Transcendental meditation reduced anxiety and leaves marks in the brain

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A new study conducted at IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca shows that the subjective feeling of well-being experienced by many people with the practice of meditation is correlated with specific changes in the brain.

The research, which appeared in Brain and Cognition, examined the effects of the technique known as Transcendental Meditation (TM), which consists in the silent repetition of a meaningless sound, a “mantra”.

For the study, conducted at the Molecular Mind Laboratory (MoMiLab) of IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca, the researchers enrolled 34 healthy young volunteers and divided them in two groups.

The first one practiced Transcendental Meditation 40 minutes per day in two sessions of 20 minutes each, one in the morning and the other in the evening; the second group did not change its daily routine.

At the beginning of the study, the researchers also measured through psychometric questionnaires the anxiety and stress level of all the participants, as well as their ability to manage stressful situations.

Each individual was also subjected to a functional magnetic resonance imaging test (fMRI), in order to measure brain activity at rest and changes in the functional connectivity among different cerebral areas.

After three months, at the end of the study, the same tests were repeated.

The analysis of the data clearly showed that levels of anxiety and stress perceived by the subjects who followed the meditation program were significantly reduced in comparison with those of the volunteers who did not practice TM.

“Magnetic resonance imaging also shows that the reduction of anxiety levels is associated with specific changes in the connectivity between different cerebral areas, such as precuneus, left parietal lobe and insula, which all have an important role in the modulation of emotions and inner states”, explains Giulia Avvenuti, a PhD fellow at IMT School and first author of the study. “In the control group, instead, none of these changes was observed”.

“The fact that Transcendental Meditation has measurable effects on the ‘dialogue’ between brain structures involved in the modulation of affective states opens new perspectives for the understanding of brain-mind relationships” says Pietro Pietrini, IMT School’s Director and coordinator of the study.

“It also extends the results of recent research suggesting that drugs therapies and psychotherapy leverage on the same biological mechanism”.

Transcendental Meditation has recently gained an increasing success worldwide as a relaxation practice also thanks to the David Lynch Foundation, which co-financed the study along with the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Lucca.

Founded in 2005 by the movie director David Lynch, who is himself a longtime practitioner and supporter of the social value of Transcendental Meditation, the David Lynch Foundation promotes TM practice as an approach to reduce stress in schools (as for the ‘Quiet Time-Meditate Lucca’ project at the Pertini High School) and workplaces, and to build resilience in victims of trauma.

Each individual was also subjected to a functional magnetic resonance imaging test (fMRI), in order to measure brain activity at rest and changes in the functional connectivity among different cerebral areas. After three months, at the end of the study, the same tests were repeated.

“I am very happy of the results of this study that used the latest technology to show the beautiful benefits for the human beings of TM.

Now I’m working to form my foundation also in Italy, with teachers who teach transcendental meditation in schools, work places and other groups, reaching as many people as possible” says David Lynch.

This new study, coherently with previous ones, shows that even a few months of practice of Transcendental Meditation have positive effects on psychological well-being and that these effects are correlated with measurable changes in the brain.


Stress and anxiety are frequently seen as significant contributors to disease, and clinical evidence is mounting for specific negative effects of stress on immunological and cardiovascular-related diseases.[1,2,3,4]

Numerous psychological treatments are available to manage stress and anxiety. These can decrease people’s suffering and enhance their quality of life.[5,6,7] However, self-help programs may be effective in treating these problems as well.

Meditation is considered one of the self-help tools that help cope with daily stress and anxiety.

It is recommended by many clinical psychologists to reduce stress and anxiety level in people’s daily life.[8,9]

Many types of meditation have been discovered and practiced, some of which are concentration meditation, Om meditation, transcendental meditation, Zen meditation, loving-kindness meditation, mindfulness meditation, and others. In recent times, mindfulness meditation is quite famous and practiced worldwide.[10,11,12,13,14]

Mindfulness meditation techniques have emerged from the ancient meditative practices of the Buddhist tradition. It facilitates breathing, focused attention, and attention toward thoughts in a detached manner.

Therefore, it exerts its effect on attention regulation, body awareness, nonjudgmental awareness of thoughts, emotional stability, and a change in the perception of self.

Hence, it produces beneficial effects on well-being and reduces psychiatric and stress-related symptoms. Mindfulness meditation is, therefore, increasingly being incorporated into psychotherapeutic interventions.[14]

In recent times, mindfulness meditation training is being delivered using mobile applications (apps). It is considered as a tool that can guide the practitioner through the meditation techniques effectively, something that is popularly called “guided mindfulness meditation.”

There is growing evidence of the positive impact of mindfulness on psychological stress, anxiety, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.[9,15,16,17,18] However, limited research has been done on the effectiveness of the mindfulness-based mobile apps on stress and anxiety.[19,20,21]

There are different health claims that have been made by some prominent mobile app developers, which are not based on any research supporting the use of their programs.

Most of them use the existing general research on mindfulness to support the effectiveness of their apps without carrying any proper research. In presenting how their apps relate, most companies simply provide a link to a recent ongoing mindfulness study or a more extensive meta-analysis on mindfulness. Moreover, this in no way whatsoever gives a true picture of what their app is all about.

Hence, it was decided that it is important to determine the effectiveness of the mobile-based mindfulness meditation as a potential alternative delivery medium to address the issue of psychological stress and anxiety.

Aim

The aim was to determine the effectiveness of a mindfulness meditation mobile app in reducing perceived stress and anxiety.

Objectives

Two independent studies were conducted to determine the effectiveness of a mindfulness meditation mobile app in reducing perceived stress and anxiety.

  1. A cross-sectional study was conducted to measure the perceived stress and anxiety between meditators (users who practiced mindfulness meditation for 90 days using the mobile app) and nonmeditators (new users who have not practiced any form of meditation)
  2. A longitudinal study was conducted to measure the perceived stress and anxiety at the baseline and after practicing mindfulness meditation for 21 days using the mindfulness meditation app.

Discussion

This is the first study where the effectiveness of a mindfulness meditation app was studied by considering the users of the app. The objective of this study was to determine the efficiency of using a mindfulness meditation app in reducing stress and anxiety.

Two independent studies were conducted: one was a cross-sectional study and the other one was a longitudinal study.

In the cross-sectional study, there was a statistically significant decrease in perceived stress and anxiety in meditators compared to nonmeditators. In the longitudinal study, there was a statistically significant difference in the stress and anxiety change score.

Moreover, a statistically significant difference was found in Europeans compared to Caucasian in relation to their stress and anxiety change score. This shows that there are disparities in the level at which Europeans and Caucasian experience stress and anxiety.

Psychological stress and anxiety are common problems that constitute a large socioeconomic burden, and self-help programs delivered by an app would provide an easy way to offer treatment in the day-to-day life.

Despite increasing numbers of mindfulness apps, very few of them have been tested for effectiveness.[19,20,21] The effectiveness of a mindfulness meditation app for perceived stress and anxiety was determined.

As predicted, in both the cross-sectional and the longitudinal studies, a significant reduction in the stress score, as measured by the stress scale from the DASS, was established.

This supports existing research findings that mindfulness meditation can have positive psychological effects on people exposed to stress.[24,25]

The explanation for the disparities related to stress may be found in allostatic load[26] as well as the weathering framework[27] theories.

The first theory, allostatic load, places emphasis on the effect of cumulative risks that result from inveterate exposure to the challenges of life as well as stress-impairing allostasis (the ability of the body to conserve homeostasis).[26]

Placing an excessively high demand on the regulatory systems affects the activity of the autonomic, the metabolic, the neuroendocrine, and the cardiovascular systems, which brings about a state of illness, for example, diabetes.[28]

In any situation where there is a limited or overused potential adaptive and protective stress response, either behavioral or physiological, it results in an impaired health as well as an allostatic overload.[26]

Stress responses can be overused when the mind indulges in a constant flow of thoughts either about the future or the past. Individuals tend to become overwhelmed with thoughts, and this constant flow of thoughts may cause a chemical imbalance, like an increased level of cortisol which, in term, affects the physiology of the body.[29]

To bring about a reduction in the health disparities that are related to stress, there must be a program to which everyone can have easy access to.

For over 10 years now, many research studies to check for the advantages of both complementary and alternative approaches to medicine in attaining reduction of the effects and the money spent on inveterate health conditions have been funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.[30]

Meditation is one important intervention in the management of stress that was reported in research studies. From the data obtained from the National Institutes of Health, the main aim of carrying out a study in this area is for the purpose of examining the ways in which meditation and other interventions for the mind and the body can “enhance resilience, positive affect, and coping to improve health and well-being and prevent or slow disease progression.”[30]

One form of meditation, mindfulness, enhances the self-regulation of attention to be more focused on the present-moment experience and to let go of the cognitive fixation on past or future events.[15,31] Many research studies have shown that mindfulness meditation helps reduce negative reactions to stress and improve reactions to depression and overall well-being.[32,33,34,35,36]

In a famous Dow Chemical Company study, employees who practiced mindfulness-based stress reduction program for 7 weeks showed a reduction in perceived stress. Company-based mindfulness meditation programs, however, are relatively novel. As a result, few studies have been conducted to assess their effectiveness.

One such study, administered to employees of Dow Chemical Company, noted increases in workplace satisfaction and decreases in stress, as well as improvements in resilience, vigor, and mindfulness (measured by the Five-Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire) compared to the wait-list control group.[33] Therefore, mindfulness meditation reduces multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress.

In both the cross-sectional and the longitudinal studies, there was a statistically significant reduction in the anxiety score.

These research findings were supported by other research studies. In a recent study, to examine the effects of a short-term web-based mindfulness program, participants who self-described as stressed were recruited, and there was a random placement of 70 participants in a treatment group (n = 35) and a control group (n = 35).

A mindfulness program was conducted in two ways, including 10 min of exercises in each day, for 6 days in the space of a week for 2 weeks. The training was completed by only 34 participants in the control group and 20 participants in the treatment group.

Measures of anxiety, stress, symptoms of depression, as well as a questionnaire on mindfulness meditation were administered before the beginning of the treatment, after 1 week of treatment, and at the end (2 weeks) of the treatment. From the results, it was discovered that there was an increment in mindfulness skills as well as a reduction in the levels of perceived anxiety, stress, and symptoms of depression as a result of mindfulness training.[34]

Anxiety is a cognitive state connected to an inability to regulate the emotional responses to perceived threats. Practicing mindfulness meditation strengthens a person’s cognitive ability to regulate emotions such as anxiety.

For example, while practicing mindfulness meditation, thoughts that may bring worry will be viewed as thoughts, rather than the reality of the situation. The shift from a judgmental thought process to a nonjudgmental awareness might bring down the anxiety level and help users handle anxiety-provoking situations.

From the longitudinal study carried out, it was observed that there was a substantial reduction in the level of stress and anxiety for Europeans when compared to Caucasian. This submission is the first research study to work on determining how effective is the use of mindfulness meditation in populations in Europe over the ones in America, focusing on Caucasian participants.


Source:
IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca

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