|Researchers claim that mindfulness meditation training can help with anxiety and it should be used with other forms of therapy in order for it to be highly effective / Photo by: Katarzyna Białasiewicz via 123RF|
Researchers claim that mindfulness meditation training can help with anxiety and it should be used with other forms of therapy in order for it to be highly effective.
What Is Mindfulness?
According to Professor Mark Williams from the Oxford Mindfulness Center, mindfulness is when an individual knows directly what is going on inside and outside of himself or herself. An important part of mindfulness is reconnecting the body to the sensations that it experiences. This means waking up to the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the present moment. Also, another implication of mindfulness is the awareness of thoughts and feelings as they happen in the moment. This allows the person to see the present moment clearer and it can positively change the way they lead their lives.
Mindfulness Can Make It Easier to Forget Fears
The researchers from the University of Southern Denmark, Uppsala University, Lund University, Peking University, and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai all had a collaborative effort in new mindfulness research that claims that practicing mindfulness can produce lasting reductions in threat-related arousal responses.
In the experiment, participants were randomly assigned to receive either four weeks of daily mindfulness training that was to be delivered by the Headspace mindfulness mobile app or were assigned to a waitlist control condition. Then, the participants underwent psychological experiments on two consecutive days in which they are conditioned with fear reactions that were established on day 1 and then immediately extinguished. In order to condition their fears, the subjects were shown neutral images on a computer screen and some of those images were directly followed by an uncomfortable electric shock to the hand. Then, the researchers were able to extinguish these reactions by repeatedly showing the images again but this time without the electric shocks anymore.
On the second day, the participants returned and the lasting effects of the fear extinction were evaluated by the researchers. The fear reactions were measured using skin conductance, which is an index for showing how much the subject is sweating, which is directly connected to the fight-or-flight response of humans. After 24 hours, the researchers had to test the retention of the extinction learning and when the participants returned they were hooked up to the shock apparatus and again shown some images they viewed the previous day but this time without the shocks.
The results showed that the group that had been doing mindfulness training and meditation showed lower fear reactions compared to the controlled group. The fear reactions of the mindfulness group remained at the same low level they were at by the end of the extinction the previous day -- this means that there was an improvement of the ability to form and retain extinction memories, compared to the controlled group that showed a substantial increase in fear reactions, as reported on Science Daily, a psychology and human behavioral news website.
Johannes Bjorkstrand, the first author of the study, explained that his team can show how mindfulness does not only have an effect on the subjective experience of negative emotions but it has also shown that it actually has clear effects on the autonomic arousal responses, even with a limited amount of training. It is also interesting that the intervention appears to have a specific effect on extinction retention, which is in line with the previous brain imaging studies that were also done on mindfulness. These results have some implications on how these types of training and meditation can be used to treat anxiety-related problems in a clinical context.
Anxiety, depression, and trauma disorders are often treated using exposure therapy, which is a psychological treatment that is based on extinction learning, but not everyone responds well to these treatments because it is possible that some individuals with these disorders have difficulty forming lasting extinction memories compared to healthy individuals and this could represent an underlying vulnerability that increases the risk of developing these types of problems, to begin with, and prevents a successful treatment.
Bjorkstrand adds that their results suggest that if mindfulness training is combined with exposure therapy, it can give psychiatrists and psychologists a larger and longer-lasting treatment for their patients. The research team will repeat the experiment with twice the number of participants and they will also use an fMRI scanner that can measure the brain activities of the subjects. They hope that their findings can bring further development if mindfulness technique and be used as an effective therapy tool for anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders.
How to Be More Mindful
Notice every day - it is important to notice the sensations of the things that you eat, the air that moves past your body as you walk -- it may sound very small and mundane but these things have a huge power to interrupt the autopilot mode that most people engage in every day.
Regular meditation habits - mindfulness meditation involves sitting silently and paying attention to your thoughts, sounds, surroundings, and the sensations of breathing or some parts of the body and bringing back your attention whenever the mind starts to wander. This can help with relaxation and keeping anxieties at bay.
Other Benefits of Mindfulness
According to the American Psychological Association, mindfulness has these benefits:
Reduced stress - mindfulness meditation increases positive affect and decreases anxiety and negative affect. It can shift people’s ability to use emotion regulation strategies in a way that enables them to experience emotions selectively and focus on the positive emotions that can give them less stress and anxiety. Mindfulness can also help alleviate stress by improving emotion regulation and this leads to a better mood overall.
Better focus - researchers have found out that people who did mindful meditation had a better performance on all measures of attention and had higher self-reported mindfulness, which was directly correlated with their cognitive flexibility and attentional functioning.
Decreased depressive symptoms - mindfulness has also long been considered as an effective supplemental tool for depression. It can decrease depressive symptoms, anxiety, and stress in young adults and also increase self-compassion.
Other benefits: mindfulness has been shown to enhance self-insight, morality, intuition, and fear modulation -- all these functions are related to the brain’s middle prefrontal lobe area.