New Study Offers Scientific Proof That Meditation Can Help With Anxiety

It turns out, the practice does change your brain activity.

We've all heard that practicing meditation on a regular basis can help reduce stress levels and alleviate anxiety. But whether or not these benefits are scientific or all in our heads (no pun intended) has been up for debate… until now! A new study published in Biological Psychiatry has finally provided evidence to suggest that meditation does, in fact, modify our neurological functions in a way that helps combat the imagined fears that characterize an anxiety attack.

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School asked 42 participants to complete an eight-week yoga and meditation course designed to reduce stress. They also asked a control group of 25 participants to complete an eight-week course in which they engaged in light aerobic exercise and were taught about the impact of stress. MRI brain scans showed that those who completed the yoga and meditation course showed changes in the hippocampus—the area of the brain associated with learning and emotions—in ways that helped mitigate their feelings of unreal or imaginary threat.

"Mindfulness training may improve emotion regulation though changing neurobiological responses associated with our ability to remember that a stimulus is no longer threatening," Gunes Sevinc, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and lead author of the study, said in a press release. "The data suggest that mindfulness is also enhancing our ability to remember this new, less fearful reaction to these stimuli, and break the anxiety habit."

According to Sevinc, mindfulness meditation works similarly to exposure therapy, which exposes individuals to the stimuli they're afraid of in a safe environment to help them "gradually learn that these stimuli are no longer threatening." Sevinc added, "Mindfulness meditation provides a similar context and thereby may create an opportunity to learn that certain thoughts and sensations are not dangerous."

It sounds very scientific, sure. But—as Omri Kleinberger, the CEO and founder of the corporate meditation and yoga company Ometa in New York City, explains—mindful meditation simply enables us to better monitor our thoughts and, in doing so, regulate our emotional responses to them.

"Imagine that instead of believing that you are your thoughts, you see yourself as an external observer of them," Kleinberger told Best Life. "During an anxious episode, it is common for people to think things like, 'Everything is falling apart and I have no control over it.' Every time you have that thought, it reinforces the stress-inducing emotions associated with it. In meditation, you learn to become mindfully more aware of your thoughts, so that when you experience a negative thought such as that, you can recognize it as being nothing more than just a thought, and let it go."

And if you're ready to get into the habit of being more zen, here are 10 Ways to Focus Better During Meditation.

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Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more
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