Mindfulness is a 3000-year-old exercise which teaches how to be nonjudgmental of one’s own thoughts, feelings and state of mind. Mindfulness is central to most positive psychology programs due to it’s wide-ranging positive health benefits. Mindfulness has been shown to be highly beneficial in reducing symptoms of depression, chronic anger, anxiety, chronic stress and even reduces the healing time for skin disorders like psoriasis. Mindfulness is backed by research spanning 35 years showing the worth of the practice. There is even a new branch of medicine that has evolved called integrative medicine which blends traditional Western medicine with mindfulness training (largely thanks to the efforts of Jon Kabat-Zinn).
Most recently, active participation in an 8-week mindfulness program was shown to make noticeable physical changes in brain areas associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. In a new study coming out in the January 30 issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, spearheaded by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers share the results of their study, the first ever to demonstrate mindfulness-produced improvements over an 8-week period in the brain’s grey matter.
Mindfulness – One of the Best Tools Available for Stress, Anxiety, Anger & Depression
“Although the practice of mindfulness is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that mindfulness also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day,” says Sara Lazar, PhD, of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program, the study’s lead author.
Prior studies found structural differences between the brains of experienced mindfulness practitioners and individuals with no history of mindfulness, with thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas associated with awareness and emotional intelligence. But those studies were unable to conclude that those differences were truly produced by the practice of mindfulness.
In this study, magnetic resonance images were taken of the brains of sixteen (16) participants two weeks before and after they took part in the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness. In addition to weekly meetings that included the practice of mindfulness — which focuses on nonjudgmental awareness of thoughts, feelings and sensations — participants received audio files to use for daily guided mindfulness practice. Participants tracked the amount of time they practiced mindfulness each day. A set of MRI brain images were also taken of a control group of people who did not practice mindfulness over the same 8-week period.
Mindfulness group participants spent an average of 27 minutes daily practicing mindfulness exercises. Their answers to a mindfulness questionnaire showed significant improvements in mindfulness and meta-cognition compared with pre-study responses.
Physical Changes In Brain Due to Mindfulness Practice
The analysis of brain images found increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, which is associated with new learning and long-term memory, as well as in brain regions associated with self-awareness and empathy.
Decrease in Stress & the Amygdala
Those who reported a decrease in stress also had a decrease in grey-matter density in the amygdala, which is associated with the presence of anxiety, depression and stress. Interestingly, no such changes were seen in the control group, indicating that the brain changes were not a result of the inevitable passage of time.
“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing mindfulness, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being, reduce stress and quality of life.” says Britta Hölzel, PhD, first author of the paper and a research fellow at MGH and Giessen University in Germany. “Other studies in different patient populations have shown that mindfulness can make significant improvements in a variety of symptoms, and we are now investigating the underlying mechanisms in the brain that facilitate this change.”
John Schinnerer, Ph.D., Founder of Guide to Self, Inc.
John Schinnerer, Ph.D. is in private practice in Danville, CA teaching clients the latest tools to manage emotions such as anger, anxiety and depression. Using positive psychology, he helps clients achieve happy, thriving, meaningful lives. He graduated summa cum laude from U.C. Berkeley with a Ph.D. in educational psychology. John hosted over 200 episodes of Guide To Self Radio, a prime time radio show on positive psychology, in the San Francisco Bay Area. He wrote the award-winning book, ‘Guide To Self: The Beginner’s Guide To Managing Emotion and Thought.’ He sits on the Advisory Board of PsychCentral.com, one of the top psychology sites on the web. He may be reached via email at John@GuideToSelf.com. His award-winning blog on positive psychology, Shrunken Mind is at http://drjohnblog.guidetoself.com. His newest blog on positive psychology and anger management can be found at http://webangermanagement.com.
The above story is reprinted from materials provided by Massachusetts General Hospital.
1. Britta K. Hölzel, James Carmody, Mark Vangel, Christina Congleton, Sita M. Yerramsetti, Tim Gard, Sara W. Lazar. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 2011; 191 (1): 36 DOI: 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006