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Meditation Reduces Anxiety

Scientists at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center have identified the brain functions involved in how meditation reduces anxietyfeelings-16.jpg

The team wrote in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience about how they studied 15 healthy volunteers with normal levels of everyday anxiety. They said these individuals had no previous meditation experience or anxiety disorders.

The participants took four 20-minute classes to learn a technique known as mindfulness meditation. In this form of meditation, people are taught to focus on breath and body sensations and to non-judgmentally evaluate distracting thoughts and emotions.

“Although we´ve known that meditation can reduce anxiety, we hadn´t identified the specific brain mechanisms involved in relieving anxiety in healthy individuals,” said Dr. Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., postdoctoral research fellow in neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist and lead author of the study. “In this study, we were able to see which areas of the brain were activated and which were deactivated during meditation-related anxiety relief.”

The researchers found that meditation reduced anxiety ratings by as much as 39 percent in the participants.

“This showed that just a few minutes of mindfulness meditation can help reduce normal everyday anxiety,” Zeidan said.

Fadel and colleagues were also able to reveal that meditation-related anxiety relief is associated with activation of the anterior cingulate cortex and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which are areas of the brain involved with executive-level function.

“Mindfulness is premised on sustaining attention in the present moment and controlling the way we react to daily thoughts and feelings,” Zeidan said. “Interestingly, the present findings reveal that the brain regions associated with meditation-related anxiety relief are remarkably consistent with the principles of being mindful.”

He said the results of this neuroimaging experiment complement that body of knowledge by showing the brain mechanisms associated with meditation-related anxiety relief in healthy people.

feelings-40.jpgScientists wrote in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in November 2012 about how meditation has lasting emotional benefits. They found that participating in an eight-week meditation training program could have measurable effects on how the brain functions, even when someone is not actively meditating. The team used two forms of meditation training and saw some differences in the response of the amygdala, which is the part of the brain known to be important for emotion.

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Meditation may physically alter regions of the brain

Harvard researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital reported that the practice of mindfulness meditation can physically alter regions of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress.kol.jpg

The study, to be published in January 2015, in “Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging” indicates that the brain’s gray matter may change as a result of meditation.

“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day,” said Sara Lazar, the study’s senior author. “This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”

Researchers measured MR images of participants brains during the eight-week “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” program, conducted by the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness. Participants spent an average of 27 minutes in meditation during the program. The program was delivered through recorded audios and guided meditations.

Compared to measurements on MR scans of a control group who did not participate in the program, the participants’ brains showed an increase in gray-matter density in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the region of the brain associated with learning, introspection, memory and awareness.There also was a decrease in gray-matter density in the amygdala, the region associated with anxiety and stress. However, the Insula, a region of the brain thought to be associated with self-awareness according to earlier research, remained unchanged, and the researchers hypothesize that participants may have to meditate for longer periods of time before any change is noticed in this region.

418234_10151301447999689_275921219_n.jpgIt has been noted that meditation can reduce stress but according to Britta Hölzel, one of the authors, “Other studies in different patient populations have shown that meditation can make significant improvements in a variety of symptoms, and we are now investigating the underlying mechanisms in the brain that facilitate this change.”

The researchers believe that these findings of physiological change can pave the wave for a better understanding and treatment of stress-related disorders. The study was supported by the BBC, National Institutes of Health and the Mind and Life Institute.