Mindfulness is a style of meditation that emphasis the practice observing whatever is present in the moment without judgement – just accepting everything as it is. Mindfulness is an increasingly popular way to reduce stress among the general population and even the corporate sector has embraced workplace mindfulness workshops.
Scientific research into mindfulness (clinical trials and studies) have found that practicing mindfulness is linked with changes in the structure and functions of the brain. Mindfulness appears to have a number of mind-body benefits in many areas, from emotion regulation and stress management to clinical conditions such as hypertension, cancer, inflammation, and PTSD.
This article looks at scientific research into the health affects of mindfulness meditation, in particular covering the areas of emotion regulation, high blood pressure, insomnia, PTSD and stress.
Types of Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBIs) used in Research
Outside of the scientific research community there are various ways of practicing mindfulness, but within clinical trials there are a few commonly used methods:
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
This is the most frequently used mind-body intervention. While the idea of mindfulness comes from Buddhism, it was secularized in the West, by people such as Jon Kabat-Zinn. He created a hospital-based, secular program in the 1970s, combining stress reduction principles with training in mindfulness. Initially known as Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program, it’s now called the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
Typically, MBSR programs are 8 weeks long, consisting of a weekly group session lasting 2.5 hours. Usually, 6-hr retreat takes place, between weeks 6 and 7. Participants are gradually introduced to different types of meditation beginning with a body scan sensory awareness experience, progressing to sitting and walking meditations.
Mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT)
A form of cognitive therapy that uses mindfulness practices to help patients to learn to let go of negative thought patterns, to prevent themselves from falling into depression, but has also helped to reduce cravings in people with substance abuse issues.
Mindfulness Meditation and Anxiety
There has been quite a bit of research into mindfulness meditation’s ability to quieten an overactive mind. The ability to detach from anxious thoughts is learned by practicing awareness, understanding thinking patterns, and identifying tension in the body.
We also have an article with a more comprehensive list of research into the use of meditation for stress and anxiety.
Research into Mindfulness and Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Often research conducted on the use of mindfulness meditation for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) uses brain imaging to monitor areas that are related to executive function and worrying. The results indicate that there are various benefits for people with anxiety, including reductions in stress scores, reduction in inflammatory hormones in the brain, and greater connectivity between regions of the brain.
2018 April: The effect of mindfulness meditation training on biological acute stress responses in generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
Summary: To investigate the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation on stress responses in people with GAD.
Participants: 70 adults with GAD were recruited and received either mindfulness-based stress reduction or an attention control class.
Results: Participants in the mindfulness group had a larger reduction in adrenocorticotropic hormone AUC concentrations, and also greater reduction in inflammatory cytokines AUC concentrations. The results were more positive than those found in the attention control group.
2013 March: Neural mechanisms of symptom improvements in generalized anxiety disorder following mindfulness training
Summary: To study the neural mechanisms behind the symptom improvement in individuals with GAD who participate in mindfulness training.
Participants: 26 patients diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder were split in two groups. One receivedan 8-week mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) and the other received a stress management education (SME) active control program. An additional 26 healthy and demographically matched individuals were recruited for baseline comparisons.
Results: The results showed increases in connectivity between the amygdala and other regions of the brain after mindfulness-based stress reduction but not after SME.
Research of Mindfulness and Social Anxiety Disorder
People who have social anxiety disorder mostly experience anxiety in social situations. They are more likely than other people to feel criticized, judged, or rejected in social situations, and thus they fear social interactions. Research indicates that MBSR intervention can improve social anxiety, mood, functioning, and quality of life. It can also increase self-esteem, and reduce negative self-views.
2018 February: Investigating Effects and Mechanisms of a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Intervention in a Sample of College Students at Risk for Social Anxiety
Summary: Investigate the effectiveness of a 6-week MBSR programme on students at risk for social anxiety.
Participants: 46 female college students were placed in either a waitlist control group or on MBSR intervention.
Results: In comparison to the control group students, those who received mindfulness-based stress reduction had significant reductions in social anxiety and perceived stress.
Mindfulness and Emotion Regulation
Emotion regulation is an integral component of contemporary psychology. When poorly managed emotions get in the way of normal functioning, mindfulness is seen as a tool to regulate wayward emotions enabling individuals to not act or react to every emotion or thought there is. When used for therapeutic purposes, research shows that mindfulness can be a successful technique for not only dealing with clinical issues such as depression but also or handling everyday pressures.
2018 November: Effect of a Yoga Based Meditation Technique on Emotional Regulation, Self-compassion and Mindfulness in College Students
Summary: This study assessed the effectiveness of Mastering Emotions Technique (MEMT) in college students.
Participants: 72 college students aged 18-25 took part in this study. All participants received MEMT for 2 weeks.
Results: The study shows that MEMT has a positive effect on emotion regulation, self-compassion, and mindfulness in college students.
2016 September: Mindfulness and emotional regulation as sequential mediators in the relationship between attachment security and depression
Summary: To establish the effectiveness of a mediatory relationship between mindfulness and emotional regulation for depression and attachment security.
Participants: 148 participants of the study filled out an online survey investigating a cognitive processing model where mindfulness and emotional regulation could possibly conciliate the attachment and depression relationship.
Results: The results of the survey supported the possibility of a pathway that could potentially improve the relation between attachment and depression. Results indicate that further exploration in this area is recommended.
2015 February: Neural circuits of emotion regulation: a comparison of mindfulness-based and cognitive reappraisal strategies
Summary: To compare the neurobiological mechanisms of cognitive strategies and mindfulness based techniques for emotional regulation.
Participants: 53 healthy participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Of these, 47 were included in the analysis with 24 participants receiving mindfulness intervention and 23 using cognitive reappraisal.
Results: Results showed that both strategies used common neural circuits involving emotion regulation.
2014: Effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) on Emotion Regulation in Social Anxiety Disorder
Summary: To see how MBSR can impact the brain-behaviour indices of emotional reactivity and regulate self-negative beliefs in individuals diagnosed with SAD.
Participants: 16 SAD patients enrolled for this study and underwent MBSR.
Results: Compared with baseline, patients receiving MBSR exhibited improved results in anxiety and depression symptoms. They also had improved self-esteem. As such, MBSR can be potentially helpful in reducing SAD-related behaviours and symptoms.
Mindfulness and High Blood Pressure
Since mindfulness is a practice that advocates inner calm, reduces anxiety, and promotes physical relaxation all at the same time, it has been studied as a tool to regulate blood pressure. The progressive muscle relaxation that comes with mindfulness may well lead to the reduction of blood pressure as well as heart rate variability. The research mentioned here shows mixed results with regards to regulating blood pressure through mindfulness since the condition is also influenced by ethnic, genetic and biological factors which remain uninfluenced by mindfulness.
2014 October: Randomized Controlled Trial of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction for Prehypertension
Summary: To determine the effectiveness of MBSR for reducing elevated blood pressure in pre-hypertensive patients.
Participants: 56 participants with unmedicated blood pressure took part in either a progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) training program or an MBSR for 8 weeks. Each session lasted approximately 2.5 hours a week with the primary outcome being clinical blood pressure and the secondary outcome being ambulatory blood pressure.
Results: Patients in the MBSR group showed a 4.8 mm Hg reduction in clinical systolic blood pressure, which was larger than the 0.7 reduction noted for PMR, (p=.016). The MBSR group also showed a 1.9mm Hg reduction in diastolic blood pressure as compared to a 1.2 mm Hg increase for PMR, (p=.008). The findings did not show any significant reduction in ambulatory blood pressure when compared with the PMR group.
2013 September: Hypertension Analysis of Stress Reduction Using Mindfulness Meditation and Yoga: Results From the Harmony Randomized Controlled Trial
Summary: This study investigated the efficacy of an 8-week MBSR program for lowering blood pressure.
Participants: 101 adults with known unmedicated stage 1 hypertension based on ambulatory blood pressure were assigned to either a wait list control group or to MBSR intervention. Primary outcome measured was any change in awake and 24-hour ambulatory blood pressure from baseline to 12 weeks for both groups. Secondary outcome measured was within-group before and after MBSR analysis.
Results: No significant difference in the changes in 24-hour ambulatory blood pressure from baseline to 12 weeks between the two groups. The secondary outcome related to within-group analysis showed a small reduction in blood pressure after MBSR compared with baseline. However, this change was limited to female subjects in a sex analysis.
2013 July- December: Mindfulness-based stress reduction program in coronary heart disease: A randomized control trial (CHD)
Summary: This trial aimed at examining the effect of MBSR on anxiety and depression symptoms, perceived stress, blood pressure and body mass index (BMI) in individuals with coronary heart disease.
Participants: Thirty male patients with CHD were recruited and randomized to either an MBSR group or a treatment-as-usual (TAU) group. The MBSR group received 8 weekly sessions of structured MBSR and the TAU group received one regular health education session.
Results: The MBSR group showed a significant reduction in all main outcomes of anxiety and depression symptoms, perceived stress, blood pressure, and BMI. This group also maintained therapeutic benefits at their 3-month follow up.
Mindfulness and Insomnia
As in other areas, mindfulness can also be beneficial for reducing night-time worry. For chronic insomniacs, night-time worry is often associated with poor sleep quality and quantity. The “letting go” aspect of mindfulness can help overcome this concern and research indicates that mindfulness based techniques warrant more investigation into sleep disturbances given the promising results from current studies.
2017 January: Poor Sleep Quality, Psychological Distress, and the Buffering Effect of Mindfulness Training During Pregnancy
Summary: To determine if mindfulness based interventions can help improve sleep quality during pregnancy.
Participants: 215 overweight and obese women from predominantly low-income groups took part in this study. Intervention included an 8-week mindfulness based program (Mindful Moms Training; MMT) to lower excessive gestational weight, depression, and stress compared to treatment-as-usual (TAU).
Results: While most participants were categorized as poor sleepers at baseline, the MMT group did not experience any significantly improved sleep quality. However, mindfulness training was beneficial in reducing perceived stress for the MMT group as compared to the TAU group.
2015 May: Mindfulness-based stress reduction for chronic insomnia in adults older than 75 years: a randomized, controlled, single-blind clinical trial
Summary: To establish the effectiveness of MBSR for chronic insomnia along with depressive symptoms or anxiety or in older adults.
Participants: This trial involved 60 adults aged over 74 suffering from chronic insomnia. Participants were randomized to either a wait list control group or an 8-week MBSR group.
Results: Outcomes were measured using the Self-rating Anxiety Sale (SAS), Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI), and Geriatric Depression Scale (GDS). The results showed that MBSR could be helpful for treating chronic insomnia in older adults.
2014 September: A randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation for chronic insomnia
Summary: To research the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation for treating chronic insomnia
Participants: 54 adults with chronic insomnia were recruited for this study and randomized to either mindfulness-based therapy for insomnia (MBTI), or MBSR, or an 8-week self-monitoring (SM) condition.
Results: Results showed that patients receiving MBSR or MBTI had significantly greater reduction in total wake time (TWT), pre-sleep arousal scale (PSAS) and Insomnia Severity Index (ISI) from baseline to post when compared to the SM group. When comparing MBSR with MBTI, the two groups showed no significant differences from baseline to post. This trial showed that it is worth doing more research on mindfulness based techniques as an alternative treatment for insomnia.
2014 May: A Comparison of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Improving Sleep and Mood Outcomes in Cancer Patients with Insomnia
Summary: To compare cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) with mindfulness based stress reduction MBSR for treating insomnia in cancer patients.
Participants: 111 cancer patients with insomnia were recruited for this study and assigned to either intervention. Assessments took place at baseline, post-program and at three month follow up.
Results: Both groups demonstrated equally significant reductions in mood disturbance (p<.001) and stress symptoms (p<.001). However, the improvement in sleep quality observed in the CBT-I group was higher than the MBSR group at both time points (p<.001). While both interventions improved psychological and sleep outcomes, CBT-I showed more rapid improvement.
Mindfulness and PTSD
A lot of recent data supports the use of mindfulness as a treatment approach for PTSD patients. Since mindfulness based techniques are structured to help individuals get back in touch with the present moment, they can be helpful in reducing the extent of unpleasant thoughts and memories associated with PTSD. Intervention focuses on residual symptoms of PTSD and tries to prevent relapse. Research indicates that such techniques show moderate to significant efficacy in regulating distressing symptoms.
2018 November: Mindfulness-Based Processes of Healing for Veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Summary: To evaluate the effectiveness of MBSR as a treatment for reducing symptoms of PTSD.
Participants: For this qualitative study 15 veterans were interviewed and then received MBSR intervention.
Results: Six core aspects of PTSD including dealing with the past, staying the present, acceptance of adversity, breathing through stress, relaxation, and openness to self and others were identified. In the end, MBSR seems a promising treatment for dealing with PTSD.
2017 September: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) as a Standalone Intervention for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder after Mixed Traumatic Events: A Mixed-Methods Feasibility Study
Summary: Examined the feasibility of using MBSR as a standalone intervention with PTSD patients.
Participants: 14 subjects received 8 weeks of mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention. They were assessed before and after treatment, as well as a one month follow up through self-rating. The participants also took part in qualitative interviews where they explained their experience with mindfulness based techniques.
Results: Nine out of fourteen patients completed the programme. They thought the intervention was helpful and applicable. The interview results showed that participants reported improved wellbeing and improved handling of traumatizing situations.
2017 August: A Pilot Study of the Effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction on Post-traumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms and Brain Response to Traumatic Reminders of Combat in Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom Combat Veterans with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
Summary: To evaluate the effectiveness of MBSR on PTSD symptoms and the brain’s response to traumatic reminders.
Participants: In this study 26 combat veterans with PTSD were randomized to either present-centered group therapy (PCGT) or eight MBSR sessions. All participants underwent symptom assessment with the Clinician-Administered PTSD scale (CAPS), mindfulness Five Factor Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ) and brain imaging using PET.
Results: The PTSD patients who received MBSR showed an improvement in symptoms in comparison to patients in the PCGT group. Patients in the MBSR group also had an increase in mindfulness measured with FFMQ.
Mindfulness Meditation and Stress
Mindfulness meditation helps alleviate both stress and depression by introducing the concept of mindfulness and developing it by teaching directed attention. Research has shown improvements in people who have neurocognitive difficulties, or worry symptoms and co-occurring cognitive dysfunction, as well as improving biological health markers.
2017 July: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Older Adults With Stress Disorders and Neurocognitive Difficulties: A Randomized Controlled Trial
Summary: Examine whether mindfulness intervention could improve neurocognitive performance in older adults who suffer from cognitive complaints and stress disorders.
Participants: This trial was conducted with 103 adults over the age of 64 who had been diagnosed with an anxiety or a depressive disorder.
Results: The MBSR group showed greater improvement on memory composite score, measures of worry, and depression at post-treatment. At follow up The same group showed improvement on worry (P=.02), depression (p+002) and anxiety (P=.002). There was no change in cognitive control.
2014 June: Brief mindfulness meditation training alters psychological and neuroendocrine responses to social evaluative stress
Summary: Can brief mindfulness meditation sessions modify neuroendocrine and psychological responses to the Trier Sicila Stress Test (TSST).
Participants: This trial recruited 66 young adult volunteers who participated in either a 3-day, 25 minutes a day, mindfulness meditation session or in an analytical cognitive training control program.
Results: The participants in the mindfulness meditation training sessions reported having reduced psychological stress, however, they had increased salivary cortisol reactivity to TSST. This may indicate that initially brief mindfulness meditation training fosters greater active coping efforts, which result in reduced psychological stress appraisals and greater cortisol reactivity during social evaluative stressors.