Mindfulness Can Help Us Process Fear More Rationally, Study Finds
If you're deeply afraid of something, like spiders or heights, a therapist might suggest that you undergo a process called exposure therapy to try to help you release some of that anxiety. Exposure therapy, which involves facing that threatening thing while in a safe environment, has been a standard psychological practice for years—but a new study out this month offers an alternative. It turns out the most optimal setup for helping you face your fears might include a tool you already know about: mindfulness meditation.
The study, which will be released next month in Biological Psychiatry, was led by a team of physicians at Massachusetts General Hospital. It found that people who practiced mindfulness were better able to "extinguish fearful associations," according to a news release.
"Fear and anxiety have a habitual component to them—the memory of something that provoked fear in the past will trigger a habitual fear response when we are reminded of the event, even if there is no direct threat at the present," Sara Lazar, Ph.D., a scientist at the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program and the study's senior author, said in the news release.
Typically, exposure therapy helps you face your fear over and over again, so you eventually learn that the thing you fear is not as threatening as you remember it being. Essentially, this process helps you create a new memory around the root of your anxiety in a safe setting, which helps to lessen your fear over time.
The new study followed 67 patients through a fear-conditioning task. In addition to undergoing the task, 42 of the participants were trained in yoga and meditation, while the other 25 were offered an exercise-based stress management program. The researchers found that the participants who learned mindfulness and meditation experienced physical changes in their brain, which they looked at using MRI brain scans. These changes were linked to being able to better recall safety memories and respond more adaptively to the thing they were afraid of, compared to the exercise group.
"The data indicate that mindfulness can help us recognize that some fear reactions are disproportionate to the threat, and thus reduces the fear response to those stimuli," Lazar said. "Mindfulness can also enhance our ability to remember this new, less fearful reaction, and break the anxiety habit."
In other words, mindfulness helps us regulate our emotions and may even change the way our brain responds to the world around us. This means mindfulness could be offered as an alternative or addition to exposure therapy. The benefits may also work for the average person who wants to find ways to respond to fear more calmly. Practicing mindfulness can be as simple as taking deep breaths, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system and helps you calm down.
The best thing is that you can practice mindfulness anywhere, anytime—even at your desk. Here are a few ways to get started with the practice by using basic mindfulness techniques, like square breathing (breathe in for two counts, hold for two counts, exhale for two counts, hold for two counts) or using the five senses to clue into your surroundings for a few minutes.
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