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A common way to treat anxiety disorders is to expose patients to the cause of their anxiety in a safe environment until it no longer elicits fear, a process known as exposure therapy. This exposure provides an opportunity to learn that these causes are not threatening and thereby help individuals regulate their emotional responses. To be successful, first a new memory must be created between the root of the anxiety and a feeling of safety, then the "safety" memory must be recalled when the cause is presented again in a new environment, rather than the original fearful memory.
Mindfulness meditation been proposed to provide an optimal condition for exposure therapy because it involves experiencing the present moment with an open, curious and non-reactive mindset. Numerous studies have documented that mindfulness meditation programs are useful for reducing anxiety, however, the exact reasons were unknown. The current study investigated enhanced learning of the "safety" signal as one way through which mindfulness can help individuals learn to adapt more positively to the causes of their anxiety.
Gunes Sevinc, PhD
Mindfulness training may improve emotion regulation by changing the way our brain responds to what we’re afraid of and reminding us that it is no longer threatening.
Investigator, Department of Psychiatry at Mass General, & Study AuthorThe researchers used MRI brain scans and a fear-conditioning task to examine changes in the brain associated with attention and memory following mindfulness meditation training. In the study, 42 participants completed an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program in which they learned formal meditation and yoga practices. Another 25 participants were randomized to an exercise-based stress management control group, in which they were taught about the impact of stress and performed light aerobic exercise. The researchers found that changes in the brain after mindfulness training were associated with enhanced ability to recall the safety memory, and thus respond in a more adaptive way.
Sara Lazar, PhD
Fear and anxiety have a habitual component to them – the memory of something that provoked fear in the past will trigger a habitual fear response when we are reminded of the event, even if there is no direct threat at the present.
Researcher, Mass General Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program, & Study Co-Author
One of the major caveats in the study was that all of the participants were healthy individuals without anxiety. Future studies need to be done with clinical samples and using threatening stimuli relevant to their anxiety (e.g. spiders, cues that trigger panic or PTSD, etc.) to determine if similar changes in brain activation occur in these conditions. Furthermore, some of the findings were observed in both the mindfulness and control groups, suggesting that some of the changes are not unique to mindfulness training, or might be due to some other component of the program, such as social support. Additional co-authors include Gunes Sevinc, Britta K. Hölzel, Jonathan Greenberg, Tim Gard, Vincent Brunsch, Javaria A. Hashmi, Mark Vangel, Scott P. Orr, Mohammed R. Milad.
About the Massachusetts General Hospital
Massachusetts General Hospital, founded in 1811, is the original and largest teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. The MGH Research Institute conducts the largest hospital-based research program in the nation, with an annual research budget of more than $1 billion and comprises more than 8,500 researchers working across more than 30 institutes, centers and departments. In August 2019 the MGH was once again named #2 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report in its list of "America’s Best Hospitals."
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