In recent years there has been a steady stream of research showing the power of mindfulness meditation to reduce anxiety. Until now, the specific brain mechanisms of how meditation relieves anxiety at a neural level were unknown.
On June 3, 2013 researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center published a study titled “Neural Correlates of Mindfulness Meditation-Related Anxiety Relief” in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience which identifies brain regions activated by mindfulness meditation.
Anxiety is a cognitive state connected to an inability to regulate your emotional responses to perceived threats. Mindfulness meditation strengthens a person’s cognitive ability to regulate emotions. "Although we've known that meditation can reduce anxiety, we hadn't identified the specific brain mechanisms involved in relieving anxiety in healthy individuals," said Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., postdoctoral research fellow in neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist and lead author of the study. "In this study, we were able to see which areas of the brain were activated and which were deactivated during meditation-related anxiety relief."
How does mindfulness meditation reduce anxiety at a neural level?
Mindfulness meditation has long been known as an antidote for anxiety. However, the brain mechanisms involved in meditation-related anxiety relief were unknown. To isolate the brain mechanisms behind mindfulness training the researchers at Wake Forest Baptist employed pulsed arterial spin labeling MRI to compare the effects of distraction in the form of “Attending to the Breath” (ATB) before meditation training and to mindfulness meditation (after meditation training) on the state of anxiety in test subjects.
For the study, the researchers recruited fifteen healthy volunteers with normal levels of everyday anxiety. These individuals had no previous meditation experience or known anxiety disorders. All subjects participated in four 20-minute classes to learn a technique known as mindfulness meditation. In this form of meditation, people are taught to focus on breath and body sensations and to non-judgmentally evaluate distracting thoughts and emotions.
Anxiety was significantly reduced in every session that subjects meditated. Brain imaging found that meditation-related anxiety relief was associated with activation of the anterior cingulate cortex, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and anterior insula. These areas of the brain are involved with executive function and the control of worrying. Meditation-related activation of these three regions was directly linked to anxiety relief.
Activation of the anterior cingulate cortex—the area that governs thinking and emotion—is the primary region believed to influence a decrease in anxiety. These findings provide evidence that mindfulness meditation attenuates anxiety through mechanisms involved in the regulation of self-referential thought processes. Subjects who exhibited a greater default-related activity (i.e. posterior cingulate cortex) reported greater anxiety, possibly reflecting an inability to control self-referential thoughts.
Interestingly, previous studies on altruism have found that the anterior insular cortex, is the activity center of human empathy. For more on this research please check out my Psychology Today blog, The Evolutionary Biology of Altruism.
Mindfulness and Loving-Kindness Meditation are Complementary
There are many different types of meditation. In general, neuroscientists have been studying the benefits of both mindfulness meditation, in which you focus on sustaining attention and guiding thoughts; and loving-kindness meditation, in which you focus on compassionate thoughts towards yourself and others. Both types of meditation have been proven to change brain structure and have dramatic physical and psychological benefits.
"Mindfulness is premised on sustaining attention in the present moment and controlling the way we react to daily thoughts and feelings," Zeidan said. "Interestingly, the present findings reveal that the brain regions associated with meditation-related anxiety relief are remarkably consistent with the principles of being mindful."
For more tips and research on mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation please check out my Psychology Today blogs: Compassion Can Be Trained, Mindfulness Made Simple, Social Connectivity Drives the Engine of Well-Being and Mindfulness Training and the Compassionate Brain.
Conclusion: Meditation is Secular
Research at other institutions has shown that meditation can significantly reduce anxiety in patients with generalized anxiety and depression disorders. "The results of this neuroimaging experiment complement the growing body of knowledge about the benefits of mindfulness training by showing the brain mechanisms associated with meditation-related anxiety relief in healthy people," Zeidan said. Adding, "This showed that just a few minutes of mindfulness meditation can help reduce normal everyday anxiety."
Mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation are secular. You don’t need to become a Buddhist to incorporate mindfulness training into your daily routine. The Dalai Lama has said that, “In the twenty-first century, even in countries with no previous tradition of Buddhism, interest is growing among ordinary people and scientists. The ethics and discipline described in the Vinaya are the foundation for training both in concentration (shamatha) and insight (vipassana).” He clarifies that with the help of focused concentration our minds have the ability to remain still and by applying analysis we can achieve higher understanding.