In the previous post, we have seen the benefits of mindfulness meditation and the various positive results of the tests conducted. Mindfulness exercises can ameliorate bodily ills as well—most notably chronic pain. Because these exercises can lessen psychological stress, they can reduce the emotional contribution to pain, which is often quite significant. In fact, one of MBSR’s (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) first clinical uses was for the treatment of chronic pain. In 1985 Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues enrolled 90 patients with chronic pain in his eight-week program, measuring their levels of pain, negative mood, and anxiety before and after their participation.
The researchers saw significant reductions in these negative symptoms after the program ended but found no beneficial changes in 21 patients who received traditional treatment methods such as nerve blocks, physical therapy and antidepressants. Strikingly, the benefits from Kabat-Zinn’s exercises were maintained for up to 15 months, and patients reported continuing the exercises on their own.
Recent data suggest that mindfulness training can also help with less severe, but still significant, psychological issues such as job-related burnout in medical professionals and teachers. Although the training may not reduce the number of job-related stressors, it helps to change a person’s relation to these stressors and renew his or her sense of curiosity and connection with patients or students. Social stressors, such as loneliness in elders, can also diminish with the practice of mindfulness.
In 2012 psychologist J. David Creswell and his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University assigned 20 people between the ages of 55 and 85 to participate in an MBSR course and another 20 such individuals to receive no therapy. Creswell’s team found that self-reported loneliness, as assessed by a questionnaire, dropped among those receiving MBSR but remained unchanged in the others. Loneliness is not directly related to the number of social contacts a person has. In fact, programs to increase social engagement among older people do not necessarily lessen their feelings of disconnectedness.
Mindfulness training may make loneliness less distressing by helping people recognize that, although they feel alone, their loneliness does not define them. What is more, in Creswell’s study this psychological improvement was accompanied by changes in immune function. The mindfulness course reduced blood levels of pro-inflammatory proteins, suggesting that this training may also lower the risk in older adults of inflammatory diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.
Other studies indicate that mindfulness training can relieve symptoms of ailments that stress can exacerbate, including psoriasis, dermatitis, fibromyalgia and irritable bowel disease. Being mindful may even relate to a biological indicator of longevity.
In a study published in 2012 psychologist Elissa S. Epel and her colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco, found that people who have a greater propensity toward mind wandering were found to have shorter caps, called telomeres, at the ends of their chromosomes than those whose minds were more often anchored in the present.
Shorter telomeres are associated with a shorter life span for an organism. As a result, the authors suggested in their paper that “a present attentional state may promote a healthy biochemical milieu and, in turn, cell longevity.”
Mindfulness training can tune our ability to attend to tactile as well as visual stimulation. In 2011 psychologist Catherine Kerr and her colleagues at Harvard enrolled eight people in an eight-week MBSR course, requiring 45 minutes of daily practice. The researchers then flashed a word on a computer screen denoting a body part—say, “hand” or “foot”—that might soon be getting a light, barely detectable tap. While the participants watched the words and felt the taps, Kerr and her colleagues measured ongoing seven to 10-hertz magnetic signals at the scalp from neurons representing the hand in the somatosensory cortex, a region of the brain that registers sensations from various body parts.
Among the participants who took the course, but not in eight untrained individuals, the researchers saw greater signal power in the hand area of the brain after seeing “hand” compared with “foot,” reflecting an increased readiness of neurons to fire, a brain signature of attention. This anticipatory activity, before the hand was tapped, suggests that MBSR tunes people’s ability to generate high resolution representations of their hand or other body parts at will, sharpening body awareness.
These results may help explain how MBSR may alleviate the psychological impact of chronic pain. If a person can willfully direct attention to specific body parts that are experiencing pain, he or she may notice subtle fluctuations in sensations at those locations, to the point where the idea of pain as a monolithic “thing” may fall apart into ever changing sensations. As a result, the pain may become less distressing. Similar mechanisms tied to attention may be at play for psychological and social stressors. In these cases, present-moment focus and monitoring of sadness, say, or loneliness, may help minimize the perceived significance of these forms of suffering.
Attention is almost certainly not the only way mindfulness training works. Mindfulness techniques are most likely to alter and strengthen many other brain networks and processes. Several studies suggest, for example, that such exercises shift the mind from a narrative mode of viewing the self, in which the central character in the story is you, to a more experiential view, in which you observe the unfolding of your thoughts, feelings and sensations over time. Other studies indicate that emotional changes or the calming of stress-induced physiological symptoms may drive psychological improvements. Whether better attention relates to these other suggested mechanisms is not yet clear. Whatever the mechanism, efforts to become more mindful could make a considerable dent in human suffering.
Working mindfulness practices into your daily routine can bring benefits similar to those of physical exercise. As an antidote to an ambling mind, negative mood and stress, such mental workouts can help virtually everyone live a happier, healthier and more fulfilled life. Students or athletes who want to boost their performance, for example, and parents, teachers or caregivers wishing to be more attentive to others’ needs may all find mindfulness training useful. Such training may be particularly essential, however, for people such as soldiers, surgeons and air traffic controllers whose ability to control and monitor their attention may be a matter of life or death.
As we learn to grab a hold of our own attention, we gain control of our own happiness and health. Perhaps the time is now for us all to consider cultivating greater awareness of our moment-to-moment experiences and the contents of our consciousness.