Mindfulness meditation training may help people unlearn fearful responses

Mindfulness meditation programs have shown promise for the treatment of anxiety. Now, new research may help explain why. According to a study published in Biological Psychiatry, mindfulness meditation appears to help extinguish fearful associations.

“Mindfulness interventions have been shown to reduce stress and improve emotion regulation skills in numerous studies, however the neural mechanisms are still largely unknown,” said study author Gunes Sevinc, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

“One of the proposed mechanisms is based on the idea that mindfulness meditation provides a context similar to exposure therapy. During exposure therapy, individuals are exposed to otherwise avoided stimuli in a safe environment and gradually learn that these stimuli are no longer threatening.”

“Mindfulness meditation provides a similar context and thereby may create an opportunity to learn that certain thoughts and sensations are not dangerous,” Sevinc said.

The researchers used MRI brain scans and a fear-extinction task to examine changes in neural networks associated with attention and memory following mindfulness meditation training.

In the study, 42 participants completed an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program in which they learned formal meditation and yoga practices. Another 25 participants, who served as a control group, completed an 8-week stress management education program in which they were taught about the impact of stress and performed light aerobic exercise.

The researchers found that changes in the hippocampus after mindfulness training were associated with an enhanced ability to inhibit fearful associations that had been learned during the fear-extinction task.

“Mindfulness training may improve emotion regulation though changing neurobiological responses associated with our ability to remember that a stimulus is no longer threatening,” Sevinc told PsyPost.

“Fear and anxiety tend to have a habitual component to them — if something provoked fear in the past and we continue to habitually respond with fear or avoid those contexts, even if there is no actual threat, or a very minor one. By mindfully experiencing a threatening stimulus, in this case a mild shock, we come to realize that perhaps our reactions are overblown.”

“The data suggest that mindfulness is also enhancing our ability to remember this new, less fearful reaction to these stimuli, and break the anxiety habit,” Sevinc explained.

But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“One of the major caveats in the study that the number of people in the stress management education was not equal to the mindfulness training group. This impacts the generalizability of the findings and our ability to conclude that the results are uniquely attributable to the mindfulness training,” Sevinc said.

“Also, all of the participants were healthy individuals without anxiety. Future studies need to be done with clinical samples and using threatening stimuli relevant to their anxiety (e.g. spiders, cues that trigger panic or traumatic memories such as in PTSD) to determine if similar changes in brain activation occur in these conditions.”

My PhD dissertation focused on moral cognition, particularly on how humans process morally relevant information,” Sevinc added.

My interest in mindfulness research stems from the potential of mindful awareness in improving our ability to notice morally relevant stimuli. It may be more likely for a mindful person to notice these stimuli and potentially take action. I’m hoping to explore this relationship in the future.

The study, “Strengthened Hippocampal Circuits Underlie Enhanced Retrieval of Extinguished Fear Memories Following Mindfulness Training“, was authored by Gunes Sevinc, Britta K. Hölzel, Jonathan Greenberg, Tim Gard, Vincent Brunsch, Javaria A. Hashmi,Mark Vangel, Scott P. Orr,Mohammed R. Milad, and Sara W. Lazar.

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