A review of the evidence
Reprinted from the Mindfulness issue of Visions Journal, 2016, 12 (2), p. 8
Stress is a common factor in the modern world, triggered, in part, by the demands of work and family life, the constant bombardment of information that we receive from social media and email, and financial uncertainty. Many of us have begun introducing meditation or mindfulness activities into our wellness regimen to try to reduce our stress and anxiety.
Since the terms “meditation” and “mindfulness” are often used interchangeably by the general population, it’s helpful to understand their history and what they mean in a general sense. The secular practice of mindfulness was introduced partly through the work of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who launched his mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in the 1970s.1 Kabat-Zinn indicates that mindfulness can be cultivated through formal meditation, but that formal meditation is not the only way to achieve mindfulness. He describes mindfulness in his book Full Catastrophe Living as “moment-to-moment awareness. It is cultivated by purposefully paying attention to things we ordinarily never give a moment’s thought to.”2 Key components of practising mindfulness, according to Kabat-Zinn, are focusing attention on your breathing, noticing your environment and what is happening in your body and recognizing that your thoughts and emotions are not a part of you.
The history of meditation is ancient, pre-dating mindfulness by thousands of years. It has roots in religion—particularly Buddhism and Taoism, where the focus of meditation is on spiritual growth and transcending the emotions. In the Western world, where meditation has been adopted and adapted in much the same way that yoga was, the term refers to many practices, of which mindfulness is only one. When practitioners today refer to “mindfulness meditation,” they are usually describing the basic practice of sitting comfortably, focusing on breathing and bringing one’s attention to the present moment.
There are many other mindfulness techniques. In addition to Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR, researchers also refer to mindfulness and acceptance-based interventions (MABI) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT).
Mindfulness practice is an empirically supported intervention for many disorders because it reduces physical stress, such as pain, as well as mental stress. Scientific confirmation of the positive effects of this type of practice has reached critical mass only in the past 10 years. Until recently in Western society, the idea of meditation was closely linked in people’s minds to Eastern religions and practices. Now, in part because of growing scientific interest, meditation and mindfulness have moved into the mainstream. Mindfulness programs are even sprouting up in the corporate world, with Apple, Ford, Google and Target integrating them into their company wellness initiatives. Schools in the US and Canada are also experimenting with mindfulness techniques in the classroom.
The following is a quick overview of the most interesting and relevant recent research on how anxiety is affected by mindfulness practices (variously referred to as “meditation” and “mindfulness meditation” in the studies themselves).
In an extensive meta-study, researchers at Johns Hopkins sifted through almost 19,000 mindfulness meditation studies to identify those with sufficient rigour to be scientifically convincing. Only 47 of these studies met researchers’ criteria for a well-designed study. Researchers included only those studies of adult programs where meditation with a teacher was the sole foundation and made up the majority of the intervention. But researchers excluded, for example, studies where self-selection biases could exist—that is, where participants had a previous bias towards mindfulness meditation.
Researchers found that “mindfulness meditation programs,” specifically, can reduce the negative dimensions of psychological stress, including anxiety, across a broad range of clinical conditions. They concluded that over two to six months, the effects were clinically small but “comparable to what would be expected from the use of an anti-depressant in a primary care population.”3
In 2011, researchers at Harvard found that just eight weeks of MBSR by participants decreased brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is the part of the brain responsible for anxiety, fear and stress. Participants were all psychologically healthy adults seeking stress reduction who had taken no more than 10 meditation classes in their lifetime and none in the past six months. According to the researchers, the results suggest that MBSR helps the brain to process in areas related to individual self-reference, perspectives and the regulation of emotion.4
It seems that MBSR may reduce our tendency to automatically and compulsively react to events in our life. MBSR, therefore, may be helpful for individuals suffering not only from generalized anxiety disorder but also social anxiety disorder (SAD). People with SAD tend to have problems with emotional regulation5 and often experience distorted self-views. A study comparing the benefits of MBSR to aerobic exercise in people with SAD found that meditation was associated with decreases in symptom severity and an increased ability to regulate negative self-talk.6
Studies have also shown that meditation re-wires the connections between the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that processes information about oneself, and the parts of the brain that control sensation and fear. Someone practising meditation is often better able to ignore whatever sensations might otherwise have caused anxiety. The neural pathways that link to those upsetting sensations are weakened.7
Another study8 conducted at Yale University offers insight into the possible neural mechanisms of meditation. Researchers found that meditation decreases activity in the default mode network (DMN), also known as the “monkey mind,” so named because it is most active when our minds swing quickly from thought to thought. In the study, the main nodes of the DMN were found to be relatively deactivated in experienced meditators. Furthermore, the regions of the brain associated with self-monitoring and cognitive control were more connected in people who practised meditation.
Meditation and other mindfulness-based therapies have caught the attention of the public and researchers because they offer a relatively side-effect-free antidote to the frenetic challenges of our daily lives. There are some reservations, however: there is still insufficient research on the possible adverse effects of meditation and mindfulness, including, say some researchers, the potential for meditation to worsen symptoms of anxiety and other mental disorders in some individuals.9
Yet while mindfulness practice cannot be considered a cure-all for the various forms of anxiety that many of us experience, the research does show that, for most people, quieting one’s mind, even if only for a few minutes a day, can lead to decreased stress and anxiety, greater self-control and a lessened tendency to take things personally. We may not be able to control what happens in the outside world, but we now know that we have some control over how we react to it—and that the tools to do this are within ourselves.
Check out AnxietyBC’s free MindShift app. The Chill-Out Tools section includes mindfulness strategies. The audio files are meant to help reduce stress and anxiety.
About the author
Justine is a writer, editor and researcher with 20 years of experience writing and developing content for diverse clients, including AnxietyBC
This article was reviewed for content by Dr. Melanie Badali, a Board Member of AnxietyBC
Center for Mindfulness, University of Massachusetts Medical School. (n.d.). Faculty biography, Jon Kabat-Zinn. Retrieved from www.umassmed.edu/cfm/about-us/people/2-meet-our-faculty/kabat-zinn-profile/.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness (p. 2). New York, NY: Delta.
Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E.M.S., Gould, N.F., Rowland-Seymour, A., Sharma, R., Berger, Z., Sleicher, D., Maron, D.D., Shihab, H.M., Ranasinghe, P.D., Linn, S., Saha, S., Bass, E.B. & Haythornthwaite, J. (2014). Meditation programs for psychological stress, and well-being: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Internal Medicine, 174(3), 357-368. (p. 364).
Holzel, B.K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S.M., Gard, T. & Lazar, S.W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research, 191(1), 36-43.
Jazaieri, H., Morrison, A.S., Goldin, P.R. & Gross, J.J. (2015). The role of emotion and emotion regulation in social anxiety disorder. Current Psychiatry Reports, 17(1), 531.
Goldin, P., Ziv, M., Jazaieri, H. & Gross, J.J. (2012). Randomized controlled trial of mindfulness-based stress reduction versus aerobic exercise: Effects on the self-referential brain network in social anxiety disorder. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6, 295.
Zeidan, F, Martucci, K.T., Kraft, R.A., McHaffie, J.G. & Coghill, R.C. (2013). Neural correlates of mindfulness and meditation-related anxiety relief. Oxford Journals, Medicine & Health, Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience, 9(6), 751-759.
Brewer, J.A., Worhunsky, P.D., Gray, J.R., Tang, Y., Weber, J. & Kober, H. (2011). Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108(50), 20254-20259.
Farias, M. & Wikholm, C. (2015). The Buddha pill: Can meditation change you? London: Watkins.