Can Mindfulness Alter How We Process Fear?

mindfulness meditation reduces fear

A fascinating new study has illuminated the potential of mindfulness meditation practices in treating anxiety disorders through fear conditioning therapies. The study by Massachusetts General Hospital shows that mindfulness meditation training can significantly benefit people who suffer from fear and anxiety disorders, and by implication, those who suffer from PTSD and other related conditions.

It has long been thought that a positive way to treat people with anxiety disorders is to expose them to that which they fear in a safe, controlled, and supportive environment. By doing this, the sufferer of anxiety is able to create new memories and perspectives through the exposure. When we are exposed to frightening stimuli, in a controlled environment, we can learn to overcome those fears and reach a new state of understanding. This can free us from the anxiety that plagues too many people’s lives.

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For this process to work, a new memory must be created between the fear stimuli and the feeling of safety. This is achieved by exposing the subject to the fear stimuli and helping them through their feelings of anxiety, thus allowing the subject to find a safer way to perceive it. Once this has been established, the subject can review the fear stimuli and, using their new memories, replace feelings of anxiety with feelings of security and confidence. The process has been shown to work in previous clinical trials but the debate has remained as to what the optimal approach to the method ought to be.

It is essential that the subject approaches the process with the correct mindset. It can be difficult to create an appropriate environment and suitable conditions for this process to yield its maximum benefits to the subject.

About the study

The researchers conducting this new study used MRI brain scans to analyze the neurological changes that were taking place while the subjects were completing fear conditioning tasks. The study was divided into two groups, one which had completed an 8-week mindfulness training course, and the other which had not. The first group contained 42 participants who had completed a mindfulness-based stress-reduction program which contained instruction in meditation and yoga practices. The control group contained 25 participants that were randomized in an eight-week, exercise-based stress-management control group, which contained instruction on the impact of stress and light aerobic exercise.

The findings of the study showed that the group which had studied mindfulness, had better responses in the hippocampus, allowing them to create new safety orientated memories faster and more effectively. According to Gunes Sevinc, lead author of the study, the mindfulness training appeared to allow subjects to ‘improve emotional regulation through changing neurobiological responses associated with being able to remember that a stimulus is no longer threatening’.

Implications of the study’s findings for the practice of meditation

The implications of this study’s findings are huge for practitioners of mindfulness, meditation and yoga as well as those working in therapy and psychology. This new study has shown that using mindfulness meditation can be a good way to prepare the subject for the process of reconditioning fear-based memories. Mindfulness fosters an open mind, a detached sense of perception, and a willingness to learn and move past former barriers. This puts the subject in, what may turn out to be, an optimal state of awareness to create new memories and overcome their own fears and anxieties.

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Mindfulness meditation has other benefits that could aid with the process of overcoming past fears and anxieties. Mindfulness is relatively easy to teach and new practitioners commonly report a wide range of benefits, including better sleep, a clearer mind, and a more positive approach to life in general.

The implications of this study are important if mindfulness meditation training can be successfully combined with therapeutic fear conditioning tasks to achieve better results for the subjects. These techniques may also turn out to be a great help for returning military service personnel, active duty police officers and other first responders who often suffer from anxiety-related conditions due to the traumatic environments they are often forced to work in. This study could also have broad implications for the treatment of sufferers of PTSD as well.

Further research on mindfulness meditation could revolutionize the way we think of therapy, and shed light on new ways to help people overcome a whole array of issues they face, beyond anxiety and fear. The study begs the question as to whether mindfulness meditation training should become part of the school curriculum. Pupils growing up may benefit from the clarity of mind, the ability to adapt, and the positive outlook that mindfulness meditation can bring. Certainly, therapists should start considering how they can incorporate mindfulness training into their practices when dealing with patients who are suffering from anxiety and anxiety-related conditions.

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