can meditation reduce stress?
Dhyana heyah tad vrttayah.
Meditation removes disturbances of the mind. (Yoga Sutra II.11)
Research shows that meditation can help people with anxiety disorders. Philippe Goldin, director of the Clinically Applied Affective Neuroscience project in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University, uses mindfulness meditation in his studies. The general practice is to become aware of the present moment—by paying attention to sounds, your breath, sensations in your body, or thoughts or feelings—and to observe without judgment and without trying to change what you notice.
Like most of us, the participants in Goldin’s studies suffer from all sorts of disturbances of the mind—worries, self-doubt, stress, and even panic. But people with anxiety disorders feel unable to escape from such thoughts and emotions, and find their lives overtaken by them. Goldin’s research shows that mindfulness meditation offers freedom for people with anxiety, in part by changing the way the brain responds to negative thoughts.
In his studies, participants take an eight-week mindfulness-based course in stress reduction. They meet once weekly for a class and practice on their own for up to an hour a day. The training includes mindfulness meditation, walking meditation, gentle yoga, and relaxation with body awareness as well as discussions about mindfulness in everyday life.
Before and after the intervention, participants have their brains scanned inside an fMRI (or functional MRI) machine, which looks at brain activity rather than the structure of the brain, while completing what Goldin calls “self-referential processing”—that is, thinking about themselves. An fMRI scanner tracks which brain areas consume more energy during meditation and, therefore, which regions are more active.
Ironically, the brain-scanning sessions could provoke anxiety even in the calmest of people. Participants must lie immobilized on their back with their head held in the brain scanner. They rest their teeth on dental wax to prevent any head movement or talking. They are then asked to reflect on different statements about themselves that appear on a screen in front of their face. Some of the statements are positive, but many of them are not, such as “I’m not OK the way I am,” or “Something’s wrong with me.” These are exactly the kinds of thoughts that plague people with anxiety.
The brain scans in Goldin’s studies show a surprising pattern. After the mindfulness intervention, participants have greater activity in a brain network associated with processing information when they reflect on negative self-statements. In other words, they pay more attention to the negative statements than they did before the intervention. And yet, they also show decreased activation in the amygdala—a region associated with stress and anxiety. Most important, the participants suffered less. “They reported less anxiety and worrying,” Goldin says. “They put themselves down less, and their self-esteem improved.”
Goldin’s interpretation of the findings is that mindfulness meditation teaches people with anxiety how to handle distressing thoughts and emotions without being overpowered by them. Most people either push away unpleasant thoughts or obsess over them—both of which give anxiety more power. “The goal of meditation is not to get rid of thoughts or emotions. The goal is to become more aware of your thoughts and emotions and learn how to move through them without getting stuck.” The brain scans suggest that the anxiety sufferers were learning to witness negative thoughts without going into a full-blown anxiety response. Research from other laboratories is confirming that mindfulness meditation can lead to lasting positive changes in the brain. For example, a recent study by Massachusetts General -Hospital and Harvard University put 26 highly stressed adults through an eight-week mindfulness-based course in stress reduction that followed the same basic format as Goldin’s study. Brain scans were taken before and after the intervention, along with participants’ own reports of stress. The participants who reported decreased stress also showed decreases in gray -matter density in the amygdala. Previous research had revealed that trauma and chronic stress can enlarge the amygdala and make it more reactive and more connected to other areas of the brain, leading to greater stress and anxiety. This study is one of the first documented cases showing change ocurring in the opposite direction—with the brain instead becoming less reactive and more resilient.
Together, these studies provide exciting evidence that small doses of mental training, such as an eight-week mindfulness course, can create important changes in one’s mental well-being.
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adapted from Yoga Journal, by Kelly McGonigal
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