NEW HAVEN, Conn. — The power of positivity is often preached as a secret weapon against timeless foes like depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Maintaining a smile in spite of life’s trials and tribulations though is not an easy task, and many people fall victim to the pitfalls of negative thinking. Researchers at Yale University have a novel suggestion for those struggling with negative emotions: try out some mindfulness training. Just an introductory course was shown in a new study to seriously help participants eliminate negative thoughts and even cut back on feelings of physical pain.
Mindfulness helped participants focus their thoughts so much, that when their forearms were exposed to a high temperature, they barely noticed!
“It’s as if the brain was responding to warm temperature, not very high heat,” comments associate study author Hedy Kober, associate professor of psychiatry and psychology, in a release.
This isn’t the first time that mindfulness, defined as awareness and acceptance of a situation without intruding thoughts or judgment, has shown serious promise as a legitimate source of relief when it comes to problems like anxiety or depression. However, this study was focused on what effect a relatively brief 20-minute introductory session into mindfulness techniques would have on participants. All of the participants in the study had no prior meditation experience.
After taking the course, study participants were tested on two fronts, all while undergoing brain imaging scans. First their physical pain threshold was tested by having a hot object placed on their forearm, then their responses were recorded after being presented with a series of “negative images.” Both of these exercises took place two times. The first time around participants were told to react as they normally would, but the second time, they were told to utilize any and all mindfulness techniques they had been taught from the introductory session.
The participants themselves reported experiencing less physical pain and negative emotions while using mindfulness techniques, and their brain scans backed up their reports. The scans showed noticeable reductions in brain activity associated with pain and negativity.
Even more fascinating; the research team made it a point to note that these observed changes in brain activity did not occur in the prefrontal cortex. That area is known to regulate conscious thought and rational decision making, indicating that the benefits of mindfulness were not a result of conscious willpower on the participants’ part.
“The ability to stay in the moment when experiencing pain or negative emotions suggests there may be clinical benefits to mindfulness practice in chronic conditions as well — even without long meditation practice,” Kober concludes.
The study is published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.