New studies on the effects of Mindfulness meditation 2: Exam stress

Another recent study on the beneficial effects of a mindfulness meditation programme, this time MBCT,  for university students facing exams. It has been found that students, under the stressful conditions of exams and the need to successfully complete their studies, are prone to depression, anxiety, automatic thoughts, and dysfunctional attitudes. This can lead to much lower scores and under-achievement.

To test this non-clinical population, a controlled study was conducted in Iran, with participants randomly assigned either to take part in an 8-week MBCT Course or remain in a waiting list control group. The MBCT group followed the standard Mindfulness programme, including 40 minutes of personal practice each day for the duration of the Course. They were assessed at 5 different points: pre-test, session 4, session 8, first follow-up (1 month) and second follow-up (6 months).

The results found that mindfulness was effective in helping the students to deal with their anxiety and depressive feelings before, during and after stressful circumstances. Furthermore, the reductions in negative automatic thoughts and dysfunctional attitudes were significant.

This is an interesting study because of the population and provides evidence that Mindfulness interventions might be of significant use in supporting well-being in students and others who are susceptible to experience anxiety and depression in real life situations as well as improving performance at crucial times.

Hossein Kaviani , Foroozan Javaheri , Neda Hatami, “Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) Reduces Depression and Anxiety Induced by Real Stressful Setting in Non-clinical Population” International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy, Volume 11 Num. 2,  June 2011.

New studies on the effects of Mindfulness meditation 1.

An interesting study has been recently published on the effects of a Mind-Body approach – namely, mindfulness meditation  – on Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). IBS is characterized by chronic pain in the abdomen, discomfort and a sense of bloating. Although the exact cause the complaint is still unknown, stress seems to be involved and there is no question but it dramatically affects the quality of the sufferer’s life. This study was a Randomized Controlled Trial involving 74 female IBS patients. They were split into two groups, both of which met for 8 weeks,  including a half day retreat. For the 8 weeks one group did the Course in  mindfulness meditation,  and the other group followed an IBS support group programme.

Following the eight week intervention, the patients who attended the mindfulness meditation training reported a 26.4 % decline in the severity of their symptoms, compared to a 6.2% decline in the support group participants. At a three-month follow-up, the mindfulness meditation group’s reduction increased to 38.2%, while the support group reduction increased to 11.8 %. The researchers concluded that “mindfulness meditation has a substantial therapeutic effect on bowel symptom severity, improves health-related quality of life, and reduces distress”, with the beneficial effects persisting for at least 3 months after group training.

This study is another piece of evidence that mind-body therapies can be used as effective adjuncts to conventional medical treatment for a number of common clinical conditions, including, among others, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, headaches, insomnia, and chronic low back pain.

Gaylord, S., et.al., “Mindfulness Training Reduces the Severity of Irritable Bowel Syndrome in Women: Results of a Randomized Controlled Trial” The American Journal of Gastroenterology, June 21, 2011.

Meditation exercises the brain and strengthens development

Meditation appears to be a powerful mental exercise with the potential to change the physical structure of the brain at large. Eileen Luders, UCLA

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence where  people say that meditation helps them feel more relaxed, peaceful, and focused. However, it is good to find clinical research which backs up some of this evidence with studies on physical changes to the brain. I posted recently on the ongoing work of Sara Lazar and her lab at Harvard who have documented changes in the brain’s gray matter after just the 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation in the MBSR Course. Now a new study has been published in UCLA which suggests that people who meditate  have stronger connections between brain regions and show less age-related brain atrophy.

Two years ago, the research team, led by Eileen Luders,  visiting assistant professor at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging,  found that specific regions in the brains of long-term meditators were larger and had more gray matter than the brains of individuals in a control group. This suggested that meditation may indeed be good for all of us since brains shrink naturally with age.  Now,  in a follow-up study, published in the current edition of the journal NeuroImage, they have found that meditation strengthen brain connections , which influences the ability to rapidly relay electrical signals in the brain.  And significantly, these effects are evident throughout the entire brain, not just in specific areas.

Luders used a new type of brain imaging known as diffusion tensor imaging, ( DTI),  that allows insights into the structural connectivity of the brain. They found that the differences between meditators and controls are not confined to a particular core region of the brain but involve large-scale networks that include the frontal, temporal, parietal and occipital lobes and the anterior corpus callosum, as well as limbic structures and the brain stem. They looked at 27 active meditation practitioners, men and women,  (average age 52), who were matched by age and sex with 27 non-meditators.   The meditators had been practicing  for a number of years, anywhere between 5 to 46.

The results led Luders to state: Our results suggest that long-term meditators have white-matter fibers that are either more numerous, more dense or more insulated throughout the brain.  We also found that the normal age-related decline of white-matter tissue is considerably reduced in active meditation practitioners. [Therefore]…. It is possible that actively meditating, especially over a long period of time, can induce changes on a micro-anatomical level.

It is, of course possible, that the brains of meditators were already different to begin with, even before they started practice. However, the fact that 100% of the trial group showed the same characteristics suggests that it is statistically unlikely that this condition was an antecedent fact. Indeed,  Luders work suggests that meditation acts as a type of mental fitness, causing alterations to the structure as well as the functioning of the brain, and slowing down the aging decay that occurs there.

Mindfulness meditation improves sense of well being in teenagers

An interesting study has been carried out on the effect of meditation on teenage boys in two schools in the U.K.  Researchers from the University of Cambridge analyzed 155 boys from two schools, Tonbridge and Hampton, before and after a  4-week course in mindfulness,  comparing them to a control group on measures of mindfulness, resilience and psychological well-being.  The training consisted of four 40 minute classes, once a week, which presented the principles and practice of mindfulness. The classes covered the concepts such as awareness and acceptance, and taught practical skills such as how to practice bodily awareness by noticing where they were in contact with their chairs or the floor, paying attention to their breathing, and noticing the sensations involved in walking.  Furthermore, the students were  asked to practice outside the classroom and were encouraged to listen to an audio recording for eight minutes a day.

After the trial period, the 14 and 15 year-old boys were found to have increased well-being, defined as the combination of feeling good – having more positive emotions such as happiness, contentment, interest and affection – and functioning well. Most students reported enjoying and benefiting from the mindfulness training, and 74% said they would like to continue with it in the future.

Lead researcher Dr Felicia Hubbert summed up the findings as follows: More and more we are realising the importance of supporting the overall mental health of children. Our study demonstrates that this type of training improves wellbeing in adolescents and that the more they practise, the greater the benefits. Importantly, many of the students genuinely enjoyed the exercises and said they intended to continue them – a good sign that many children would be receptive to this type of intervention. Another significant aspect of this study is that adolescents who suffered from higher levels of anxiety were the ones who benefitted most.

Felicia Huppert, Daniel Johnson: “A controlled trial of mindfulness training in schools; the importance of practice for an impact on well-being.” The Journal of Positive Psychology. Volume 5 Issue 4,  2010

Meditation helps you focus and turn down distractions

The world today is increasingly distracting, with faster media and social networking sites increasing the speed at which we can access information and the amount of time we feel we need to stay connected. A recent study suggests that one key value of meditation may be that it helps the brain deal with this often overstimulating world.

The study, published online on April 21 in the Brain Research Bulletin, was conducted by researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It found that modulation of the alpha rhythm in response to attention-directing cues was faster and significantly more enhanced among participants who completed an eight-week MBSR mindfulness meditation programme than in a control group. Using magnetoencephalography (MEG), an imaging technique that detects the location of brain activity with extreme precision, the researchers measured participants’ alpha rhythms before, during and after the eight-week period. They found that  meditators were better able to focus their attention and thus choose relevant new information easier and faster.

Lead researcher Catherine Kerr, PhD, of the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH and the Osher Research Center at Harvard Medical School, explained the findings in this way:  Our discovery that mindfulness meditators more quickly adjusted the brain wave that screens out distraction could explain their superior ability to rapidly remember and incorporate new facts.

Christopher Moore, an MIT neuroscientist, goes further : These activity patterns are thought to minimize distractions, to diminish the likelihood stimuli will grab your attention. Our data indicate that meditation training makes you better at focusing, in part by allowing you to better regulate how things that arise will impact you.

The implications of these findings go far beyond just meditation and could lead to developments in helping people who suffer from dysregulated brain function in ADHD (Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) and other conditions.

Catherine E. Kerr, Stephanie R. Jones, Qian Wan, Dominique L. Pritchett, Rachel H. Wasserman, Anna Wexler, Joel J. Villanueva, Jessica R. Shaw, Sara W. Lazar, Ted J. Kaptchuk, Ronnie Littenberg, Matti S. Hämäläinen and Christopher I. Moore. “Effects of mindfulness meditation training on anticipatory alpha modulation in primary somatosensory cortex.” Brain Research Bulletin. 2011

Study shows we are on autopilot most of the time

I came across this study,  carried out by Dan Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth,  just yesterday, even though it was published last November.  It confirms that most of us are ‘mentally checked out’ for a good portion of the day, operating on a type of autopilot which does not lead us to feeling very content.  For 46.9% of the time during their waking hours people are engaged in ‘mind wandering’,  not really focusing on the outside world or the task at hand, but rather looking into their own thoughts. And what this study of 2,250 people shows is that this activity  – despite its obvious attraction – doesn’t make us feel happy.

The study was designed to find out what kind of activities people did throughout a day, and which made them happiest.  So people were asked to indicated what they were engaged in at different random moments chosen during the day.   Mind wandering was just one of 22 possible activities people could list, but turned out one of the most common. And here is the interesting part – the participants reported being unhappy during the periods of mind wandering. Thus how people deal with mind wandering is a better predictor of happiness than many other indicators which we normally use, such as relationships, careers or the  actual activities people are engaged in. The study is another support for the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation, with its emphasis on just staying in the present moment and recognizing our stories as stories, as an aid toward greater happiness.