Research shows that mindfulness may change how the brain deals with emotion

In recent years, research evidence has been accumulating to support the notion that mindfulness practices can have wide-ranging beneficial effects on our mental, emotional and physical health. An example of one such study is described briefly below (the full text can be found in the Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Journal, Vol. 8, Issue 4 [April 2013]).

Jacqueline Lutz, of the University Hospital of Zurich Psychiatry Department, and colleagues wanted to find out whether and how mindfulness could affect the brain during emotional arousal. Their working definition of mindfulness was “an attentive, non-judgmental focus on present experiences”. They randomly assigned 49 subjects, who had no prior or existing neurological or psychiatric illnesses, to either a mindfulness or a control group. The theory was that, when subjects anticipated or viewed pictures with negative emotional content, those who were instructed in and practised mindfulness would show increased activation of areas in the brain involved in regulating emotions. The researchers also wanted to know whether mindfulness might be associated with decreased activation of regions in the brain known to be associated with emotional arousal, such as the amygdala and insula.

Lutz and colleagues used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanning to measure real-time activity in the brains of the study subjects. During fMRI scanning, subjects in both the control and the mindfulness groups were shown cues that indicated whether each individual picture they were about to view would be “positive” (pleasant), “negative” (unpleasant), “neutral” or “unknown” (meaning there was a 50:50 chance it could be “positive” or “negative”). Because mindfulness strategies are often used with the intention of helping to address unpleasant emotional events, the mindfulness group was instructed to apply aspects of mindfulness (eg. non-judgmental awareness of thoughts, emotions or bodily sensations) while viewing only the unpleasant and unknown images.

The study found that, compared with the control group, subjects in the mindfulness group displayed decreased activation in the amygdala and other regions involved in processing emotion when they were shown the negative pictures. They also showed increased activity in brain structures associated with emotional regulation when anticipating negative pictures. The findings of this study suggest that even a short and simple mindfulness intervention has the potential to help regulate emotion.

So what does this mean for you and me? Most people are not familiar with the intricacies and “esoteric” language and implications of scientific research, and so they often find it difficult to interpret such findings in terms of their health, wellbeing and everyday lives. But basically, studies such as the above are increasingly accumulating evidence to show that many of the exercises used in activities such as meditation, relaxed abdominal breathing, mindful yoga, chi gong, and related practices that help us to detach from daily stresses and simply focus on “the present moment”, can have wide-reaching positive effects on the way we deal with life’s stresses, emotional turmoil, traumas, worries, fears, and so on, helping us to find a calmer, more objective and centred perspective, so that we can regain a healthier mental, emotional and physical balance in our daily lives.

Mindfulness training, mindful meditation, mindfulness-based hypnotherapy (MBHT)TM, relaxation skills training, stress management, self-hypnosis, cognitive-behavioural techniques, emotional therapy, and traditional hypnotherapy are available at AJR Hypnotherapy Surrey, with clinics serving the mid-Surrey areas of Ashtead, Leatherhead, Bookham, Epsom, Tadworth, Ewell, Cobham, Esher, and surrounding areas. Please email or phone (see above right for contact details) for more information or to book a consultation. Amanda Jackson-Russell, proprietor of AJR Hypnotherapy Surrey and Energessence Natural Healing; BSc, PhD (Neuroscience), Dip. CBH/HPD, MNFSH, Reiki Master, EFT Practitioner, Stress Management Consultant, Yoga/ Relaxation/ Meditation Instructor.