What helps with anxiety?
Anxiety disorders represent the most common mental disorders experienced by Americans. These can range from PTSD to common phobias, and they wreak havoc in a person’s day-to-day life.
A team of researchers led by David Creswell, PhD at Carnegie Mellon University recently wanted to find out what impact mindfulness practice could have on the anxious brain.
To design their study, Creswell and his team recruited participants from a population that’s under a lot of stress – job seekers.
Now we know that when stress goes untreated, it can become chronic and contribute to anxiety and depression.
Not only that, but high levels of stress hormones released into the body also increase the risk of serious health concerns including a weakened immune system, digestive problems, and heart disease, just to name a few.
Creswell randomized 35 job-seeking adults into either a 3-day intensive mindfulness retreat or 3-day relaxation
program that did not include mindfulness training.
All of the participants received a 5-minute resting brain scan both before and after their program. In addition, researchers took blood samples from each of the participants at the beginning of the study and again at a 4-month follow-up.
Creswell and his team were looking specifically at brain network connectivity patterns. They wanted to know if mindfulness could change the resting-state functional connectivity of brain networks that are associated with mind-wandering and executive control.
Creswell and his team hypothesized that changes in these networks could improve emotion regulation, stress resilience and stress-related health outcomes.
The team also wanted to see what impact mindfulness training could have on a particular inflammatory health
biomarker known as Interleukin-6 (IL-6). This biomarker is known to be elevated in high-stress populations and is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease and even death.
So what did they find?
Brain scans of the participants who received the mindfulness training intervention showed increased connectivity in the resting default mode network in areas of the brain associated with attention and executive control.
The researchers did not see similar results in the scans of participants who received only the relaxation training.
In addition, the participants who received training in mindfulness showed reduced IL-6 levels at the 4-month follow-up.
Creswell and his team believe that these changes in brain structure and activity following mindfulness meditation could open the door to helping patients improve executive function, stress resilience, and improved physical health.
Now we do need to be cautious in interpreting these results too broadly. This study was conducted with a small sample of participants, all of whom were experiencing a very specific type of stress.
But it is encouraging to read studies like this that open a window into brain changes associated with mindfulness meditation.
The complete study was published online by Biological Psychiatry, January, 2016.
Next week, I’ll be sharing another cool study that looks at mindfulness and brain change in patients who also had anxiety.
Now I’d like to hear from you. How have you applied mindfulness practices to help patients reduce anxiety and stress? Please leave a comment below.