For the last decade numerous studies have shown that mindfulness training can improve a variety of mental and physical health problems.
Scientists, however, were unable to explain how the meditation technique actually worked. New research resolves the question by positing that mindfulness improves health by reversing or mitigating the way stress affects brain pathways.
Carnegie Mellon University’s J. David Creswell — whose cutting-edge work has shown how mindfulness meditation reduces loneliness in older adults and alleviates stress — and his graduate student Emily K. Lindsay developed the model.
Their work, published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, describes the biological pathways linking mindfulness training with reduced stress and stress-related disease outcomes.
“If mindfulness training is improving people’s health, how does it get under the skin to affect all kinds of outcomes?” asked Creswell.
“We offer one of the first evidence-based biological accounts of mindfulness training, stress reduction, and health.”
Creswell and Lindsay highlight a body of work that depicts the biological mechanisms of mindfulness training’s stress reduction effects.
When an individual experiences stress, activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex — responsible for conscious thinking and planning — decreases. Simultaneously, activity in the amygdala, hypothalamus, and anterior cingulate cortex — regions that quickly activate the body’s stress response — increases.
Studies have suggested that mindfulness reverses these patterns during stress; it increases prefrontal activity, which can regulate and turn down the biological stress response.
Excessive activation of the biological stress response increases the risk of diseases impacted by stress (like depression, HIV, and heart disease). By reducing individuals’ experiences of stress, mindfulness may help regulate the physical stress response and ultimately reduce the risk and severity of stress-related diseases.
Researchers believe this understanding of how mindfulness training affects different diseases and disorders will lead to many benefits.
Foremost, the knowledge of how the technique influences stress should lead to better clinical interventions as practitioners will have a better understanding of when certain treatments are most effective.
This insight will help them identify people most likely to benefit from mindfulness training.