Mindfulness meditation has been proven to help with reducing negative emotions in healthy people and also individuals having psychological issues. Research has also revealed that mindfulness works well for dealing with clinical emotional issues such as stress, depression, anxiety and trauma related conditions. The biological mechanisms underlying the positive impact on emotional performance aren’t completely understood but studies involving brain imaging has found that mindfulness meditation training is linked to changes in areas of the brain understood to be previously involved in extinction learning, a process that serves as the foundation of exposure therapy, a common treatment for pathological fear often resulting from some type of past trauma.
Researchers are now able to prove that mindfulness meditation training makes it possible for extinction of conditioned fear reactions, which produce long-term reductions in threat related responses. Healthy individuals in this study were either randomly assigned to a control group or were given four weeks of mindfulness training daily provided by way of the Headspace mindfulness app. On 2 consecutive days they were subsequently subjected to psychological experiments in which on day 1, conditioned fear reactions were established and immediately extinguished thereafter.
They came back on day 2 and the long-term effects of extinction were assessed. Conditioned fear reactions were identified by displaying neutral images on a computer monitor to the individuals and then a number of of the images were immediately followed by a mild but unpleasant electric shock to the hand. The individuals exhibited elevated autonomic arousal responses after several such pairings simply by seeing the pictures, showing that the conditioned fear reactions had been learned.
Fear reactions were assessed making use of skin conductance, a measurement for how much an individual sweats, a corollary for the human fight-or-flight response. These reactions were then extinguished by showing the images again repeatedly but without the shocks this time. By doing this, the individuals learned that the images formerly signaling an impending unpleasant shock no longer did so, and as a result individuals revealed a considerable reduction in autonomic arousal when observing the images.
To test the extinction learning retention after 24 hours, the individuals were again connected to the shock apparatus and presented the images they had previously seen, but without any shocks being administered. This was the crucial test considering the generally instability of extinction learning, and that fear reactions usually return after a while even if the individual has successfully undergone extinction. The group that were doing mindfulness meditation training now demonstrated reduced fear reactions in comparison to the control group.
The mindfulness group had fear reactions which stayed at the same reduced level they’d been at the end of extinction, suggesting an improved ability for forming and retaining extinction memories. The control group demonstrated a considerable increase in fear reactions in comparison to the previous day’s extinction.
According to the researchers, the results are interesting for several reasons:
- It can be shown that mindfulness not only has an impact on subjective experiences of negative emotions, which has been previously revealed, but clear autonomic arousal response effects can actually be seen, even with a small amount of mindfulness meditation training. It’s also interesting that mindfulness meditation training seems to specifically impact extinction retention, which is consistent with prior mindfulness brain imaging studies.
- Anxiety and trauma related disorders in many cases are treated making use of exposure therapy, an extinction learning based treatment, but not everyone does respond to this treatment. A possible explanation is that people having these disorders find it difficult to form lasting extinction memories in comparison to healthy people, which could mean that there’s an underlying vulnerability which increases risk of developing these kinds of issues to start with and constitutes an obstacle to successful treatment.
- The study results indicate that longer and larger lasting treatment effects could be achieved combining mindfulness training with exposure therapy. An underlying vulnerability factor could be targeted this way and more individuals could respond to treatment.