Top Mindfulness Research Fall 2019

New research explores the relationship between mindfulness, mental health, breathing and more.

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Loving-Kindness for Slower Aging

Practicing loving-kindness may protect your genes and slow aging, a new study finds. Scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill wanted to know which forms of meditation were most protective for telomeres (segments of DNA that stop chromosomes from deteriorating too rapidly). One hundred seventy-six adults with no prior meditation experience were assigned to learn either mindfulness meditation or loving-kindness meditation, or to be in a no-training control group. Over six weeks, mindfulness and loving-kindness participants attended hour-long group meditation classes once per week and were asked to use 20-minute audio practices at home daily. Meditators learned to observe their experience to increase their objectivity and mental clarity, while the loving-kindness group focused on fostering kindness and social connection. Participants’ telomere length was measured before and after the study. After six weeks, the most significant decrease in telomere length occurred in the control, with slightly less decline among mindfulness meditators and the least decline among loving-kindness practitioners. More research is needed to determine what it is about loving-kindness meditation that may safeguard telomeres from the effects of stress and aging.

Mindfulness or Compassion for Mental Health

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) are among the most widely used mindfulness-based treatments for depression, anxiety, and stress. The two may be similarly effective, finds a new study from the Mindfulness Institute in Reykjavik, Iceland. At a residential rehabilitation and health clinic, 58 adults were assigned to either a MBCT group, a CFT group, or a group receiving no mindfulness-based treatment. MBCT and CFT attendees were offered eight two-hour sessions over four weeks. Before starting, everyone completed a questionnaire about their experiences of depression, anxiety, and stress, and rated their levels of mindfulness, self-compassion, and rumination. 

At the end of four weeks, MBCT and CFT participants reported less depression, anxiety, stress, and rumination, and more mindfulness and self-compassion, while control group members reported no change. They also found that MBCT members who ruminated more before treatment showed the biggest increase in mindfulness, but CFT parrticipants were more mindful regardless of how much they’d ruminated before. This suggests people who tend to get stuck in their thoughts may be better served by programs that include compassion training.

Like Breath, Like Brain?

Focusing on the timing and pace of breath may help direct attention and boost mood, says a new study in the Journal of Neurophysiology. Scientists at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research studied the brain’s responses to breathing exercises. Six adults already undergoing EEG monitoring (in which electrodes placed directly onto the brain record electrical activity) performed three tasks: They followed a pattern of normally paced, then faster-paced breathing, cycling between paces eight times. Next, they counted inhales and exhales for short intervals, then reported how many breaths they’d taken. Lastly, they did a focusing task while their breath cycle was monitored. 

The different breathing styles activated not just the brain stem, or “breathing center,” but also brain regions linked to emotion, attention, and body awareness. Quick breathing stimulated the amygdala, suggesting that rapid breathing may trigger anxiety, anger, or fear. This raises the possibility that targeted breathing strategies may help people to manage thoughts, moods, and experiences.