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Does Mindfulness-based Mediation Ease Anxiety Symptoms?


psteventurner 1 / -  
Nov 5, 2022   #1

Does Mindfulness-based Mediation Ease Anxiety Symptoms?



Paul Steven Turner
English 102-2267

Over the past two decades, many Americans are reporting that they have experienced chronic bouts of anxiety and depression symptoms. Though there are ways to treat these symptoms with therapy and medication many have started to turn to alternative methods to alleviate the symptoms associated with anxiety and depression. Mindfulness meditation is one of the more popular methods to deal with the symptoms. Meditating seems easy though: sit down, focus on your breathing, and try to not let your thoughts overtake the moment. You just let all the thoughts, good or bad, pass along until there is stillness. This doesn't come easy to most people which is why you have to practice sitting and being with those thoughts and to get that clarity can take years. Those that have practiced mindful meditation for years put forth claims that this practice can eliminate anxiety and depression symptoms and generally bring a calmer mind. These longtime practitioners offer paid retreats or open studios where people sign up for classes to teach them how to manage their anxiety and depression symptoms with meditation. The question is, does science back up the claims that mindful meditation does anything concrete to alleviate symptoms?

For many, mindful meditation has only been in the lexicon of America since the 1960s but as a practice has been around for a very long time. Mediation is typically associated with eastern religions like Buddhism but the practice goes back almost twice as long as Buddhism has been an established practice. The first evidence of meditation dates back to between 5,000 to 3,500 BCS. (Puff) This predates all the religions that it is mainly associated with and shows that even early man understood the possible benefits of meditation. The practice of mindful meditation is simple but mastering can take years if not decades.

To start is simple; sit in a comfortable position, focus on your breath, focus on being in the present moment, and let judgment or outside stimuli go. You, in essence, are learning to be with your mind and allow it to be without judging your thoughts. This last part is why the practice can take a long to master. Luckily, you don't need to master the practice of mindful meditation to access its benefits. This is one of the key reasons that many suggest that meditation helps people with anxiety. While this is a good practice even if you do not suffer from anxiety the benefits meditation has for sufferers helps with the issues that anxiety does to the brain.

We cannot fully understand how meditation impacts the brain concerning anxiety until we have a proper understanding of what anxiety is. Most people will suffer from anxiety in response to stressful situations since anxiety is a reaction that is based on fear. For the terms of this discussion, we will cover a type of anxiety called Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). GAD as defined by Harvard Health, is where you feel "a troubling sense of unease for at least 1 month, without other psychological symptoms". People that suffer from GAD show symptoms that range from shortness of breath, restlessness, and a persistent fog of unease that they cannot pinpoint what triggers it. They just feel like something wrong is lingering around the corner.

This heightened sense of unease and nervousness can be caused by many different sources. As with many other disorders that people have, genetics seem to play a big role in a person's susceptibility to GAD. Coupled with genetics, doctors have found that trauma and the development of certain parts of the brain that regulate how humans deal with fear and stress can play a role in who can be diagnosed. ("Generalized Anxiety Disorder: When Worry Gets Out of Control") This data means that anyone can develop GAD in the right set of circumstances, but, what does anxiety do to the function of the brain?

When a person sufferers from GAD the brain is affected in a very peculiar way. Since anxiety is based on feelings of fear the area of the brain that processes these fears and emotions, the amygdala, starts to work overtime to show there is a threat even when none is apparent. The emotional response that the amygdala signals to the body are typically controlled and regulated by the prefrontal cortex, but in people that have GAD the anxiety overrides the regulating process of the Prefrontal Cortex and does not allow it to switch over to other issues the brain is dealing with. ("The Biology of Anxiety") This override of the Prefrontal Cortex by the fear or perceived threat is what allows the persistent feeling and physical reactions to anxiety to linger for longer than normal. This may be where the physical feelings of anxiety are created and persisted, the hippocampus is where the condition is compounded with a person learning how to protect against the perceived threats.

The hippocampus is the area of the brain that is associated with memory and therefore plays a huge part in how we learn and react to outside stimuli. Depression and anxiety affect the hippocampus in different ways though. Depression has been found to shrink the size of the hippocampus, but anxiety enlarges it. This enlarging allows the firing of "anxiety cells" or cells that fire when animals are in stressful environments. These cells will activate behaviors that make someone avoid situations that bring discomfort. These cells also trigger the hypothalamus to produce the symptoms of anxiety resulting in people overestimating or perceiving everything as a potential threat. ("The Biology of Anxiety") This is the area that needs to be addressed if people with GAD can have any possible relief. Since the root of all the symptoms is based on how the brain interacts, how does mindful meditation help alleviate the persistent unease of anxiety, and is there any science to back assertions that it does help?

Mindful meditation works directly with the areas of the brain that anxiety affects. As we discussed earlier, the amygdala's reaction to perceived threats overrides the Prefrontal Cortex's ability to regulate emotion. Meditation steps in and helps to rewire this override. In an article by Harvard Health, Dr. John W. Denninger states, "Meditation trains the brain to achieve sustained focus, and to return to that focus when negative thinking, emotions, and physical sensations intrude - which happens a lot when you feel stressed and anxious."("How Meditation Helps With Depression") The training of the brain during meditation starts with the calming of the amygdala when it perceives threats. When the activity of the amygdala starts to calm the prefrontal cortex can take back control and function properly. Though the process of how meditation is directly involved in the way anxiety symptoms are relieved is still a mystery, some studies show how it positively impacts the individual practitioner's mood.

To find out what happens to the brain before and after mindful meditation training researchers from Wake Forest Baptist conducted a test on fifteen people who report normal anxiety levels. The study would take MRIs of the subject before meditation training and then after to see how their anxiety levels were rated. Of the fifteen subjects, none had experience with meditation and all reported any disorders related to anxiety or depression. The classes consisted of four twenty-minute sessions where the subjects were taught the mindfulness meditation techniques of focusing on the breath, one's body sensations, and the ability to observe their thought without assigning positive or negative emotions to them. After each session, the subjects reported a reduction in their anxiety levels, and the MRI scans found that the meditative practice activated the prefrontal cortex and other areas that are involved in the worry centers of the brain. The biggest finding was that the anterior cingulate cortex was also activated. This is interesting because it is believed to be the area of the brain that controls the decrease in anxiety symptoms. (Bergland) This is a piece of positive information for people that suffer, but do the symptoms only dissipate during and immediately after meditating, or does it last longer? This type of alleviation of anxiety symptoms can only work as a band-aid if there is no long-term relief that encourages people to continue.

To have this be a beneficial practice it needs to have a better effect on anxiety symptoms than taking an Advil to treat a pulled muscle. If people have to continuously return to their meditative practice every time there is a flare-up then the benefits aren't enough to stick with meditation. There does seem to be a correlation between continued practice and a lasting effect on anxiety symptoms. Research by Gaƫlle Desbordes, a neuroscientist at Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, found that brain activity in practiced meditators stays steady even when they are not actively meditating. At the beginning of the study, Desbordes would show images with emotional content before the subjects were taught about meditation and scan the reaction in the brain. The members of the study were then sent through an eight-week training in mindful meditation. After the period of training, the subjects were shown more emotional images while their brain was scanned. The results showed a marked difference in how the amygdala reacted. Before the mediation training, the amygdala reported higher activity than it did post-training. (Powell) The lowering of activity in the area that produces an emotional response that can lead to anxiety shows that meditation does maintain a calming effect even after the initial period of meditation. If an eight-week class can improve a person's ability to regulate their response to anxiety-triggering stimuli, what could a true dedication to mindful meditation over a period of years do to the brain's ability to regulate anxiety?

Conclusion

Like most things associated with the brain, people may never be able to fully understand what the precise mechanics are unfolding when someone is dealing with chronic anxiety. We may also never fully understand what meditation does to the brain. We can see that there is a correlation between how the practice of meditation has a positive impact on regulating and maintaining a healthy anxiety level. There will always be other treatments that a person can use to seek relief (therapy, medication) but the studies are starting to point to mindful meditation being an effective form of treatment for those that may want a more natural way to feel better. It is good that there are many different methods for alleviation of anxiety symptoms and proof that meditation helps is a good piece of news for everyone.

Works Cited
Bergland, Christopher. "How Does Meditation Reduce Anxiety at a Neural Level?"
Psychology Today, 7 June 2013, psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201306/how-does-meditation-reduce-anxiety-neural-level?amp.

"The Biology of Anxiety." Psychology Today,
psychologytoday.com/us/basics/anxiety/the-biology-anxiety?amp. Accessed 3 Nov. 2022.

"Generalized Anxiety Disorder: When Worry Gets Out of Control." National Institute of
Mental Health (NIMH), nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/generalized-anxiety-disorder-gad. Accessed 3 Nov. 2022.

Harvard Health. "Generalized Anxiety Disorder." Harvard Health, 5 Dec. 2014,
health.harvard.edu/anxiety/generalized-anxiety-disorder.

"How Meditation Helps With Depression." Harvard Health, 12 Feb. 2021,
health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/how-meditation-helps-with-depression.

Powell, Alvin. "Harvard Researchers Study How Mindfulness May Change the Brain in
Depressed Patients." Harvard Gazette, 27 Aug. 2018, news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/04/harvard-researchers-study-how-mindfulness-may-change-the-brain-in-depressed-patients.

Puff, Robert. "An Overview of Meditation: Its Origins and Traditions." Psychology Today,
7 July 2013, psychologytoday.com/us/blog/meditation-modern-life/201307/overview-meditation-its-origins-and-traditions.
Holt  Educational Consultant - / 13,410 4391  
Nov 6, 2022   #2
As a reader, I would need the writer to clarify the difference between basic meditation and mindful meditation. Are these 2 different meditation forms or is one just a more complete reference to the other term? The reason this clarification is needed is because of the disconnection of the title of the essay to the professional terms used in the actual presentation. Remember that some of the readers could be people unfamiliar with meditation so every little bit of clarification and explanation will help them better understand this paper.

Since the paper uses several first person pronoun references in its paragraph, it would also be beneficial if the essay does not just keep using group pronouns, but also uses first person pronouns. I feel that the essay would benefit from the personal knowledge and experience of the writer who is obviously a meditation practitioner. By increasing the first person reference, the reader will become more comfortable with the read and also, allow them to gain a deeper insight into the experience that might encourage them to try mindful meditation for themselves. It will help them bring all of the information into proper perspective and focus once they know the writer actually went through what he is describing and discussing in the presentation.


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