess how each participant felt about a stressful task in the moment and afterward.

"In the midst of stress, mindful participants demonstrated cardiovascular responses consistent with greater care and engagement," the authors explain. "Put another way; they actually were 'sweating the small stuff.'"

"What's surprising, and particularly striking about our results, is that mindfulness didn't seem to affect whether people had a more positive stress response in the moment," first author Thomas Saltsman of the University of Buffalo's psychology department said in a news release. "Did more mindful people actually feel confident, comfortable, and capable while engaged in a stressful task? We didn't see evidence of that, despite them reporting feeling better about the task afterward."

These findings raise new questions about the universal ability of mindfulness to effectively calm people's psychophysiological response to stress in the heat of the moment. "Although our findings seem to go against a wholesome holy grail of stress and coping benefits associated with dispositional mindfulness, we believe that they instead point to its possible limitations," Saltsman noted. "Like an alleged holy grail of anything, its fruits are likely finite."

In recent years, numerous evidence-based studies have identified a wide range of benefits associated with mindfulness meditation (see here, here, and here). That said, there's also been a concerted effort by a multidisciplinary team (Van Dam et al., 2017) of mindfulness scholars "to inform interested scientists, the news media, and the public, to minimize harm, curb poor research practices, and staunch the flow of misinformation about the benefits, costs, and future prospects of mindfulness meditation." (See "Is Mindfulness Being Mindlessly Overhyped? Experts Say 'Yes.'") 

The most recent research by Saltsman et al. may temper some of the lofty expectations and hype surrounding mindfulness by advancing our understanding of when and how dispositional mindfulness is most useful while also shedding light on some of its limitations.  

Although the latest dispositional mindfulness study found a small association between the "acting with awareness" facet of mindfulness and caring more about an active stressor (i.e., greater task engagement), the researchers ultimately "found no evidence that mindfulness was associated with exhibiting a more positive psychological response (i.e., greater challenge) during the stressor." Notably, these findings suggest that "dispositional mindfulness may benefit responses to active stressors only after they have passed."

"One thing these results say to me, in terms of what the average person is expecting when they casually get into mindfulness, is that what it's actually doing for them could very well be mismatched from their expectations going in," co-author Mark Seery concluded. "And this is an impressively large sample of more than a thousand participants, which makes the results particularly convincing." 


Thomas L. Saltsman, Mark D. Seery, Deborah E. Ward, Tracy M. Radsvick, Zaviera A. Panlilio, Veronica M. Lamarche, Cheryl L. Kondrak. "Facing the Facets: No Association Between Dispositional Mindfulness Facets and Positive Momentary Stress Responses During Active Stressors." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (First published: October 06, 2020) DOI: 10.1177/0146167220956898

Nicholas T. Van Dam, Marieke K. van Vugt, David R. Vago, Laura Schmalzl, Clifford D. Saron, Andrew Olendzki, Ted Meissner, Sara W. Lazar, Catherine E. Kerr, Jolie Gorchov, Kieran C. R. Fox, Brent A. Field, Willoughby B. Britton, Julie A. Brefczynski-Lewis, David E. Meyer. "Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation." Perspectives on Psychological Science (First published: October 10, 2017) DOI: 10.1177%2F1745691617709589