Meditation and mindfulness research

For several reasons, mindfulness and meditation have been the subject of more and more well executed scientific research over the past twenty years.  Much of this research has investigated the effect of meditation on mood and on the brain’s ability to regulate emotion. 

Other research has investigated the capacity for meditation to help people suffering from anxiety disorders such as panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.  It may be that the study of meditation’s ability to make us happy has gotten more publicity than the study of meditation’s capacity to reduce anxiety.  However for people with diagnosable anxiety disorders, the potential to be gained from meditation is perhaps greater than it is for everyone else.  Meditation can “quiet the mind,” and pave the way for certain types of anxiety (e.g., worry, panic attacks) to improve.

Is your therapy really helping?

previous posting on my other blog discussed the recent controversy over “effective” psychotherapy. A more recent article in the LA Times outlines the two sides of the debate. Regardless of what you think about this controversy, one important message to take away is that it’s important to consider whether your therapy is helpful. That may sound obvious, but whatever the reasons you sought therapy to begin with, it can be helpful to periodically ask yourself whether you feel that things are tangibly changing for you. If not, have a frank discussion with your therapist — a good therapist will share your desire for tangible meaningful change and would welcome such a discussion.

Book review: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers

We each have different ways of managing the stress in our lives. Make no mistake, we all have some stress to deal with. Most of us have been through times when the stress in our lives felt overwhelming. For many of us, these times are few and far between. But for some people, stress can feel overwhelming on a chronic basis.

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OCD Treatment That Works

“CBT, accompanied by medication, is the only treatment for OCD that is supported by scientific evidence.  At this time, there is insufficient evidence to support the use of treatments such as hypnosis, herbal or homeopathic remedies, psychoanalysis, relaxation therapy, eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR) or dietary changes… there are a number of excellent tools for reducing anxiety that may be used to supplement CBT and medication, including yoga, exercise, and meditation.” — Relief from OCD, from the people at (retrieved 2009).

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Mental Health Parity Law

With the recent passage of the federal bailout of the financial industry, a groundbreaking piece of legislation was passed that will significantly affect mental healthcare in the U.S. This bill stipulates that mental health conditions must receive the same insurance coverage as physical health conditions. Thus, treatment for schizophrenia or OCD will not be covered with different annual limits, co-payments, and deductibles than those for, say, arthritis.

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September 11th and Anxiety

For those of us who were living in New York or Washington on September 11th, 2001, and for those of us who were otherwise affected by the events of that day, each anniversary of that date can bring its own difficult memories. It is not uncommon for those who were affected by 9/11 to experience an increase in certain unpleasant symptoms on anniversaries of 9/11/01.

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CBT becoming more available in the U.K.

Starting in 2006, the British government undertook an initiative to make high quality psychotherapy more widely available for people suffering from depression, anxiety, and related problems. While many different types of psychotherapy were already available, the government chose to make therapies proven to be effective available to as many patients as possible.

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Treatment for OCD

Did you know that good treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder is just as likely to include cognitive-behavioral therapy as medication?  The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence in the UK recommends that adults with mild to moderate symptoms of OCD be offered either cognitive-behavioral therapy or an antidepressant medication (SSRI). 

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Mindfulness in Therapy

An article in the New York Times health section today, entitled “Lotus Therapy,” describes the increasingly prevalent use of mindfulness techniques in psychotherapy over the past ten years. The article describes the state of research on the use of mindfulness meditation as “thin,” and indeed the evidence for the effectiveness of mindfulness’ use for anxiety and depression is not as substantial as the evidence for cognitive-behavioral therapy or antidepressant medication.

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Meditation Brain Research

recent meditation study out of California has recently garnered significant publicity.

meditation brain research

It should be no surprise to anyone that the brain is the most complex organs in the body, and the most difficult to understand. Despite the frequent headlines about scientific advances, researchers have only a relatively primitive understanding of how the brain works.

Some areas are well understood as very important to, say, breathing or balance. However, much “higher-order” cognitive functioning is very difficult to pin down in the brain. For example, long term memory does not appear to be localized to one part of the brain; rather, your brain uses many different locations in the supremely complex task of storing long-term memory.

It is also important to note that many aspects of brain functioning are not localized to one patch of gray matter. Research has revealed that many aspects of our cognitive functioning make use of “circuits” in the brain comprised of nerve cells reaching from one end of the brain to the other.

In the study described above, researchers at UCLA did two studies on emotional processing in the brain. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study which parts of the brain were more active during separate tasks. This method of studying the brain is one of the most complex and accurate methods currently available. One of their reported results was that people who were more “mindful” displayed different brain functioning than those who were not. Here the word “mindful” refers to those traits that are associated with long-term experience with meditation.

One result the researchers found was that people who were more mindful displayed more of the brain patterns found in people who are good at “putting feelings into words.” This result may be partly explained by the fact that a tendency to label one’s emotions is often included in descriptions of mindfulness. However, it is possible that this study illuminates an important difference in brain functioning between people who are mindful and those who are not.

We should beware the headlines that often accompany articles like this one. The above URL links to an article whose headline reads, “Brain Scans Reveal Why Meditation Works.” On one hand, this seems like a gross exaggeration. The uninformed reader may glance at this and conclude, “Hey, how about that, those scientists cracked another mystery. Case closed.” However there is much about meditation and much about the brain that is poorly understood by scientists. The recent trend to explain the subjective and objective effects of meditation in terms of neurobiological functioning is a welcome one, to this writer, but we have a long way to go before the mysteries of “why meditation works” can be considered “cracked.”