Scientists, like Buddhist monks and Zen masters, have known for years that meditation can reduce anxiety, but not how. Scientists at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, however, have succeeded in identifying the brain functions involved.
“Although we’ve known that meditation can reduce anxiety, we hadn’t identified the specific brain mechanisms involved in relieving anxiety in healthy individuals,” said Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., postdoctoral research fellow in neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist and lead author of the study. “In this study, we were able to see which areas of the brain were activated and which were deactivated during meditation-related anxiety relief.”
The study is published in the current edition of the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
For the study, 15 healthy volunteers with normal levels of everyday anxiety were recruited for the study. These individuals had no previous meditation experience or anxiety disorders. All subjects participated in four 20-minute classes to learn a technique known as mindfulness meditation. In this form of meditation, people are taught to focus on breath and body sensations and to non-judgmentally evaluate distracting thoughts and emotions.
Both before and after meditation training, the study participants’ brain activity was examined using a special type of imaging — arterial spin labeling magnetic resonance imaging — that is very effective at imaging brain processes, such as meditation. In addition, anxiety reports were measured before and after brain scanning.
The majority of study participants reported decreases in anxiety. Researchers found that meditation reduced anxiety ratings by as much as 39 percent.
photo by Alessandro Giangiuilo