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The Physiological Benefits of Staying Present Through Difficult Times

The Physiological Benefits of Staying Present Through Difficult Times



Research shows that we can experience less physical and emotional pain and discomfort when we choose to face our difficulties. The benefits of staying present and confronting our difficulties are rooted in the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP) is a treatment that trains people with addictive habits to manage their cravings mindfully by staying present to the sensations of craving as opposed to distracting from, avoiding, resisting or defeating those cravings.

The ‘Anatomy’ of Stress Management by Staying Present

Studies on MBRP suggest that mindfulness training has proven to be the most successful approach when it comes to managing mental pain and discomfort.

Mindfulness-trained patients experienced the following results:

  • - They drank and used drugs significantly less than those treated with cognitive-behavioural, twelve-step and psycho-education therapy programs.
  • - They benefited in the longer term as they learned to skillfully monitor and cope with “discomfort associated with craving or negative affect.”
  • - They are more able to tolerate their own distress instead of reacting in harmful ways.
  • - People with chronic conditions experienced a reduction in pain even though they may still suffer from the illness.
  • - For smokers, mindfulness training proved to be more than 5 times as effective as a standard smoking cessation programme, as measured by abstinence from cigarettes after 4 months.
  • - They experienced brain changes that shifted their experience of, and relationship with pain as a result of decreased activity in the primary somatosensory cortex (an area of the brain involved in registering pain) and increased activity in three areas involved in the regulation of pain — the anterior insula, the anterior cingulate cortex and the pre-frontal cortex.
  • - They experienced decreased activity in the sympathetic nervous system, which controls the “fight or flight” reaction.
  • - They experienced decreased activity and grey matter volume in the amygdala, which is a key indicator of the “fight or flight” reaction.
  • - They experienced a thickening in parts of the pre-frontal cortex, which strengthened their body’s capacity to regulate stress.
  • - They experienced increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), resulting in better stress regulation and less impulsive behaviour and mental inflexibility.


The ability to cope with difficulties can be trained and cultivated, even with young children. For example, pre-school children who received mindfulness training over 6 months, were found to be less impulsive than the children who did not.


The Benefits of Embracing Discomfort

You may not believe it, but just the act of you describing unpleasant experiences mindfully can not only positively affect your stress levels, but also positively influence your behaviour.


In one study, people with a fear of spiders were asked to walk towards and try to touch a live tarantula.


  • - The first group was asked to reassure themselves as they approached the spider.
  • - The second group was advised to distract themselves from what they were trying to do.
  • - The third group was encouraged to acknowledge and face their fear by saying that “I am frightened by the big ugly spider.”


By openly staying present to their fear, it turns out that members from the third group were able to get closest to the tarantula as they felt least upset by the experience and had the least sweaty palms.

In addition, staying present during difficult times has a significant impact on well-being. A study on wandering minds has found that people are actually less happy when their minds are distracted, even when they are doing something deemed displeasing to them. For example, people who are not keen on their day-to-day commute may actually be happier and less stressed if their minds are present and engage in the experience of that commute instead of wandering away from it.

Another study has shown that the risk of long-term depression may be increased by avoiding stress. Therefore, to enjoy good physical health and emotional well-being, we should perceive stress as natural, normal, manageable and something we can learn from and make use of when dealing with challenges as opposed to something to be dismissed or even disposed of.

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