Specific reduction in cortisol stress reactivity after social but not attention-based mental training

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Science Advances  04 Oct 2017:
Vol. 3, no. 10, e1700495
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1700495

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Psychosocial stress is a public health burden in modern societies. Chronic stress–induced disease processes are, in large part, mediated via the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic-adrenal-medullary system. We asked whether the contemplative mental training of different practice types targeting attentional, socio-affective (for example, compassion), or socio-cognitive abilities (for example, perspective-taking) in the context of a 9-month longitudinal training study offers an effective means for psychosocial stress reduction. Using a multimethod approach including subjective, endocrine, autonomic, and immune markers and testing 313 participants in a standardized psychosocial laboratory stressor, we show that all three practice types markedly reduced self-reported stress reactivity in healthy participants. However, only the training of intersubjective skills via socio-affective and socio-cognitive routes attenuated the physiological stress response, specifically the secretion of the HPA axis end-product cortisol, by up to 51%. The assessed autonomic and innate immune markers were not influenced by any practice type. Mental training focused on present-moment attention and interoceptive awareness as implemented in many mindfulness-based intervention programs was thus limited to stress reduction on the level of self-report. However, its effectiveness was equal to that of intersubjective practice types in boosting the association between subjective and endocrine stress markers. Our results reveal a broadly accessible low-cost approach to acquiring psychosocial stress resilience. Short daily intersubjective practice may be a promising method for minimizing the incidence of chronic social stress–related disease, thereby reducing individual suffering and relieving a substantial financial burden on society.

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