Meditation can been traced back to the 5th and 6th centuries in India and China, even prehistoric civilizations, as a religious exercise. Since then, the more modern and secular form called mindfulness meditation that began in the 1970s has been used for alternative medicine, from coping with cancer to increasing relaxation.

A new study now details the mechanism behind mindfulness meditation, which has previously been unclear, to find that anxiety levels could fall to as much as 39 percent.

"In this study, we were able to see which areas of the brain were activated and which were deactivated during meditation-related anxiety relief," Fadel Zeidan, lead author and postdoctoral research fellow in neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, told The Hindu.

The team recruited 15 volunteers without anxiety disorders but were experiencing normal levels of anxiety and had never practiced meditation. The researchers measured their brain activities before and after mindfulness meditation courses.

All the participants took four 20-minute mindfulness classes to learn how to focus their senses on breath and body and to gauge their thoughts and emotions without judgment.

The participants' brain activities were recorded using images taken with arterial spin labelling (ASL) magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which involves detecting cerebral blood flow, to finally show that anxiety levels had dropped by 39 percent.

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

In addition, researchers found increased brain activity in the ventromedial prefontal cortex, which is associated with controlling worries, and the anterior cingulate cortex, which mediates thinking and emotion. The elevated use of these areas signified decreases in anxiety.

Mindfulness meditation has been growing in popularity in the past decade. Experts attribute the upward trend to meditation-practicing therapists who want to bring it into their sessions, even practicing them at conferences.

Source: Zeidan F, Martucci KT, Kraft RA, et al. Neural correlates of mindfulness medication-related anxiety relief. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. 2013.