Add this to the pile of evidence for meditation's benefits:
A study from researcher Fadel Zadein and colleagues at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center identified some of the particular neural pathways involved in the reductions of anxiety resulting from meditation. There have been a number of studies investigating the differences in brain structure and activity and neurological changes resulting from meditative practice. But this one adds a new twist, in that it focuses on anxiety, in particular.
The researchers asked 15 people to undergo an initial fMRI brain scan, during which they instructed them to try to pay attention to their breath. They then gave them four 20-minute meditation lessons (over four days) rescanned them, with the the same instructions.
Not only did they identify which brain regions changed after the meditation lessons (it’s the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex, in case you’re curious), but they found that meditating led to a 39 percent reduction in state anxiety.
As the authors put it,
Mindfulness meditation is postulated to regulate emotions by stabilizing attentional processes, enhancing awareness of discursive sensory events, and disengaging from corresponding affective appraisals
In other words: with practice, you can get better at noticing the moments when you would normally get caught up in anxious thoughts. Instead, you can better stay "in your body" and focus on the present moment.
Some things I’m particularly impressed with:
- participants had no prior meditation experience
- participants were only given four 20-minute trainings (without home practice)
And, some minor caveats:
- there were only 15 participants (though this is not unusual for fMRI studies of this sort. if you’ve ever had an MRI, you know how much work it is)
- participants did not have anxiety disorders (this is not exactly a weakness, though. It just means that we don’t if it works differently for people who are more anxious)
I know that I'm slightly biased here, but I like seeing studies that seek more objective evidence of meditation's efficacy. Because of its association with religions and New Age mysticism, meditation sometimes can get a bad rap as being sort of woo-woo or outside the norm. Consequently, people can be skeptical about it. But my own personal, anecdotal experience leads me to believe that it can be very helpful.