What Sacramento teachers need when under stress is a mindfulness-based program. Locally, UC Davis studies such programs with its mindfulness research and found it lowered stress hormones, according to a March 27, 2013 UC Davis news release, "Mindfulness from meditation associated with lower stress hormones." Focusing on the present rather than letting the mind drift may help to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, suggests new research from the Shamatha Project at the University of California, Davis.
The ability to focus mental resources on immediate experience is an aspect of mindfulness, which can be improved by meditation training. "This is the first study to show a direct relation between resting cortisol and scores on any type of mindfulness scale," said Tonya Jacobs, a postdoctoral researcher at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain and first author of a paper describing the work, published this week in the journal Health Psychology, according to the UC Davis news release.
High levels of cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal gland, are associated with physical or emotional stress. Prolonged release of the hormone contributes to wide-ranging, adverse effects on a number of physiological systems.
The new findings are the latest to come from the Shamatha Project, a comprehensive long-term, control-group study of the effects of meditation training on mind and body. Led by Clifford Saron, associate research scientist at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain, the Shamatha Project has drawn the attention of both scientists and Buddhist scholars including the Dalai Lama, who has endorsed the project.
In the March 2013 study, Jacobs, Saron and their colleagues used a questionnaire to measure aspects of mindfulness among a group of volunteers before and after an intensive, three-month meditation retreat. They also measured cortisol levels in the volunteers’ saliva.
During the retreat, Buddhist scholar and teacher B. Alan Wallace of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies trained participants in such attentional skills as mindfulness of breathing, observing mental events, and observing the nature of consciousness. Participants also practiced cultivating benevolent mental states, including loving kindness, compassion, empathic joy and equanimity.
At an individual level, there was a correlation between a high score for mindfulness and a low score in cortisol both before and after the retreat. Individuals whose mindfulness score increased after the retreat showed a decrease in cortisol.
"The more a person reported directing their cognitive resources to immediate sensory experience and the task at hand, the lower their resting cortisol," Jacobs said in the news release.
The research did not show a direct cause and effect, Jacobs emphasized. Indeed, she noted that the effect could run either way — reduced levels of cortisol could lead to improved mindfulness, rather than the other way around. Scores on the mindfulness questionnaire increased from pre- to post-retreat, while levels of cortisol did not change overall.
According to Jacobs, training the mind to focus on immediate experience may reduce the propensity to ruminate about the past or worry about the future, thought processes that have been linked to cortisol release
"The idea that we can train our minds in a way that fosters healthy mental habits and that these habits may be reflected in mind-body relations is not new; it's been around for thousands of years across various cultures and ideologies," Jacobs said in the UC Davis news release. "However, this idea is just beginning to be integrated into Western medicine as objective evidence accumulates. Hopefully, studies like this one will contribute to that effort."
Saron noted that in this study, the authors used the term 'mindfulness' to refer to behaviors that are reflected in a particular mindfulness scale, which was the measure used in the study. "The scale measured the participants’ propensity to let go of distressing thoughts and attend to different sensory domains, daily tasks, and the current contents of their minds. However, this scale may only reflect a subset of qualities that comprise the greater quality of mindfulness, as it is conceived across various contemplative traditions," he said in the news release.
Previous studies from the Shamatha Project have shown that the meditation retreat had positive effects on visual perception, sustained attention, socio-emotional well-being, resting brain activity and on the activity of telomerase, an enzyme important for the long-term health of body cells
Now a new study at Penn State finds that participation in mindfulness-based program improves teacher well-being. Teacher well-being, efficacy, burnout-related stress, time-related stress and mindfulness significantly improve when teachers participate in the CARE (Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education) for Teachers program, according to Penn State researchers, according to an October 24, 2013 news release, "Participation in mindfulness-based program improves teacher well-being."
CARE is a mindfulness-based professional development program designed to reduce stress and improve teachers' performance and classroom learning environments, developed by the Garrison Institute, a New York-based non-profit organization that applies the transformative power of contemplation to today's social and environmental concerns.
CARE combines emotion skills instruction, mindful awareness practices and compassion-building activities to provide teachers with skills to reduce their emotional stress and improve the social and emotional skills required to build supportive relationships with their students, manage challenging student behaviors, and provide modeling and direct instruction for effective social and emotional learning. The intensive 30-hour program is presented in four day-long sessions over four to six weeks, with intersession phone coaching and a booster session held approximately two months later.
Managing the stress of teaching with mindfulness programs
"Today, teachers are experiencing high levels of stress that can have a negative impact on their teaching and the learning environment," said Patricia Jennings, assistant research professor, according to the October 24, 2013 Penn State news release, Participation in mindfulness-based program improves teacher well-being. "CARE is designed to provide the tools they need to manage the emotional ups and downs of teaching. The program combines mindful awareness practices and emotion skills training applied to the specific challenges of the classroom environment."
The researchers recruited 53 participants from urban and suburban public schools in two school districts in a small northeast U.S. metropolitan area to participate in the study. They randomly assigned teacher participants to either CARE or a wait list control condition. Those in the CARE group completed a battery of self-report measures at pre- and post-intervention to assess the program's impacts on general well-being, efficacy, burnout-related stress, time-related stress and mindfulness.
Improving relationships with students and classroom outcomes
Participants reported high levels of satisfaction with the CARE program, indicating that its use was improving their relationships with their students, classroom management and classroom climate. Improvements in teachers' well-being, efficacy, burnout and mindfulness were associated with teachers' reports of improvements in student and classroom outcomes. Overall, this study's findings indicate the potential of a mindfulness professional development program to reduce emotion reactivity and promote well-being among teachers.
"An important reason that CARE is effective in reducing burnout, improving teachers' enjoyment of teaching and reducing poor health outcomes is that CARE has been specifically tailored to meet the needs of teachers," said Mark Greenberg, Edna Peterson Bennett Endowed Chair in Prevention Research and professor of human development and psychology, according to the October 24, 2013 Penn State news release, Participation in mindfulness-based program improves teacher well-being. "In CARE teachers not only learn new ways to handle stress but they learn to nurture themselves and build a more caring and compassionate classroom."
The results appeared in a recent issue of the journal School Psychology Quarterly®. A second study of CARE, which is currently underway in New York City, aims to replicate these findings in a larger sample of teachers and to examine the effects of these changes in teachers' well-being on the quality of their classroom environments and their students' academic and behavioral outcomes.
Other members of the research team include Sebrina Doyle and Jennifer Frank at Penn State, Joshua Brown and his team at Fordham University, and partners at the Garrison Institute. This work was conducted in the Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development at Penn State through a grant from the Institute for Educational Studies in the U.S. Department of Education.