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Mindfulness meditation helps control response to sadness
Scientists at the University of Toronto may have found a training method to help people control their responses to sadness, according to a 2010 study from the journal Emotion. fMRI brain scans revealed that people who used this mindfulness training responded differently at a neural level — another instance of how the brain’s neuroplasticity can be harnessed positively.
Mindfulness training: why it could work
A number of past studies have found that the more metacognitive awareness people have of their emotional states, the better they can control those emotions. Metacognition is the ability to think about your own thinking — to step back and realize when you’re being angry, or upset, or overjoyed, and to rationally consider your own mental state.
Given this knowledge, these University of Toronto researchers hypothesized that mindfulness training might help people regulate their responses to negative emotions without compromising the full experience of that emotion. Mindfulness isn’t about suppressing emotional pain; it teaches the calm acceptance of any negative sensations and positive ones, recognizing these as perfectly normal fluctuations.
In the past, mindfulness training has also been effective for patients suffering from physical pain — a promising finding, given that physical and emotional pain have shared roots in the brain.
8-weeks of mindfulness training to help reduce stress
Researchers recruited 36 participants already enrolled in a stress-reduction program at a Toronto health center. These participants answered 3 questionnaires about their levels of depression, anxiety, and other symptoms. Scores revealed that participants were moderately depressed — unsurprising given their enrollment in the stress-reduction program.
Half of the participants were put in the control group, where they went through their standard stress-reduction program at the health center for the next 8 weeks.
The other participants went through additional in-person mindfulness training taught through lying, sitting, walking, eating, or yoga. On their own time, these trainees were also given computer-based mindfulness “homework” that instructed them to pay attention to their feelings and bodily sensations. All mindfulness training encouraged them to cultivate an acceptance of all experiences, facing difficulties and discomfort face-on by developing their metacognitive awareness.
Several times over these 8 weeks, both the control and training groups were called in for emotional evaluations. They lay in an fMRI brain scanner and watched either neutral or sad film clips. Afterwards, they rated how sad they felt in response to what they’d just watched.
Mindfulness training changes symptoms and brain patterns
After 8 weeks, all participants answered the same 3 questionnaires from the beginning of the study. Mindfulness trainees reported feeling significantly less depressed. What’s more, fMRI brains scans supported these findings: mindfulness trainees exhibited different brain activity than the control group when watching sad films. Training seemed to have changed how their brains expressed sadness.
But crucially, both the control and training groups rated the films they watched as equally sad. Training didn’t seem to desensitize participants to emotional pain; they were simply better at maintaining their mental composure afterwards.
This study opens the door to some exciting new uses for mindfulness training that bear further research. Emotional control, depression, and anxiety are conditions that millions of people experience, and mindfulness may represent a simple intervention method that preserves the full range of emotional experience. While we watch the study of mindfulness develop, you can always try adopting the practice of acceptance and awareness into your own life.