1. Mental training changes brain structure and reduces social stress

    October 13, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences press release:

    Meditation is beneficial for our well-being. This ancient wisdom has been supported by scientific studies focusing on the practice of mindfulness. However, the words “mindfulness” and “meditation” denote a variety of mental training techniques that aim at the cultivation of various different competencies. In other words, despite growing interest in meditation research, it remains unclear which type of mental practice is particularly useful for improving either attention and mindfulness or social competencies, such as compassion and perspective-taking.

    Other open questions are, for example, whether such practices can induce structural brain plasticity and alter brain networks underlying the processing of such competencies, and which training methods are most effective in reducing social stress. To answer these questions, researchers from the Department of Social Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute of Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany conducted the large-scale ReSource Project aiming at teasing apart the unique effects of different methods of mental training on the brain, body, and on social behaviour.

    The ReSource Project consisted of three 3-month training modules, each focusing on a different competency. The first module trained mindfulness-based attention and interoception. Participants were instructed in classical meditation techniques similar to those taught in the 8-week Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR), which requires one to focus attention on the breath (Breathing Meditation), on sensations in different parts of the body (Body Scan), or on visual or auditory cues in the environment. Both exercises were practised in solitude.

    Training in the second module focused on socio-affective competencies, such as compassion, gratitude, and dealing with difficult emotions. In addition to classical meditation exercises, participants learnt a new technique requiring them to practise each day for 10 minutes in pairs. These partner exercises, or so-called “contemplative dyads,” were characterised by a focused exchange of every-day life affective experiences aiming to train gratitude, dealing with difficult emotions, and empathic listening.

    In the third module, participants trained socio-cognitive abilities, such as metacognition and perspective-taking on aspects of themselves and on the minds of others. Again, besides classical meditation exercises, this module also offered dyadic practices focusing on improving perspective-taking abilities. In pairs, participants learnt to mentally take the perspective of an “inner part” or aspect of their personality. Examples of inner parts were the “worried mother,” the “curious child,” or the “inner judge.”

    By reflecting on a recent experience from this perspective, the speaker in dyadic pair-exercise trained in perspective-taking on the self, thus gaining a more comprehensive understanding of his or her inner world. By trying to infer which inner part is speaking, the listener practices taking the perspective of the other.

    All exercises were trained on six days a week for a total of 30 minutes a day. Researchers assessed a variety of measures such as psychological behavioural tests, brain measures by means of magnetic resonance-imaging (MRI), and stress markers such as cortisol release before and after each of the three three-month training modules.

    Depending on which mental training technique was practised over a period of three months, specific brain structures and related behavioural markers changed significantly in the participants. For example, after the training of mindfulness-based attention for three months, we observed changes in the cortex in areas previously shown to be related to attention and executive functioning.

    Simultaneously, attention increased in computer-based tasks measuring executive aspects of attention, while performance in measures of compassion or perspective-taking had not increased significantly. These social abilities were only impacted in our participants during the other two more intersubjective modules,” states Sofie Valk, first author of the publication, which has just been released by the journal Science Advances.

    “In the two social modules, focusing either on socio-affective or socio-cognitive competencies, we were able to show selective behavioural improvements with regard to compassion and perspective-taking. These changes in behaviour corresponded with the degree of structural brain plasticity in specific regions in the cortex which support these capacities,” according to Valk.

    “Even though brain plasticity in general has long been studied in neuroscience, until now little was known about the plasticity of the social brain. Our results provide impressive evidence for brain plasticity in adults through brief and concentrated daily mental practice, leading to an increase in social intelligence. As empathy, compassion, and perspective-taking are crucial competencies for successful social interactions, conflict resolution, and cooperation, these findings are highly relevant to our educational systems as well as for clinical application,” explains Prof. Tania Singer, principal investigator of the ReSource Project.

    Besides differentially affecting brain plasticity, the different types of mental training also differentially affected the stress response. “We discovered that in participants subjected to a psychosocial stress test, the secretion of the stress hormone cortisol was diminished by up to 51%. However, this reduced stress sensitivity was dependent on the types of previously trained mental practice,” says Dr Veronika Engert, first author of another publication from the ReSource Project, which describes the connection between mental training and the acute psychosocial stress response, also recently published in Science Advances. “Only the two modules focusing on social competencies significantly reduced cortisol release after a social stressor. We speculate that the cortisol stress response was affected particularly by the dyadic exercises practised in the social modules. The daily disclosure of personal information to a stranger coupled with the non-judgmental, empathic listening experience in the dyads may have “immunised” participants against the fear of social shame and judgment by others — typically a salient trigger of social stress. The concentrated training of mindfulness-based attention and interoceptive awareness, on the other hand, had no dampening effect on the release of cortisol after experiencing a social stressor.”

    Interestingly, despite these differences on the level of stress physiology, each of the 3-month training modules reduced the subjective perception of stress. This means that although objective, physiological changes in social stress reactivity were only seen when participants engaged with others and trained their inter-subjective abilities, and participants felt subjectively less stressed after all mental training modules.

    “The current results highlight not only that crucial social competencies necessary for successful social interaction and cooperation can still be improved in healthy adults and that such mental training leads to structural brain changes and to social stress reduction, but also that different methods of mental training have differential effects on the brain, on health, and behaviour. It matters what you train,” suggests Prof. Singer. “Once we have understood which mental training techniques have which effects, we will be able to employ these techniques in a targeted way to support mental and physical health.”

    For example, many currently popular mindfulness programmes may be a valid method to foster attention and strengthen cognitive efficiency. However, if we as a society want to become less vulnerable to social stress or train social competencies, such as empathy, compassion, and perspective-taking, mental training techniques focusing more on the “we” and social connectedness among people may be a better choice.


  2. Study suggests yoga, meditation improve brain function and energy levels

    September 18, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Waterloo press release:

    Practicing brief sessions of Hatha yoga and mindfulness meditation can significantly improve brain function and energy levels, according to a new study from the University of Waterloo.

    The study found that practicing just 25 minutes of Hatha yoga or mindfulness meditation per day can boost the brain’s executive functions, cognitive abilities linked to goal-directed behavior and the ability to control knee-jerk emotional responses, habitual thinking patterns and actions.

    “Hatha yoga and mindfulness meditation both focus the brain’s conscious processing power on a limited number of targets like breathing and posing, and also reduce processing of nonessential information,” said Peter Hall, associate professor in the School of Public Health & Health Systems. “These two functions might have some positive carryover effect in the near- term following the session, such that people are able to focus more easily on what they choose to attend to in everyday life.”

    Thirty-one study participants completed 25 minutes of Hatha yoga, 25 minutes of mindfulness meditation, and 25 minutes of quiet reading (a control task) in randomized order. Following both the yoga and meditation activities, participants performed significantly better on executive function tasks compared to the reading task.

    “This finding suggests that there may be something special about meditation — as opposed to the physical posing — that carries a lot of the cognitive benefits of yoga,” said Kimberley Luu, lead author on the paper.

    The study also found that mindfulness meditation and Hatha yoga were both effective for improving energy levels, but Hatha yoga had significantly more powerful effects than meditation alone.

    “There are a number of theories about why physical exercises like yoga improve energy levels and cognitive test performance,” said Luu. “These include the release of endorphins, increased blood flow to the brain, and reduced focus on ruminative thoughts. Though ultimately, it is still an open question.”

    Hatha yoga is one of the most common styles of yoga practiced in Western countries.

    It involves physical postures and breathing exercises combined with meditation. Mindfulness mediation involves observing thoughts, emotions and body sensations with openness and acceptance.

    Although the meditative aspect might be even more important than the physical posing for improving executive functions, there are additional benefits to Hatha yoga including improvements in flexibility and strength,” said Hall. “These benefits may make Hatha yoga superior to meditation alone, in terms of overall health benefits.”


  3. Study suggests meditation and yoga can ‘reverse’ DNA reactions which cause stress

    June 26, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Coventry University press release:

    Mind-body interventions (MBIs) such as meditation, yoga and Tai Chi don’t simply relax us; they can ‘reverse’ the molecular reactions in our DNA which cause ill-health and depression, according to a study by the universities of Coventry and Radboud.

    The research, published in the journal Frontiers in Immunology, reviews over a decade of studies analysing how the behaviour of our genes is affected by different MBIs including mindfulness and yoga.

    Experts from the universities conclude that, when examined together, the 18 studies — featuring 846 participants over 11 years — reveal a pattern in the molecular changes which happen to the body as a result of MBIs, and how those changes benefit our mental and physical health.

    The researchers focus on how gene expression is affected; in other words the way that genes activate to produce proteins which influence the biological make-up of the body, the brain and the immune system.

    When a person is exposed to a stressful event, their sympathetic nervous system (SNS) — the system responsible for the ‘fight-or-flight’ response — is triggered, in turn increasing production of a molecule called nuclear factor kappa B (NF-kB) which regulates how our genes are expressed.

    NF-kB translates stress by activating genes to produce proteins called cytokines that cause inflammation at cellular level — a reaction that is useful as a short-lived fight-or-flight reaction, but if persistent leads to a higher risk of cancer, accelerated aging and psychiatric disorders like depression.

    According to the study, however, people who practise MBIs exhibit the opposite effect — namely a decrease in production of NF-kB and cytokines, leading to a reversal of the pro-inflammatory gene expression pattern and a reduction in the risk of inflammation-related diseases and conditions.

    The study’s authors say the inflammatory effect of the fight-or-flight response — which also serves to temporarily bolster the immune system — would have played an important role in humankind’s hunter-gatherer prehistory, when there was a higher risk of infection from wounds.

    In today’s society, however, where stress is increasingly psychological and often longer-term, pro-inflammatory gene expression can be persistent and therefore more likely to cause psychiatric and medical problems.

    Lead investigator Ivana Buric from the Brain, Belief and Behaviour Lab in Coventry University’s Centre for Psychology, Behaviour and Achievement said:

    “Millions of people around the world already enjoy the health benefits of mind-body interventions like yoga or meditation, but what they perhaps don’t realise is that these benefits begin at a molecular level and can change the way our genetic code goes about its business.

    “These activities are leaving what we call a molecular signature in our cells, which reverses the effect that stress or anxiety would have on the body by changing how our genes are expressed. Put simply, MBIs cause the brain to steer our DNA processes along a path which improves our wellbeing.

    “More needs to be done to understand these effects in greater depth, for example how they compare with other healthy interventions like exercise or nutrition. But this is an important foundation to build on to help future researchers explore the benefits of increasingly popular mind-body activities.”


  4. Study suggests meditation as a possible alternative to traditional pain medication

    June 25, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Leeds Beckett University press release:

    Just ten minutes of mindfulness meditation could be used as an alternative to painkillers, according to research by Leeds Beckett University.

    Results of the study suggest that a single ten-minute mindfulness meditation session administered by a novice therapist can improve pain tolerance, pain threshold and decrease anxiety towards pain.

    The research was carried out by the School of Clinical and Applied Sciences at Leeds Beckett and used a group of 24 healthy university-aged students (12 men and 12 women). They were randomly split into a control group and a meditation group.

    A cold-pressor task was used to cause pain to the participants; they put their hand in warm water for two minutes before removing it and placing it immediately into ice water for as long as they could manage and only removed it when the pain became too much and could no longer be tolerated. They then either sat quietly for ten minutes (control group) or meditated for ten minutes before repeating the cold-pressor task.

    Five groups of data were then collected; anxiety towards pain, pain threshold, pain tolerance, pain intensity and pain unpleasantness. Pre-intervention the figures didn’t differ greatly between the control and meditation groups but following the ten-minute meditation session, the participants from the meditation group saw a significant decrease in anxiety towards pain and a significant increase in pain threshold and pain tolerance.

    Speaking about the results of the study, Dr Osama Tashani, Senior Research Fellow in Pain Studies, said: “While further research is needed to explore this in a more clinical setting on chronic pain patients, these results do show that a brief mindfulness meditation intervention can be of benefit in pain relief. The ease of application and cost effectiveness of the mindfulness meditation may also make it a viable addition to the arsenal of therapies for pain management.

    “The mindfulness mediation was led by a researcher who was a novice; so in theory clinicians could administer this with little training needed. It’s based on traditional Buddhist teachings which focuses attention and awareness on your breathing.”


  5. Study suggests people whose minds wander are less likely to stick to long-term goals

    June 24, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Waterloo press release:

    People whose minds tend to wander are less likely to stick to their long-term goals, according to new research led by the University of Waterloo.

    The research found that those who could sustain focus in day-to-day life were more likely to report maintaining perseverance and passion in their long-term objectives.

    “Those who often can’t keep their minds on their tasks — such as thinking about weekend plans instead of listening to the lecturer in class — tend to have more fleeting aspirations,” said Brandon Ralph, the study’s lead author and a PhD candidate in psychology at Waterloo. “We’ve shown that maintaining concentration over hours and days predicts passion over longer periods.”

    The researchers’ findings resulted from three separate studies. In the first two studies, surveys measured the mind wandering, inattention and grittiness of 280 participants. In the third study, 105 post-secondary students were asked to report on their mind-wandering habits during class and then fill out questionnaires to measure their grittiness.

    Grit is a personality trait involving sustained interest and effort toward long-term goals and is purported to predict success in careers and education independent of other traits, including intelligence.

    Next steps in the research involve determining if people who would like to mitigate the impacts of mind wandering can do so with mindfulness training exercises, such as meditation.

    “It’s clear that mind wandering is related to the ability to focus in the moment as well as on long-term goals,” said Ralph. “As we move forward in this work, we’d like to see if practices such as meditation can assist people in achieving their goals.”

    The study, done in cooperation with researchers at Sheridan College, appears in the Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology.


  6. Study examines range of challenging meditation experiences

    June 10, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Brown University press release:

    Meditation is increasingly being marketed as a treatment for conditions such as pain, depression, stress and addiction, and while many people achieve therapeutic goals, other meditators encounter a much broader range of experiences — sometimes distressing and even impairing ones — along the way.

    That’s according to a new study in PLOS ONE, in which Willoughby Britton, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University, and co-authors chronicled and categorized such experiences as well as the factors that influence them.

    Many effects of meditation are well known, like increased awareness of thoughts and emotions, or improved calm and well-being,” said study lead author Jared Lindahl, visiting assistant professor in Brown’s Cogut Center for the Humanities. “But there is a much broader range of possible experiences. Exactly what those experiences are, how they affect individuals and which ones show up as difficult is going to be based on a range of personal, interpersonal and contextual factors.”

    The Varieties of Contemplative Experience study

    The study purposely sought out “challenging” experiences because they are underrepresented in the scientific literature, the authors said. With that goal, the study therefore was not designed to estimate how common those experiences are among all meditators. Instead the purpose of the Varieties of Contemplative Experience study was to provide detailed descriptions of experiences and to start to understand the multiple ways they are interpreted, why they might happen and what meditators and teachers do to deal with them.

    Though rare in the scientific literature, the broader range of effects including meditation-related difficulties have been documented in Buddhist traditions, the researchers wrote. For example, Tibetans refer to a wide range of experiences — some blissful but some painful or disturbing — as “nyams.” Zen Buddhists use the term “maky?” to refer to certain perceptual disturbances.

    “While the positive effects have made the transition from Buddhist texts and traditions to contemporary clinical applications, the use of meditation for health and well-being has obscured the wider range of experiences and purposes traditionally associated with Buddhist meditation,” Lindahl said.

    To understand the range of experiences encountered among Western Buddhists practicing meditation, Britton, Lindahl and their co-authors interviewed nearly 100 meditators and meditation teachers from each of three main traditions: Therav?da, Zen and Tibetan. Each interview told a story, which the researchers meticulously coded and analyzed using qualitative research methodology.

    The researchers also employed standardized causality assessment methods that are used by agencies like the U.S. Food and Drug Adminisration to ensure that meditation likely played a causal role in the experiences they documented.

    Experiences and influences

    Based upon their interviews, the researchers developed a taxonomy of 59 experiences organized into seven types, or “domains”: cognitive, perceptual, affective (i.e. emotions and moods), somatic (relating to the body), conative (i.e. motivation or will), sense of self and social. They also identified another 26 categories of “influencing factors” or conditions that may impact the intensity, duration or associated distress or impairment.

    All meditators reported multiple unexpected experiences from across the seven domains of experience. For example, a commonly reported challenging experience in the perceptual domain was hypersensitivity to light or sound, while somatic changes such as insomnia or involuntary body movements were also reported. Challenging emotional experiences could include fear, anxiety, panic or a loss of emotions altogether.

    Britton noted that the duration of the effects people described in their interviews also varied widely, ranging from a few days to months to more than a decade.

    Sometimes experiences were ostensibly desirable, such as feelings of unity or oneness with others, but some meditators reported them going too far, lasting too long or feeling violated, exposed or disoriented. Others who had meditation experiences that felt positive during retreats reported that the persistence of these experiences interfered with their ability to function or work when they left the retreat and returned to normal life.

    “This is a good example of how a contextual factor can affect associated distress and functioning,” Lindahl said. “An experience that is positive and desirable in one situation may become a burden in another.”

    Moreover, in some cases, an experience that some meditators reported as challenging, others reported as positive. To understand why this was the case, the researchers also aimed to determine the “influencing factors” that affect the desirability, intensity, duration and impact of a given experience.

    The researchers documented four main domains of influencing factors: practitioner-related (i.e. the meditator’s personal attributes), practice-related (such as how they meditated), relationships (interpersonal factors) and health behaviors (such as diet, sleep or exercise). For example, a meditator’s relationship with the instructor was for some people a source of support and for others a source of distress.

    While many teachers cited the meditator’s practice intensity, psychiatric history or trauma history, and quality of supervision as important, these factors appeared to play a role only for some meditators. The researchers wrote in PLOS ONE that in many cases, challenging experiences could not be attributed to just those factors:

    “The results also challenge other common causal attributions, such as the assumption that meditation-related difficulties only happen to individuals with a pre-existing condition (psychiatric or trauma history), who are on long or intensive retreats, who are poorly supervised, who are practicing incorrectly, or who have inadequate preparation.”

    Toward improved understanding and support

    Rather than conclusive causes, Britton described the influencing factors the research identified as “testable hypotheses” of what might impact a meditator’s trajectory. For example, future research could investigate whether certain types of practice are associated with different kinds of challenging experiences, or whether the degree of perceived social support influences the duration of distress and impairment.

    “It is likely that an interaction of multiple factors is at play,” Lindahl said. “Each meditator had their own unique story.”

    I i’s important to acknowledge that this study represents an initial step in a much longer discussion and investigation, Britton said: “The take-home message is that meditation-related challenges are a topic worthy of further investigation, but there is still a lot more to understand.”

    For example, the study did not investigate meditation-related challenges in the context of mindfulness-based interventions, in children or in clinical populations. Furthermore, Britton said, little is known about the neurobiological mechanisms of these experiences. The authors have already developed one potential model for some experiences, but there likely will be different mechanisms for different experiences, and they hope other researchers will join the inquiry.

    If research can uncover why challenging experiences arise, then meditators and teachers might be in a better position to manage them, Britton and Lindahl said. But even before that, they hope the new study can help people recognize that adverse experiences are not necessarily unique to them or their fault. Britton noted that in a societal context in which meditation is often discussed as producing only positive results, meditators can feel stigmatized and isolated if they experience a problem.

    “During the interviews, some people learned for the first time that they are not completely alone in having had this experience,” Lindahl said. “The social awareness we think this project can raise could be a key way of addressing some of the problems.”

    One of the remedies people cited for dealing with problems was simply having someone they could talk to who was familiar with challenging meditation experiences, the researchers said. Britton recently started a weekly online support group where meditators can share their challenges with each other.

    “Our long-term hope is that this research, and the research that follows, can be used by the meditation community to create support systems for the full range of meditation-related experiences,” Britton said. “Really, the first step is acknowledging the diversity of experiences that different people can have.”


  7. Mindfulness takes practice

    June 2, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Aarhus University press release:

    The typical student on a standard mindfulness course says they practice for 30 minutes at home every day, and it actually makes a difference, a new study from Aarhus University in Denmark, finds. This is the case, even though teachers ask for more. But can we rely on what people say?

    Mindfulness meditation practice is set at 45 minutes a day at home, as well as weekly group sessions with the teacher. And the 45 minutes is every day, six days a week for the eight weeks that the course lasts.

    These are the guidelines for students taking part in the standard Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) or Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) courses. Not all students practice for 45 minutes a day. An average course student practices 30 minutes daily at home, but the good news is that nevertheless, this practice is related to positive benefit. This can be measured as reduced stress, pain, better well-being and so on.

    These are the main findings of the study “Home practice in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: a systematic review and meta-analysis of participants’ mindfulness practice and its associations with outcomes,” an international collaboration between the Universities of Aarhus, Oxford and Bristol. The study has recently been published in the journal Behavior Research and Therapy, and according to associate professor Christine Parsons from the Interacting Mind Center at the Department of Clinical Medicine at Aarhus University, it is new and important knowledge:

    “This is the clearest evidence we have that mindfulness-home practice can make a difference. This is a big source of debate because there are many components at play in a MBSR or MBCT course. The support of a teacher might bring about benefit, practicing mindfulness on the actual course, or being in a group with similar other people,” Christine Parsons says.

    According to the study, the effect of doing home practice is small, but statistically significant in the 28 scientific studies included in the analysis. In all studies, the MBCT or MBSR courses were eight weeks long, and the participants kept diaries of their practice at home. The diaries were used by researchers to examine the benefits of practice. Unfortunately, there is always uncertainty linked to a self-report diary, which Christine Parsons is trying to minimize.

    Can we rely on students to tell their own teacher about their home practice? Do student fill in their diaries faithfully? We know that people have difficulty reporting on their food or alcohol consumption or even physical activity. Should mindfulness practice be any different?

    Similarly, Christine Parsons is concerned about the difference between quantity of mindfulness practice and the of practice. Anyone who has tried to meditate knows that practice can be difficult. For example, it is easy to spend time thinking about a conflict at work or writing a long mental shopping list. Mindfulness practice is about cultivating awareness of the present moment, without judging or evaluating, not just spending time on a yoga mat.

    “We need to understand how people truly engage with their home practice. There are many problems with self-report as our only assessment method. I have therefore received money from Trygfonden to develop and test a number of other measurement methods that will clarify how mindfulness students behave outside the classroom. How they practice and what works — and how it works,” Christine Parsons says.

    She worked at Oxford University for the past six years, but she has moved her research to the Interacting Minds Center at Aarhus, where she will remain as long as the grant of 2.3 millioner kroner pays for her stay.

    Christine Parsons in collaboration with engineers from Aarhus University, led by associate professor Kasper Løvborg Jensen and the Danish Center for Mindfulness, is developing an app that records how long participants listen to the guided meditations, which are part of the home practice in MBCT or MBSR.

    The information will be sent via the mobile phone app to a server that registers and compares the incoming data with information from a ‘fitness’ wristband. This enables the research team to see what happens to, for example, the student’s heartbeat when he or she is practicing mindfulness.

    “It’s all little pieces of the big jigsaw puzzle — how students actually behave outside the classroom. How they practice, what it means, and what actually works,” says Christine Parsons, without wanting to undermine the importance of the recently published result.

    “This study forms the basis of our new work, and now we know, that practicing at home has an impact. The question is whether we can use new technology to measure and support participants doing their home practice. And can we support behavior changes in the long run? For example, if you receive a smartphone reminder to practice,” Christine Parsons says before she — again — praises the unique opportunities for interdisciplinary research at the Interacting Minds Center.

    “It’s invaluable to sit down with an engineer who poses completely different questions than I can imagine with my psychology background. It opens for a lot of new opportunities. Bringing together mindfulness teachers, engineers and designers allows us to really think about what we can do to best support our students,” says Christine Parsons.


  8. Study suggests 10 minutes of meditation may help anxious people focus

    May 5, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Waterloo press release:

    Just 10 minutes of daily mindful mediation can help prevent your mind from wandering and is particularly effective if you tend to have repetitive, anxious thoughts, according to a study from the University of Waterloo.

    The study, which assessed the impact of meditation with 82 participants who experience anxiety, found that developing an awareness of the present moment reduced incidents of repetitive, off-task thinking, a hallmark of anxiety.

    “Our results indicate that mindfulness training may have protective effects on mind wandering for anxious individuals,” said Mengran Xu, a researcher and PhD candidate at Waterloo. “We also found that meditation practice appears to help anxious people to shift their attention from their own internal worries to the present-moment external world, which enables better focus on a task at hand.”

    The term mindfulness is commonly defined as paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgement.

    As part of the study, participants were asked to perform a task on a computer while experiencing interruptions to gauge their ability to stay focused on the task. Researchers then put the participants into two groups at random, with the control group given an audio story to listen to and the other group asked to engage in a short meditation exercise prior to being reassessed.

    “Mind wandering accounts for nearly half of any person’s daily stream of consciousness,” said Xu. “For people with anxiety, repetitive off-task thoughts can negatively affect their ability to learn, to complete tasks, or even function safely.

    “It would be interesting to see what the impacts would be if mindful meditation was practiced by anxious populations more widely.”


  9. Study suggests mindfulness may help freshmen stress less

    April 26, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Penn State press release:

    Mindfulness training may be one way to help students successfully transition to college life, according to Penn State researchers.

    The first semester of college is a time of great transition for many students — they often are living away from home for the first time, have a much more fluid schedule than in high school and are potentially surrounded by a new peer group. For all of these reasons and more, this can be an incredibly stressful time in a student’s life.

    To help ease this transition, researchers offered an eight-session mindfulness training program to first-year students at Penn State, according to Kamila Dvorakova, a doctoral Compassion and Caring fellow in the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center and lead author of the study. In mindfulness meditation, practitioners learn how to develop an accepting, nonjudgmental and kind attitude toward present moment thoughts and feelings, according to the researchers, who presented their findings in a recent issue of the Journal of American College Health.

    At the end of the eight sessions, the intervention was associated with significant increases in the students’ life satisfaction, as well as a significant decrease in depression and anxiety, when compared to students who did not participate in the training. There was also an overall drop in alcohol use between the students who took part in the mindfulness program and the control group.

    “We offered an experiential, practice-oriented training,” said Dvorakova. “Rather than telling the students what to do, we had them explore and talk about how to be mindful in their daily lives and discover the benefits for themselves. We found that underneath the stress that students are experiencing is a deep desire to appreciate life and feel meaningful connections with other people. It is our responsibility as educators to create academic environments that nurture both students’ minds and hearts.”

    Dvorakova and Mark Agrusti, mindfulness and meditation integration specialist, Prevention Research Center, adapted the existing Learning to BREATHE program — originally developed for adolescents by Patricia C. Broderick, research associate, Prevention Research Center — for college students and called it Just BREATHE. The teachings in the eight sessions were themed around the BREATHE acronym: body, reflections, emotions (or awareness), attention, tenderness (or self-compassion), healthy habits and empowerment.

    “The beginning of the college career presents such a unique opportunity — all of these students are going through this same transition at the same time,” said Agrusti. “These freshmen are beginning to acquire habits and perceptions that will shape their lives as students and adults, so it’s a perfect time for them to discover practices, such as mindfulness, stress management, self-care and emotional literacy skills.”

    Fifty-two undergraduate students participated in the intervention, with another 53 serving as a control. The program included self-awareness practices, emotion-regulation skills and simple mindfulness techniques to help students manage stressful situations, the researchers said. The participants were also given cards and stickers for home practice to serve as reminders to use mindfulness techniques when they encounter stressful situations.

    The students indicated that the three most effective in-class exercises were three mindful breaths, breath awareness and mindfulness of emotions. A total of 98 percent of the participants would recommend the program to friends and classmates.

    According to the researchers, future studies might include adding more participants, scheduling long-term follow-ups and integrating mindfulness with academic lessons.


  10. Yogic breathing helps fight major depression, study shows

    November 28, 2016 by Ashley

    From the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania media release:

    depressionA breathing-based meditation practice known as Sudarshan Kriya yoga helped alleviate severe depression in people who did not fully respond to antidepressant treatments, reports a new study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry from researchers in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. The study bolsters the science behind the use of controlled yogic breathing to help battle depression.

    In a randomized, controlled pilot study, led by Anup Sharma, MD, PhD, a Neuropsychiatry research fellow in the department of Psychiatry at Penn, researchers found significant improvement in symptoms of depression and anxiety in medicated patients with major depressive disorder (MDD) who participated in the breathing technique compared to medicated patients who did not partake. After two months, the yoga group cut its mean Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HDRS) score by several points, while the control group showed no improvements. HDRS is the most widely used clinician-administered depression assessment that scores mood, interest in activities, energy, suicidal thoughts, and feelings of guilt, among other symptoms.

    More than half of the 41 million Americans who take antidepressants do not fully respond. Add-on therapies are often prescribed to enhance the effects of the drugs in these patients, but they typically offer limited additional benefits and come with side effects that can curb use, prolonging the depressive episode. What’s more, patients who don’t fully respond to antidepressants are especially at risk of relapse.

    With such a large portion of patients who do not fully respond to antidepressants, it’s important we find new avenues that work best for each person to beat their depression,” Sharma said. “Here, we have a promising, lower-cost therapy that could potentially serve as an effective, non-drug approach for patients battling this disease.”

    The meditation technique, which is practiced in both a group setting and at home, includes a series of sequential, rhythm-specific breathing exercises that bring people into a deep, restful, and meditative state: slow and calm breaths alternated with fast and stimulating breaths.

    Sudarshan Kriya yoga gives people an active method to experience a deep meditative state that’s easy to learn and incorporate in diverse settings,” Sharma said.

    In past studies, the practice has demonstrated a positive response in patients with milder forms of depression, depression due to alcohol dependence, and in patients with MDD; however, there are no clinical studies investigating its use for depression in an outpatient setting. Past studies suggest that yoga and other controlled breathing techniques can potentially adjust the nervous system to reduce stress hormones. Overall, the authors also note, well-designed studies that evaluate the benefits of yoga to treat depression are lacking, despite increased interest in the ancient Indian practice. Millions of Americans participate in some form of yoga every year.

    In the study, researchers enrolled 25 patients suffering from MDD who were depressed, despite more than eight weeks of antidepressant medication treatment. The medicated patients were randomized to either the breathing intervention group or the “waitlist” control group for eight weeks. (The waitlist group was offered the yoga intervention after the study). During the first week, participants completed a six-session program, which featured Sudarshan Kriya yoga in addition to yoga postures, sitting meditation, and stress education. For weeks two through eight, participants attended weekly Sudarshan Kriya yoga follow-up sessions and completed a home practice version of the technique.

    Patients in the Sudarshan Kriya yoga group showed a significantly greater improvement in HDRS scores compared to patients in the waitlist group. With a mean baseline HDRS score of 22.0 (indicating severe depression at the beginning of the study), the group that completed the breathing technique for the full two months improved scores by 10.27 points on average, compared to the waitlist group, which showed no improvements. Patients in the yoga group also showed significant mean reductions in total scores of the self-reported Beck Depression (15.48 point improvement) and Beck Anxiety Inventories (5.19 point improvement), versus the waitlist control group.

    Results of the pilot study suggest the feasibility and promise of Sudarshan Kriya as an add-on intervention for MDD patients who have not responded to antidepressants, the authors wrote. “The next step in this research is to conduct a larger study evaluating how this intervention impacts brain structure and function in patients who have major depression,” Sharma said.