In this new blog we will be looking at some of the science in psychology, biology and neuroscience around training the mind in mindfulness, compassion and insight. If you want to investigate further, links are provided at the end of the blogs to the cited literature. This blog is partly inspired by our work with our colleagues from the University of the West of Scotland on the Masters Degree in (Teaching) Mindfulness and Compassion, which is run in partnership with the Mindfulness Association. If you have any recommendations of important scientific papers or books, then please contact Heather at email@example.com. We look forward to hearing from you!
Mindfulness Meditation and Stress
The first secular mindfulness eight week programme was Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction or MBSR, developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Much research has been conducted into the efficacy of MBSR and other secular mindfulness interventions as a stress reduction technique. However, much of the research in the field of mindfulness is in its early stages or is methodologically flawed and often the scientific evidence is less compelling than the marketing of mindfulness would have us believe (Goleman & Davidson, 2017).
An important first step in research is defining what we mean by mindfulness. An often quoted definition from Jon Kabat-Zinn is “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally” (Kabat-Zinn, 2017). In the Mindfulness Association Rob Nairn’s operational definition of mindfulness is “knowing what is happening, while it is happening, without preference” (Choden & Regan-Addis, 2018). Also, it is defined as “self-regulation of attention to an experience of the present moment and adopting an orientation of openness and acceptance towards one’s experience” (Bishop et al, 2004).
The systematic reviews or meta-analyses of the mindfulness literature in relation to stress reduction would generally suggest that mindfulness training can reduce stress. These reviews and meta-analyses systematically assess the results of previous research papers in order to arrive at conclusions based on that whole body of research. They critically evaluate and statistically combine the results of comparable research trials and are generally considered a good starting point for getting an overview of research evidence in a field.
Chiesa et al (2009), is a review and meta-analysis looking at MBSR for stress management in healthy people and concluded, while highlighting limitations with some of the research it considered, that MBSR is able to reduce stress in healthy people. Matousek et al (2010), is a literature review about how MBSR influences cortisol levels, a bio-marker of stress, but showed mixed results. Khoury et al (2013), is a meta-analysis of mindfulness based therapy research and concluded that mindfulness based therapy was effective for reducing stress. A meta-analysis conducted by Zainal et al (2013) found evidence that the use of MBSR in women with breast cancer can have an important impact on improving mental health, in part by a reduction in perceived stress.
In Chapter 5 of their book, “The Science of Meditation”, Goleman and Davidson’s (2017) review of the research evidence in relation to stress reduction indicates that the amygdala, which is a key part of the brain’s stress circuitry shows reduced activity from an eight week MBSR course. This may not only occur during formal mindfulness meditation practice, but also occur in daily life situations. More daily practice was connected with lessened stress reactivity. A three month meditation retreat saw greater connectivity between the pre-frontal areas of the brain that manage emotion and the areas of the amygdala that react to stress, resulting in less reactivity. Also, an improved ability to regulate attention, through mindfulness training, accompanies some of the positive impact on stress reactivity. The quickness with which long term meditators recover from stress underlines how a state (temporarily experienced during practice and shortly thereafter) of lowered stress reactivity becomes a trait (experienced all the time) over time. They highlight research indicating improvements in physiological measures, such as blood pressure recovery, lower rise in cortisol as well as lower stress perception.
It seems that the research so far is encouraging!
Bishop et al, 2004 – https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2004-15972-002
Chiesa et al (2009) – https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/acm.2008.0495
Choden & Regan-Addis, 2018 – https://www.johnhuntpublishing.com/o-books/our-books/mindfulness-based-living-course
Crane et al, 2017 – https://www.researchgate.net/publication/311954295_What_defines_mindfulness-based_programs_The_warp_and_the_weft
Goleman & Davidson, 2017 – https://www.goodreads.com/de/book/show/36121358-the-science-of-meditation
Gu et al (2015) – https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272735815000197
Kabat-Zinn, 2017 – https://www.mindful.org/jon-kabat-zinn-defining-mindfulness/
Khoury et al (2013) – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23796855/
Pascoe et al, 2017 – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28963884/
Zainal et al (2013) – https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/pon.3171