Under the Hood

Meditation Helps Anxiety-Ridden People Find 'Safe Place,' Study Says

“Do not misunderstand me, danger is very real, but fear is a choice,’’ proclaimed Will Smith’s character in the movie “After Earth.” We can either make the choice to move past our fears or stay stuck on them. Whether it is coping with a phobia or overcoming post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), how we respond in situations that trigger memories, is entirely up to us. 

The decision lies within each person. Seeking psychological help is an effective way to address our fears head-on in a safe setting, especially by adopting the mindfulness technique developed by a team of researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston.

The study scheduled to be published in the journal Biological Psychiatry on November 1 said that retraining the mind to imagine a safe place when the stimulus arises works best to get over fearful memories. Generally, exposure therapy is commonly employed by psychologists to treat anxiety disorders by first speaking about it, then by looking at the pictures of the object or situation feared, and eventually by looking fear in the eye. For example, holding a snake or looking down from a skyscraper if you fear heights.

However, the new study is about learning the mechanism that leads to having a less reactive response when the anxiety stimulus presents itself, through the process of mindful meditation. How did the researchers propose to do this? Instead of exhibiting the fight-or-flight response that is typical in anxiety-ridden situations, the meditation helps perceive the stimuli as non-threatening.

The first step in this process is for the patient to conjure positive memories to bridge the gap between the anxiety stimulus and a sheltered place, lacking adversity. When faced with the anxiety, the safe memory that was created during meditation must be pictured again, replacing the associated bad memory.

anxiety A new study by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston found that anxiety disorders can be overcome by mindfulness meditation. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Subjects were recruited for the study by advertising a stress-reduction program on public transport. The prerequisites to take part were not to be currently engaged in psychotherapy, to be free of a psychiatric condition, and not taking any psychotropic drugs in the last 12 months prior. 

This randomized controlled study involved 67 participants. Of which, 42 people had to undergo an eight-week long program aimed at stress reduction through mindfulness and meditation. The rest of the 25 patients underwent stress management education by performing exercises. 

Eight weeks prior and after the programs, they were asked to undergo a two-day fear conditioning and extinction protocol, which is visible on a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The participants who were placed in the mindfulness meditation program showed positive changes in neural circuits of their brains on the MRI scans.

Compared to the group that learned exercise and stress-reducing techniques for eight weeks, they had learned how to regulate their emotions and responses to situations that previously filled them with paralyzing fear. 

The limitations of the study is that none of the participants had clinical issues and that the actual threats ( snakes or heights) were not physically used. Also, the control group showed similar reactions to anxiety stimulus, indicating that group setting could have influenced the study in some way. 

“The data indicate that mindfulness can help us recognize that some fear reactions are disproportional to the threat, and thus reduces the fear response to those stimuli. Mindfulness can also enhance our ability to remember this new, less-fearful reaction, and break the anxiety habit,” senior study author Sara Lazar, working at MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program, said. 

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