Mindfulness may no longer be a new trend, but researchers keep discovering new ways in which it could help boost your mental health.
For instance, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that suggests mindfulness helps people feel less stressed and more calm and motivated. Studies have found it could help relieve the symptoms of depression and anxiety too. And there may even be physical benefits, with researchers claiming it can help with things like blood pressure control.
The latest in these studies on mindfulness has found it could reduce fear responses such as phobias. Indeed researchers from academic establishments in Sweden, China and New York say mindfulness could actually help you to unlearn your fears via a process called extinction learning.
Writing in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, the researchers suggest those who practice mindfulness in the long term may find it easier to gradually let go of their fears – and stay fear free.
The study was a small-scale one, involving just 26 volunteers. For four weeks half of the volunteers used the Headspace app to practice daily mindfulness. The other volunteers carried on normally, without any mindfulness training.
After four weeks, the volunteers took part in a series of experiments over two days designed to teach them a fear response. Then they were taught to unlearn that same response.
The experiments involved showing the volunteers a series of images. While some of those images were displayed they were also given mild electric shocks. This taught them to associate the pain of the shocks with those specific images, making them produce more body sweat when they saw them (all volunteers were subjected to skin conductance measurement tests).
Then the researchers showed the same images but without any electric shocks, which was designed to make them extinguish their fear responses. This technique is effective enough but the results don’t usually last, with the fear response usually returning quickly. So the scientists tested the volunteers again with the aim of finding out which ones still produced a fear response when they saw the shock images, and which ones didn’t find those images alarming any more. No prizes for guessing that the Headspace group remained fear free, while the others carried on sweating more when they saw the pictures that were originally accompanied by a shock.
This, the researchers say, could help people who are having exposure therapy to overcome phobias. Practising mindfulness while having exposure therapy could boost the therapy’s effectiveness, and make it last longer, they suggest.