Season 2: Ep. 6: Stress and Mindfulness with Dr. Elizabeth Dalton and Dr. Tomás Estrada
Dr. Elizabeth Dalton is an expert on stress, health behaviors, and how our beliefs impact our use of coping mechanisms. Together with Dr. Tomás Estrada, we explore research on stress and how a research-informed understanding may lead to healthy approaches to peace and social-emotional learning. We close by examining recent research on mindfulness and how mindfulness mediates stress and opens space for the vulnerability, uncertainty, and intellectual stretching needed for creativity and problem-solving.
Dr. Elizabeth Dalton is a clinical psychologist with research interests in stress, mood, and physical health behaviors and outcomes. Dr. Dalton completed her graduate training at UCLA, where she studied how stress and depression influence health behaviors like eating, sleeping, exercise, and substance use among young adults. As part of her clinical training, Dr. Dalton has worked in community mental health centers and hospitals, and completed her clinical internship year at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. Dr. Dalton teaches in the psychology department at Elizabethtown College.
Dr. Tomás Estrada is Associate Professor of Physics and Engineering at Elizabethtown College. Estrada is committed to fostering multi-disciplinary and holistic thinking in his students and to exemplifying it through his own scholarly work. His research interests include Systems and Controls, Engineering Education, Technology Entrepreneurship, and Sustainable Engineering Applications.
In preparing for this summer’s focus on social-emotional learning, this episode takes an interdisciplinary look at research on stress and mindfulness. Because stress and our health behaviors play a significant role within SEL classrooms and work toward peace, this research may shed light on the complexity of this mental health construct and ways to build compassionate and humane spaces for learning.
Stress, Coping, coping mechanism, coping technique, depression, social-emotional learning, SEL, self-care, mindfulness, ambiguity, creativity
1. Dalton recommends a more complex view of stress, one that acknowledges that stress may sometimes be helpful (stress is giving me energy for ____). What are ways in which you might acknowledge the helpfulness of stress? When does stress become harmful?
2. Stress is often discussed based on its chronicity, or how it acts across time. Dalton notes evidence that daily stressors and chronic stressors can have a significant impact on our lives. Describe some daily stressors that you or your students may encounter.
3. Chronic stressors can be related to a number of factors including socio-economic status, racism, and family dynamics. What are some sources of chronic stress in populations that you work with?
4. Dalton notes that our beliefs about coping with stress and what works in coping with stress matter. She also notes that teachers can help shape beliefs about coping practices. How does this shape your approach to social-emotional learning?
5. How can mindfulness empower vulnerability, tolerance for ambiguity, and intellectual stretching?
Dalton, E. D., & Hammen, C. L. (2017). Independent and relative effects of stress, depressive symptoms and affect on college students’ daily health behaviors. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 41, 863-874.
Dalton, E. D. (2020). Exercise-related coping beliefs predict physical activity levels in response to naturally occuring stress: A daily diary study of college students. Journal of American College Health, , 1-9.
Hanh, T. N. (1992). Peace is every step: The path of mindfulness in everyday life. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
Lederach, J. P. (2005). The moral imagination: The art and soul of building peace. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Thich Nhat Hanh
Fri, 6/4 5:14PM • 50:51
stress, mindfulness, depression, stressors, coping, peacebuilding, people, students, dalton, experience, cope, helpful, exercise, study, stressful life events, practices, behaviors, life, questions, research
Elizabeth Dalton, Tomás Estrada, Kevin Shorner-Johnson
Elizabeth Dalton 00:00
I think it's really helpful to sort of create an environment where stress is not the enemy, right? Or it's not necessarily even something to be avoided, but helping students to sort of cultivate those attitudes and beliefs that they can learn and grow from these experiences that they they have or they can further build and develop ways to cope, and that they can feel confident in that, that that's going to help them not only in the classroom, but but also just in life. Because the way that they learn to cope with stress early on can really kind of set the stage for their ability to continue to do that down the road.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 00:38
You are listening to the music and peacebuilding podcast, a professional development network at music peacebuilding calm, exploring intersections of peacebuilding, sacredness, community, creativity and imagination. Through research and story. Dr. Elizabeth Dalton is a clinical psychologist with research interest in stress, mood and physical health behaviors and outcomes. Dr. Dalton completed her graduate training at UCLA, where she studies how stress and depression influence health behaviors like eating, sleeping, exercise and substance use among young adults. As part of her clinical training, Dr. Dalton has worked in community mental health centers and hospitals and completed her clinical internship year at New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell Medical Center. Dr. Dalton teaches in the psychology department at Elizabethtown college. Our second guest later in the program is Dr. Tomas Estrada, associate professor of physics and engineering at Elizabethtown college. Estrada is committed to fostering multi disciplinary and holistic thinking in his students, and to exemplify it through his own scholarly work. His research interests include systems and controls, engineering, education, technology, entrepreneurship, and sustainable engineering applications. In preparing for this summer's focus on social emotional learning, this episode takes an interdisciplinary look at research on stress and mindfulness. Because stress in our health behaviors play a significant role within social emotional learning classrooms, and work toward peace, This research may shed light on the complexity of this mental health construct, and ways to build compassionate and humane spaces for learning. First, we turn to how Dr. Dalton came upon this research area,
Elizabeth Dalton 02:37
I would say that I first started to become interested in studying stress and trying to understand stress when I worked as a research coordinator at a depression treatment center, which was at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. So I worked there for a couple of years after I did my undergraduate degree in psychology. And there I had the opportunity to to speak and work with many different people who had been struggling with depression and depressive disorders for a long time. So for many of these individuals who were coming into our clinic, they'd really been suffering for years. And for many of them, unfortunately, they hadn't responded well to different treatments that are usually used to help with depression. And it kind of became just clear in in talking with these individuals that for many of them life, stress and life stressors played a really big role in their experience. And so for some of them, that sort of took the format of stressors that kind of triggered their depression or or served as a catalyst for their experience of depression. But for others, it also became clear that depression became a source of such significant stress in their life, by virtue of some of the different symptoms and experiences that accompany depression, like social isolation, lack of motivation, you know, these were things that then subsequently caused them to experience a really heightened degree of stress in their lives. So it was really that kind of understanding that that piqued my interest in the topic initially. And so then I had the good fortune of going to the University of California, Los Angeles to do my PhD. And I, I picked that program specifically because I knew I would get to work with a researcher by the name of Constance Hammon, who focuses on the bi directional relationships between stress and depression. So as part of my PhD training in clinical psychology, I really got to delve into some of that research and start to explore that further.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 04:48
So let's open up maybe an overview of stress. Eventually, I want to get into your language of chronic, acute and daily stress. But before we get there, I want to get an overview of stress. You know, I think I sense from an ecological model, there's often this talk about stress being a good thing that stress can be very healthy. So my question is maybe, you know, what is stress? When is it helpful? And when does it bring harm?
So yeah, one of the things that I think sort of really fascinates me about trying to study and also to teach about stress is the extent to which it's really such a difficult thing to kind of pin down, right. So, you know, it's universally experienced, we all talk about stress, we all have stress. And yet, when we use those terms, were referring to a whole host of different things. So sometimes we're using that term to refer to external experiences, or external events that have happened to us. Other times, we're using it to refer to a physical state in our bodies, as well as our emotional and cognitive experiences. So I think one challenge historically in the psychological literature around stress is, how are we defining this? How are we measuring it? You know, how are we trying to pin down something that is so just so challenging to really quantify? So one kind of broad way to think about stress or that stress has sort of been defined from a psychological perspective is some kind of external demand that necessitates or prompts a change in the body, you know, so something happens that demands that we respond, we react. And so based on that sort of conceptualization, when this demand is perceived as really taxing, or especially exceeding our resources or capabilities, it's then that we might experience that stress is more negative, or more adversive. So there's some demand. And then, inherent in our understanding and conceptualization of that stress, is our sort of recognition of what that means, do we have the ability to cope? Do we have the ability to respond?
To your point, though, I think it's so so important to remember that stress is not the enemy. So, you know, it's, I think this is sort of a risk and a fine line that I know, I try to walk when I'm teaching and thinking about stress, because we'll get into this momentarily. But there is, of course, a lot of evidence that stress can have negative effects. But there's also a number of ways in which it is or it can be positive too. So for one thing, our body's response to stress, which includes things like the activation of the fight or flight system, and you know, corresponding changes in cortisol and heart rate, and sweating, and all of those things that our body does to kind of help us respond to stress, that's actually very adaptive. So, so we've evolved really well, and really nicely to deal with especially short term stressors. So sort of short, acute things that come up, our bodies are well equipped to deal with that. And that can be really helpful, that kind of reaction on the part of our body can be really helpful. So we know then that the experience of stress, and I think we all at least can sort of get on board with the idea that it can be motivating. So like the stress of a deadline, for example, you know, can can help us get things done. Usually, for all of us, it varies, but for most of us, there is some kind of optimal level of stress that is associated with best performance. So I'm sure as a musician, you know, you kind of think about that, you know, in the sense of, you're performing in front of an audience, maybe that does sort of help you actually in a good way to have have a good performance. And so that's, you know, those are all good things that stress can do for us. And there's actually some really fascinating research that's not not mine, but work by Kelly McGonigal at Stanford University, and some other researchers, that is really highlighted that that one thing that really matters is the way that we think about our stress. So, for instance, people who view stress as a helpful part of life, so who kind of have that mindset, we know that that there's evidence they have better physical health, that they have better, emotional well being, that they're more productive in work, and that those things are true even when they have high levels of stress. So even when those demands are, you know, exceeding or really taxing resources, those mindsets those attitudes, can actually be quite adaptive, and quite helpful. So to the extent that we can view our body's response to stress as helpful, rather Then debilitating, so telling ourselves things like, Oh, my body's giving me energy. This is something that's really helpful to me. That's, you know, that's an adaptive mindset. If we view our ability to handle stress, if we think like, you know, I can cope with this, or I can learn, and I can grow from this experience, those are also things that are associated with better outcomes, better responses to stress. And then there's also evidence that it helps to keep in mind the universal nature of stress. So, you know, this is not something that's unique to me, like the difficult things that I'm dealing with are things that other people experience or even if they don't experience this exact set of situations, other people have dealt with similar things. So we know that all of those kind of mindsets or ways of thinking can be really helpful.
What we know, though, in terms of physical and mental health, is that when stressors are chronic in nature, so when they're ongoing when they're recurrent, you know, when it's kind of one thing after another, that is where we start to see stress, take more of a toll, or at least have that potential to take more of a negative toll on our minds and bodies. And so that's, that's something that has sort of been pretty consistently identified and demonstrated in the literature. And so to your question about those, those terms of sort of chronic, acute and daily, so because stress means so many different things, you know, to so many different people, one of the ways that researchers in psychology and other fields have tried to kind of pin down more concrete ways of conceptualizing this idea is by understanding something about the chronicity, or duration of stressors experienced. So, when we use the term chronic, as I mentioned, we're referring to more ongoing recurrent life conditions. So for example, a person who has a chronic illness, right, that's something that's going to continually affect them for a long period of time, in a number of different ways, there might be episodes that are worse or times when it's a little bit easier to manage. But there's, it would be expected that that's sort of a recurrent source of stress or strain. Something like experiencing poverty or low socio economic status, that's often you know, conceptualized as a chronic or recurring stressor. People who are chronically dealing with racism, for example, or sexism, you know, or other types of discrimination. Unfortunately, those can be chronic experiences as well. And so it's it's often been identified that those types of really ongoing life stressors that can be the most detrimental to our health, the term acute stress is used to often identify what are more time limited, but still fairly significant life events. So sort of one time, things that might come up not everyday events. But they can have, you know, more profound consequences, potentially. So a person loses a job, for example, that's a pretty significant life stressor, having to undergo a surgery. Sometimes even things that might be positive can be a one time acute life event, that's a stressor. So getting married or having a child, you know, for somebody that might be a positive thing that they wanted in their life. But there's also stress around that event. So that's another sort of area of stressors that we can consider. And then finally, and one thing that I become increasingly interested in are, the more mundane, the kinds of stressors, or we sometimes use the word hassles to refer to more minor sources of stress or strain, that kind of just occur in the course of a normal day. So, you know, now I'm thinking about your internet goes down. When you're in a meeting, or you're running late to something, or you've misplaced your phone, you know, these things that they're not major life events, but it seems that there's the potential for them to sort of accumulate and collect over the course of a day or days or weeks, in a way that might impact us. And so those we could think of as, again, sort of daily stressors or daily hassles.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 14:41
And so in so many of your studies, you use measures that have been tested for validity and reliability, and I want to get into this, I think it'll help our master students as they consider research projects. So can you talk about the UCLA life stress interview, and how that works and how you go about Breaking down such a nebulous idea of stress into something that can be measured.
So the UCLA life stress interview, is a measure that was designed by my graduate school mentor Constance Hammon, as a way to primarily assess chronic and acute stress. So rather than being sort of a questionnaire that people can fill out, you know, pencil and paper on a computer. Questionnaires have lots of advantages so I use those a lot, too. But one downside is that you don't get a lot of context from a questionnaire. So people might have sort of a more idiosyncratic interpretation of a given question, they might want to further explain themselves, but there's not really the opportunity to do that, when you're just being asked to rate something on a one through seven scale, you know, or something along those lines. So an interview measure can kind of give you a little bit more richness in terms of your data, basically, and allow you to ask some follow up questions about people's experiences, that might give you a little more context and a little bit more of a nuanced understanding of their stress. So this is an interview measure that is what's referred to as semi structured, which means that there are some specific questions that you ask to every single participant about, you know, so for every single participant, who does this measure, you would ask, How are things going in your social life, or, you know, tell me about how things are going in your family life. But then because it's semi structured, you as the interviewer can sort of use your knowledge and expertise and relationship with that person to add additional questions. So basically, you have some flexibility. And so what you do as the interviewer, well, first, you have to undergo a lot of training. So to your question about reliability and validity. I wish it were as simple as just, you know, here's the interview questions, go ahead and do it. Before you get to that stage, though, you have to be trained such that, let's say you and I are both interviewing a given participant, and we want to understand their social life stress. Ultimately, what we do using this interview is provide a numerical score that sort of aligns with the level of stress you're experiencing in that area of their life. But we have to make sure that you and I are giving about the same rating, right to the same participant because otherwise, our our measure lacks that reliability or that kind of consistency between different raters. And that's really, really important. Because if if you would give a person a one, you know, saying that they have no stress, and I would give them a five indicating that they have extreme stress. Then our measure becomes kind of useless. So in a couple of the studies that I did involving this interview, I ran these when I was a graduate student, and I trained undergraduate research assistants to to run these interviews. So they first underwent training, part of the way we do that is to have them listen to mock interviews, and practice giving ratings. And then once they achieve a certain standard of reliability amongst that group, or what's called inter rater reliability, then we know you're good to go. You can you can do this. And then there's actually checks that we did after the study to ensure that we were consistent among our rating based on the participant pool that we actually used as well.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 18:38
Dalton notes, the instrument asked questions about family, friends, school and work health. With interviewers listening for acute or one time stressors within each domain. Each interview takes between 45 minutes to just over an hour. So if you took the family one, just so that listeners can can get a picture, how would you feel? Would you phrase a question that is getting it stressors that a person is experiencing in their family?
Yes, you could start out in a fairly open ended kind of a way. So even just tell me about how things have been going with your family and the past six months or in the past year? And, you know, depending on how a person responds, if they say, Oh, it's been fine. You know, you might sort of say, okay, it's been fine. Can you tell me a little bit more about what that means? You know, have Have you had contact with folks, have you seen folks, you know, what's that sort of been like? And so you really do use those sort of follow up questions and, and then a person might respond by saying, you know, I'm pretty close to my family, I can turn to them for help, or I was dealing with this thing and they were there for me. And that might start to indicate sort of a good quality of communication and relationships and, and maybe more a family that serving as a support system rather than a stressor. Or conversely, you know, if they sort of describe that they Things have been really contentious, or there's been a number of arguments or disagreements, then you might sort of follow up a bit more about about that. Not that you need every detail necessarily, but you sort of want to understand the the nature and the quality of that. And then that might start to look like a situation that is, in fact, causing a person stress or strain.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 20:26
So let's turn to positive and negative effect and also the impact of depression. In your 2017 study, I thought it was just really fascinating about how depression, interacted and ways of stress that didn't surprise me, but also ways in which maybe it's not in lockstep with some of our ideas of stress. You know, there's a complex relationship there. And I think I wanted to read this quote from you really quick, he said, stressful life events and circumstances are well known causes of depressive symptoms and disorders, and individual suffering from symptoms of depression have elevated rates of stressful life events and circumstances, relative to their non depressed peers. Tell us about what your understanding about this complex relationship between depression and stress.
So it is, as you said, you know, it's a very complicated relationship. And so one thing that can happen is sort of a causal model, right? Where life stress can cause somebody to experience depression, or at least trigger or sort of serve as a catalyst for the experience of depression. But we know that that's not what always happens. So some people who experience depression, it's not really linked to, you know, a stressful life event, like they can't point to something and say, oh, it started after I lost my job, or it started after I lost a loved one, you know, where there's a clear kind of connection there. But, but that can happen. And we do know, the research supports the idea that people who have higher levels of chronic and acute stress are at heightened risk for developing depression. But then this other thing can happen, where as and as I mentioned, I kind of saw this clinically, in my work as a research coordinator, where once people are suffering from a depressive disorder, or even, you know, heightened symptoms of depression, they can subsequently experience more stressors. And, and so that theory, that idea is something that my PhD advisor, Dr. Hammon, conceptualized as what's called stress generation, or the stress generation hypothesis. So for people who who have depression and some other conditions, they subsequently experience more stress than people who do not, you know, are not experiencing those kinds of things. So, so that's those are sort of two things that can happen. Additionally, though, there's other ways that stress and depression can interact. So it might also be the case that once a person is is suffering from depression, when they experience stressors, those could have a more negative effect on them than they would on people who aren't suffering from depression. So you know, if you just think about the fact that depression can affect motivation and concentration, and a person's ability to enjoy things, then having extra stress piled up on top of that might be even more of a hit, or and kind of harder to cope with than it would be if somebody wasn't dealing with depression. So there's kind of all these different ways that these factors can can relate to one another. And so that sort of was part of what got me interested in trying to understand how some of these effects might play out on a day to day basis. So, you know, we know that that broadly speaking, right, depression and stress are connected. But But what are some of the mechanisms through which that happens or affects us day to day. And in particular, you know, one thing I started to get interested in to, was this connection between stress and our physical health. So, as you know, we talked a little bit about we know that stress is associated with poor physical health. And we know from prior research that this can happen for a lot of different reasons, actually. So in part, stress directly affects our bodies. So when we experience repeated stress that can affect things like inflammation in the body, which can make us more susceptible to illness. There's actually evidence that stress can change our gut microbiome, our cardiovascular reactivity. And so these are all things that can put us at risk for for various negative health outcomes. But another way that this can happen and does happen is that stress can also change and effect our health behaviors. So sometimes when we experience stress, we do different things to cope or kind of respond or help us feel better. And some of those involved things like, are the foods that we choose to eat. So stress eating, for example, is kind of, I think, a very relatable example of this where, you know, you've had a crummy day, right? There's been a lot of daily hassles or daily stressors, what's going to make you feel good? A bowl of ice cream and a brownie.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 25:29
It's, it's definitely for me a core COVID experience right now I feel like,
Elizabeth Dalton 25:33
Yeah, exactly, exactly. Exactly. Right. I think, especially in the time of COVID, a lot of us can, can relate to that idea. But sometimes, you know, our sleep gets disrupted because of stress. We might be more or less inclined to engage in exercise or physical activity. In a more potentially damaging response. Sometimes people use substances to cope with stress, and to kind of alleviate some of the tension and things like that associated with stressors. And so that's another mechanism through which stress or even possibly depression could affect our physical health.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 26:18
In Dalton's 2017 study, she and her colleagues studied behaviors such as eating, sleep, exercise, or substance use, and connections between daily health behaviors, and potential influencers, such as stressful situations or depression. College students who participated in the study, completed the UCLA stress interview at study start, and then completed a daily survey about health practices and stress that they experienced.
And what we've found ultimately from that study was that, indeed, depressive symptoms were associated with health behavior practices. So having more symptoms of depression, was associated with worsened health behavior practices. Similarly, and not surprisingly, but consistent with study hypotheses, chronic stress, so people who came in with a higher level of chronic stress, they seem to exhibit unhealthier daily practices. And then interestingly, acute stressful life events were not in our study associated with health behaviors. So there was not a significant relationship there, it didn't seem like having more acute stressful life events, led to worse health behaviors. But those daily stressors really mattered, actually, in our study. So having more, you know, again, these are mundane things like you're late to a meeting or you had an exam, or you had a disagreement with a roommate, you know, those were some of the common types of daily stressors that that emerged in our study, those things affected health behavior practices. So on days, when when people had more daily stressors, they, you know, tended to not get as good of sleep, but they maybe didn't exercise as much their diets maybe weren't as good. You know, we saw changes to substance use for folks who did use substance use in the sample. And so that was kind of interesting to me and sort of further reinforced my interest in understanding some of those day to day effects. Because maybe that doesn't matter as much on any one given day. Right. So you know, that one bowl of ice cream and brownie in the long run, you know, not a big deal. And maybe a good way to cope every now and again. But if that's sort of repeated over time, right, so if that's a consistent effect of daily hassles or daily stressors, then we might start to see more problematic outcomes.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 28:52
So what are some of the most recognized coping mechanisms that teachers should remember? That helps people to kind of navigate daily stresses and chronic stress? And yeah,
yeah, absolutely. And yeah, so coping goes hand in hand with stress, right? So, you know, because stress is, is universal and inescapable, it's, it's just as important to study and understand the ways that we respond to it or cope with it as it is to understand stress as a, as a phenomenon in and of itself. So yeah, in the, in the psychological literature, I mean, I think it's similar the way that we think about and define coping, but, but oftentimes, we're using coping sort of broadly to refer to any behavioral or psychological effort to respond to or tolerate or reduce or minimize a stressor. So, so that's pretty broad, right? I mean, it's sort of any response. coping, as I just kind of alluded to with health behaviors can be deliberate, but it need not be so You know, sometimes we we are coping, we are responding even if we wouldn't specifically label it as such. And one thing I always like to keep in mind is that, you know, for the most part, the ways that we cope or respond to stress aren't categorically good or bad for us. So sometimes, you know, distraction might be a really good choice. In the moment, that might be a really healthy and adaptive way to cope. Like if you have a big meeting, you know, and you've already done all you can do to prepare, maybe in the half an hour leading up to it, going for a walk, or, you know, doing something else is actually helpful, you know, and you don't need to be thinking about the stressor all the time. But at the same time, taken too far, of course, distraction could be problematic or unhelpful. So, you know, if you use distraction to the exclusion of say, studying for an exam, at some point, that becomes problematic. And so I think that's true for a lot of types of coping where, you know, in, in limited amounts, many different types of coping could potentially be adaptive or helpful. But similarly taken to an extreme or used to the exclusion of other types of coping, they can become unhelpful, you know, I do think there's, there's lots of different ways to conceptualize your sort of categorize coping, one sort of broad category that sometimes used that I'm sure teachers experienced in their in their day to day in their classrooms, would be a tendency sort of, approach coping versus avoidance coping, you know, so for some students, for some people, they might tend to rely more on on an approach-oriented model. So like, here's the stressor, let me face it, let me start doing things to deal with it. Whereas for other people, or just in some circumstances, a given person might be inclined towards avoidance. So sometimes that's procrastination, or anger or distraction, or sort of refusal to engage in a in a certain activity. Again, I don't want to universally say that approach is always good and avoidance is always bad, because I don't think that's true. But I think it can be helpful to know which way you tend to go, right, or which way your students tend to go. And, and maybe kind of be on the lookout for that a bit.
Elizabeth Dalton 32:25
But yeah, other other ways that that we cope, there's a lot of evidence that turning to others is often a very helpful and adaptive way to cope. So seeking out social support, you know, connection, those opportunities to sort of talk with other people about what we're going through, or even get more tangible support, which is certainly relevant for a teacher's role that they are often serving as that source of support to their students, that's often very protective in terms of the negative effects of stress. And so just having people in your life that you can trust, and you can turn to, can really help to buffer against some of the negative effects of stress.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 33:07
I feel like some of the other things that I've seen teachers turn to is like the deep breath at the start of a rehearsal or some form of centering as we as we move towards mindfulness toward the end of this interview, but some of those those techniques, right.
Elizabeth Dalton 33:22
Absolutely, yeah, yeah. And so, right, all those things are coping to so even the the sort of strategies that we devise, whether that is breathing or its mantra, you know, that people say to themselves, or something, they remind themselves of that that's all coping and often very, very helpful,
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 33:42
which I think turns us to your next study, which is about beliefs about exercise. So what I think I take from that is that when we have a belief or an understanding that this tool for me, helps me cope, then it increases the use and the success of that coping am I interpreting that right?
Yeah, that's exactly right. Yeah, so So just as we talked about the fact that our beliefs about stress matter, right, so the way that we perceive and think about stress matters, so to do our beliefs about coping, and and what we think will will be helpful, really does matter. Yeah, so in this study that that you referenced, found support again, in a sample of college students that students' beliefs about exercise as a coping mechanism. So the extent to which they agreed with statements like "exercise helps me to reduce tension" or "exercise gives me space to think" those things did in fact, predict their use of exercise in response to naturally occurring stressors that came up for them day to day or week to week. And so I think that's promising, I guess in a sense, because You know, first of all it's coping can be good, right? Just as I mentioned, though, taken to an extreme, even something like exercise could be problematic. So we want to keep that in mind. But there's healthy ways to do that too, right? So going for a walk or you know, taking a quick physical activity break. Those can actually be, you know, quite helpful ways to disrupt the stressor or sort of give yourself some space and time to think. But also, the good news about beliefs or sort of perceptions is that they're modifiable. And and I think there there is room for educators and others to sort of help shape a person's belief about their ability to cope or respond to a stressor in a way that can be really adaptive and hopeful.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 35:48
Turning to mindfulness, we turn to a 2021 paper and study by doctors tomasa Stratta, and Elizabeth Dalton. On a mindfulness intervention within engineering education, like music and peacebuilding, good engineers need to lean into situations of ambiguity, that require vulnerability and intellectual stretching to solve new and challenging problems. In this study, Estrada and Dalton explored a curiosity of whether mindfulness might enhance academic context.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 36:23
So Tomas, I'm going to start with the definition of mindfulness. And I want to get your response to how you define mindfulness. So in your article I read mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way, on purpose in the present moment, and non judgmental, and there's another quote, mindfulness shows us what is happening in our bodies, our emotions, our minds and in the world. Through mindfulness, we avoid harming ourselves and others. So can you talk about what your experience of mindfulness is and how you draw these boundaries of what is mindfulness and what is not mindfulness?
Tomás Estrada 36:59
I'm very fond of the first definition that you that you read out loud, I think it gets at the heart of how I understand mindfulness. And this idea that whatever it is that you're doing, you could be doing anything in particular. So a lot of times when people think of mindfulness, they think of sitting on an on a pillow, perhaps, you know, doing some very formal meditations, perhaps humming a mantra and inhaling some incense, and all of that can be part of it. But it doesn't have to be. So you can be doing just about any everyday activity in a mindful way. So you could be practicing mindfulness, while folding laundry, while doing the dishes. Or you could be also practicing mindfulness while deliberately doing a meditation exercise. So there's, there's those two different types. And we refer to the former as informal mindfulness, where we're essentially practicing mindfulness in everyday activities, and the latter as formal mindfulness where we are setting the time and going to a particular location to to do a specific exercise, this idea of whatever it is that you're doing, you're doing it on purpose, and you're doing it fully, you are entirely present while doing it. And one of the questions that I always enjoy when Liz explores this topic, is she she'll ask- Okay, if you're in the present moment, where are you not? And the answers are, well, of course, you're not in the future, and you're not in the past. But if we if we think about how often our minds are indeed, in the future, in the past, it can be, it can be kind of scary. I know that for myself, there are days when I might be, for example, having lunch, and maybe I've got a meeting that I'm preparing for that's coming up right after lunch, and maybe I finished the meal. And I didn't even realize that I ate like the my plate is now empty. But the whole time I was looking ahead, my mind was in the future. And so I was not eating in a mindful way. I was not practicing mindfulness in that in that regard.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 39:15
Mindfulness is that sense of presentness an orientation that simultaneously invites a slowing a relationship, and an invitation to disrupt the violence of speed, escalation and distraction. In Thich Nhat Hanh's book on peace and mindfulness, he writes, "peace is present right here and now in ourselves and in everything we do and see. Every breath we take, every step we take, can be filled with peace, joy and serenity. The question is whether or not we are in touch with it. We need only to be awake, alive in the present moment." Tell us about the exercises that you did with engineering students. You know what time of the day you did it? Was there a progression of activities that you did? How structured or unstructured? Was it? Can you kind of walk us through that a little bit? And what that was like?
Tomás Estrada 40:16
Yeah, so we had, for each group of students, we had four sessions each one hour long. Typically, they were once a week, either Wednesdays, or Thursdays at 4pm. And so four to 5pm. These were students that volunteered to be there, they were typically in my classes, and I did bribe them with extra credit in case you know, just to give him a little extra motivation. But but that was that was the setup. And it would be myself and Liz, leading, Liz would lead the sessions. But I thought my presence there, since they knew me from class, and I already had a pretty good rapport with the students would make them feel more comfortable. And for myself, as somebody who practices meditation in his own life, it was exciting to be able to share some of these practices with my students, I had definitely experienced a lot of the benefits of my own personal life. So yeah, I thought all my students can certainly benefit from from all these, yeah, just great things in terms of stress reduction, feeling more centered, more balanced, and hopefully, it'll impact their personal life, their academic life, and so on.
Tomás Estrada 41:36
We would sit in a circle, and Liz would usually everyday and we would center on like one or two topics or types of mindfulness. So she would start with a particular either a mindfulness check in, or a fairly simple exercise, then we will talk about what were the experiences the students had with that, and explore some of the theory behind it as to why you know, why this might be beneficial, you know, in what ways they could incorporate that into, into their everyday life, and so on. So, so that was the structure. And we made, we tried different things, such as I gave the example of eating lunch. So one of the first section as we did with some mindful eating, where we had this very interesting exercise in which we brought a pack of raisins. And everybody had to essentially eat a raisin with some guidance from Liz, essentially as mindfulness as mindfully as possible. And the, for me, it was pretty mind blowing. And that something as simple as eating a raisin, which is, I think, most people would agree, it's not the most, perhaps like most attractive food became a really, really interesting experience. And an experience where you're involving the whole body here in light, involving all the senses, you're, you're looking at it, you are bringing it up to your nose, and like really smelling it, you're you're touching it from all the different angles, as you you know, pop it in your mouth, you don't bite it right away, but you, you know, feel its weight in your, in your mouth, and, and the whole process becomes, yeah, just fascinating. So that was one that to me, was very interesting. And I could see then how the students reacted to that, because this is an experience where all of us eat all the time. And so often it's an automatic, yeah, an automatic type of action. Yeah, so so that was that was one type we, we also did some of the other ones that you that you mentioned. So for example, sitting and breathing exercises, we did a body scan, we did a walking meditation, its the one time that we actually left the room, to walk in this slow, deliberate mindful way. And noticing how each step, like through each step, like how the body felt, what our you know, all our our senses were perceiving through the walk. So yeah, and they got reminders from us mid week, about the mindfulness practice, they have learned and encouragement to practice on your own.
Elizabeth Dalton 44:35
So when we experience stress, or we're sad or frustrated or angry, we might be inclined to not be that way. Right? And to kind of push that out of our experience. But actually, there's evidence and sort of reason to believe that our ability to to feel those emotions to sort of have an attitude of acceptance towards that and to not have not necessarily have that immediate reaction to push it away or try to ignore it, that that might actually be really helpful. So that capacity to sort of be mindfully aware or mindfully nonreactive to those experiences might do us good and might sort of better serve us and how we respond to stress and other negative or difficult events. And then that connection to sort of curiosity and exploration came from, from some evidence that, that mindfulness might actually help facilitate certain sort of academic capacities and outcomes. So for example, there's prior research to suggest that students who have that sort of high capacity for mindful awareness can also be more innovative, and might also perform better in sort of high stress or high stakes exams or evaluations. And so Tomas Estrada, and I did a first a survey study, looking at students in the engineering department and a couple of other academic departments to look at that relationship between mindfulness and the ability to sort of be curious and interested, right in new academic ideas, or, or new and challenging sort of projects, and an ability to explore new ideas as well. The idea being that those might be especially helpful to an engineer, right, so your interest in in capacity for sort of new problem solving or intellectual stretching and motivation, those might serve you well in that particular domain. And indeed, we did find that students ability to be mindfully non reactive to to their environments. So sort of sit with stress, or sort of sit with tension or anxiety that was positively associated with their preference for gaining new information and sort of their intellectual curiosity, as well as their ability to kind of tolerate uncertainty about things. So So that's another psychological phenomenon that is thought to relate back to sort of stress anxiety, the better able we are to accept when we don't know what's going to happen, which is a tough thing to do. You know, as humans, I think we're inclined to want to know exactly what's going to happen. But our ability to to not get too hung up on that and to be open to uncertainty is actually a helpful trait, and might also sort of affect the way that we experience stressful situations.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 47:37
In peacebuilding literature, I love how John Paul Lederach translates notions of ambiguity, intellectual stretching and vulnerability into notions of space that are infused with the creative stress of risk. Lederach writes, to live between memory and potentiality is to live permanently in a creative space, pregnant with the unexpected, but it is also to live in the permanency of risk, for the journey between what lies behind and what lies ahead, is never fully comprehended, nor even controlled. Such a space, however, is the womb of constructive change, the continuous birthplace of the past that lies before us.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 48:28
Anything I haven't asked you about this topic that you wish I would have asked, you
No, I mean, I think these have been great questions. I'm always excited to get to talk about this kind of stuff. So, yeah, I mean, I think, you know, some of the takeaways then for for teachers are that, it, I think it's really helpful to sort of create an environment where stress is not the enemy, right? Or it's not necessarily even something to be avoided. But helping students to sort of cultivate those attitudes and beliefs that they can learn and grow from these experiences that they they have, or they can further build and develop ways to cope and that they can feel confident in that, that that's going to help them not only in the classroom right to kind of potentially be comfortable experiencing uncertainty or you know, exploring new things that they're not as comfortable with, but but also just in life, because the way that they learned to cope with stress early on can really kind of set the stage for their ability to continue to do that down the road.
Kevin Shorner-Johnson 49:38
Special thanks to Dr. Elizabeth Dalton and Dr. Tomas Estrada for their sharing of time and expertise. I will be taking a longer break over the summer to center my own self care and spend time writing after what has been a very difficult year. My wishes to each of you that this time of summer might be a time of rest and renewal. When this podcast returns, we will have episodes coming on Balinese gamelan, a refugee youth choir in Lebanon, artistic peacebuilding and Columbia. Research on division and hate and more narratives exploring the power of peacebuilding and teaching. Stay tuned. This is the music and peacebuilding podcast hosted by Kevin Shorner-Johnson. At Elizabethtown college we host a master of music education with an emphasis on peacebuilding. thinking deeply we reclaim space for connection and care. Join us at music peace building.com