I just finished reading an interesting new study that reports that for “the first time, meditation training has been shown to affect emotional processing in the brain outside of a meditative state.” Collaborators on the study were from UMass General, Boston University and several other research centers.
When they looked at people’s brain activity after completing an eight-week meditation program, they found that activity in the amygdala changed in response to viewing emotional material– even when people were not actively meditating.
You may recall that the amygdala is a small but mighty area of the brain that is always on the alert for real — or imagined — danger and has a large role to play in processing our emotions, including whether or not we go into a state of panic.
Interestingly, the researchers found a difference in the amydala’s response to different types of meditation. In order to test this, they randomized volunteers to three different eight-week groups: health education, mindfulness training and compassion meditation training, which included lovingkindness practice. Three weeks before and after their courses, participants’ brains were scanned while viewing 108 images of people in situations with either positive, neutral or negative emotional content.
Those who attended the educational program showed no differences in the amygdala, Yet those who took part in the mindfulness course had decreased activation in the amygdala in response to all of the images, which supports the hypothesis that meditation can improve emotional stability and response to stress. Those in the compassion group also showed decreased activation in response to positive and neutral emotional images. However, in response to negative images that depicted human suffering, amygdala activation tended to increase.
Corresponding author Desbordes and his colleagues, like many Eastern and Western meditation teachers, believe that mindfulness and compassion meditation cultivate different aspects of mind. “Since compassion meditation is designed to enhance compassionate feelings, it makes sense that it could increase amygdala response to seeing people suffer.” He adds that, “increased amygdala activation was also correlated with decreased depression scores in the compassion meditation group, which suggests that having more compassion towards others may also be beneficial for oneself. Overall, these results are consistent with the overarching hypothesis that meditation may result in enduring, beneficial changes in brain function, especially in the area of emotional processing.”
Hijacked by your emotions?
Even with some meditation practice under your belt, you may find yourself feeling hijacked by certain emotions in particular situations. The amygdala picks up covert cues that resemble past stressful or traumatic interactions and situations– and can react with alarm. For example, if you are planning to visit relatives over the holidays, it is not uncommon for many to feel apprehensive if previous family holidays went sideways. You might be dismayed to find yourself feeling and behaving like a teenager again around your parents or siblings. When we are not aware of our triggers and in touch with the emotions that arise from them, we can find ourselves reacting in ways that cause us pain.
In MBSR II, we explore some of the more challenging emotions, such as frustration and anger, fear and anxiety, sadness and grief. Although our initial impulse is to try to shut down, deny or avoid difficult emotions, that strategy doesn’t work in the long run. Our emotions invariably seep through in one way or another, affecting our physical and mental health as well as our relationships.
Throughout this eight-session program, we invite you to become more intimate with these challenging states and with how they manifest in your body, mind and heart. Through this compassionate, experiential exploration you will learn skillful ways of responding to the full catastrophe of life, while decreasing the intensity and frequency of emotional reactivity.
Thanks and be well,
Marian & Brett