“Is the MBSR program going to help me?” According to the ever-increasing number of scientific studies on the subject that have come out in the last 35 years, the answer to that question is likely to be “yes”. Since it’s creation in 1979, well over 20,000 people have participated in MBSR programs offered all around the world. One of the reasons it has become so widespread is because there is now a lot of scientific research backing up the program’s effectiveness.
Here are a few highlights of what these studies have found participating in the MBSR program can help with:
Perhaps the most obvious benefit of MBSR is advertised its name: stress reduction. Studies consistently find that people who take the MBSR program report feeling less stressed afterwards and that stress levels decreases from week-to-week throughout the program. In addition to participants’ subjective reports, objective measures of stress, such as levels of cortisol (an important stress hormone), have been shown to decrease after taking the MBSR program.
MBSR was initially targeted for patients suffering from chronic conditions, including chronic pain. Experimental studies in which pain is induced in the lab, have shown that MBSR participants suffer less from anticipating pain and recover from pain quicker than those who are not trained in mindfulness. Even during a painful episode, long-term meditators report feeling less bothered by pain compared to non-meditators, even though the parts of their brain associated with pain display more neural activity. Scientists believe that this is because meditators refrain from engaging in thought processes that increase the experience of pain.
Boost the Immune System
In addition to reducing stress and pain, mindfulness practice promotes physiological resilience by improving the function of the immune system. In a famous MBSR study, after 8 weeks of training, participants showed a greater antibody response to a flu vaccine than those in a control group. In another classic study, mindfulness practice, when combined with ultraviolet light therapy, was shown to quadruple the skin-clearing rates of patients suffering from psoriasis, compared to a control group who did not meditate but only underwent the light therapy. More recently, in a rigorous study, participants randomized to an MBSR group demonstrated a significantly smaller inflammatory response to experimentally-induced inflammation compared to an active control group.
Slow Down Aging
Perhaps one of the most controversial benefit of mindfulness practice, coming from a handful of studies, is that it can slow down the aging of our biological cells and increase our longevity. In particular, a famous study found that participating in a 3-month mindfulness retreat can increase levels of telomerase, an enzyme that protects the ends of our chromosomes, which naturally deteriorate with age.
Improve Attentional Control
Research suggests that about half of the time, we are not paying attention to what we are doing or who we are interacting with, and that this negatively impacts our happiness. Many studies have shown that MBSR participants are better able to notice things they haven’t noticed before, focus their attention for longer durations on one thing, and flexibly switch their attention where they intend to even when there is distracting information. In one study, after even just five days of mindfulness meditation training, participants show significantly improved attentional control on a standardized computer task. This improvement in attention regulation is related to a brain region named the anterior cingulate cortex, which grows with mindfulness practice.
Decrease Emotional Reactivity
Often at the center of people’s difficulties, is the inability to effectively manage painful emotions. Studies have found that participating in the MBSR program results in being less reactive to negative emotions, and when we do react to them, we are able to let go of them and recover much faster than we used to. It is thought that the improvement in emotion regulation is due to the strengthening of regions of the prefrontal cortex (i.e. the rational part of the brain), which reduce the activity in more primitive regions of the brain that process emotions, such as the amygdala (i.e. the threat-detector part of the brain). As a result, researchers have found that the size of the amygdala shrinks with mindfulness practice, so that we don’t detect danger when there’s actually none present.
Promote Positive Emotions
Not only does mindfulness practice reduce the impact of negative emotions, it also increases the processing of positive emotions. Researchers believe that mindfulness training allows us to pay more attention to what’s going well in your life, which makes us more appreciative when things go well, and better able to make positive meaning from adversity. In a classic study, MBSR participants who just completed the program demonstrated greater electrical activity in the left side of the front of their brain compared to before the program (neuroscientists refer to as a “left-shift”), which is brain activity that’s associated with positive emotions.
Prevent Cognitive Decline
In addition to experiencing greater positive emotions, studies have shown that with repeated mindfulness practice, areas of our cortex that have to do with decision-making (i.e. prefrontal cortex), memory (i.e. hippocampus), have been shown increase in size, which could help to prevent the thinning of the cortex that happens naturally as we age and lose cognitive functions.
Develop a Resilient Sense of Self
One of the most transformative change that occurs with MBSR has to do with our sense of self. When we suffer, we are typically caught inside a fixed negative narrative about ourself, our past, or our future. This is the product of a collection of midline brain regions, most active during rest, known as the default mode network. With mindfulness practice, studies have shown that we can reduce the activity of the default mode network and rewire this default mode network so that we can more readily unhook from unhelpful narratives and reconnect with our present-moment-self, that is, our body. The insula is a region of the brain that makes us aware of how our body feels in any given moment. Studies have shown that participating in the MBSR program results greater insula activation and, with practice, the insula increasing in volume. Furthermore, an seminal neuroimaging study showed that with MBSR training, the default mode brain regions become uncoupled from the insula, which supports participants’ discovery that the program reveals to them inner resources and possibilities that were previously hidden when seeing through the lens of old limiting patterns of the mind.
Being less caught up in the story of “me” also allows us to pay more attention to others, to be more empathetic and compassionate. An MRI study demonstrated that individuals completing an MBSR program had increased concentration of grey matter in the temporoparietal junction, a part of the brain important for understanding the perspective of other people. Relatedly, many studies have shown that participating in MBSR can improve the quality of relationships, including reducing social anxiety, anger, marital conflicts, and the strain of long-term caregiving.
To keep up to date on the latest research findings about mindfulness, check out the American Mindfulness Research Association (AMRA) website, which publishes a monthly newsletter summarizing the month’s research findings.