What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say, “meditation?” Most of us envision a Buddhist monk sitting silently in a lotus position on a serene mountaintop for hours on end. That vision typically prompts a comment like, “Who has time to meditate? I’m very busy and couldn’t possibly sit still for that long.”
With that bias, how am I to convince my colleagues that there’s a place for mindfulness meditation in our busy clinical practices? I hope the neurobiological data about mindfulness meditation and some great resources will convince you that this intervention must become a staple in our practices.
By sharing just two studies, I believe I can convince you of the neurobiological power of mindfulness meditation. A seasoned researcher, Britta Hölzel, PhD, of the Division of Psychiatric Neuroscience at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital, spearheaded both trials.
Study 1:1 This was a group of stressed, but otherwise healthy, individuals who participated in an 8-week mindfulness group. Pre- and post-scans of the amygdala (a part of the brain’s limbic system responsible for emotions and motivation) revealed there was a decrease in volume. As perceived stress came down, so did the size of the amygdala.
Why does this matter to practicing clinicians? Many of us take care of patients struggling with anxiety and mood disorders and we know the amygdala’s main job is involved in emotions, as well as playing a major role in mood regulation. We know that in depressed and anxious individuals, this structure is often enlarged and overly active. In only eight, weeks there was a clear neurobiological signal that meditation changed this part of the brain.
Study 2:2 Is the hippocampus an important brain structure in terms of mood problems? Absolutely! The hippocampus is also part of the limbic system and is involved with memory and emotion. We also know that hippocampal atrophy occurs in mood disorders.
This study demonstrated that an 8-week mindfulness intervention increased the size of the hippocampus. Even though we don’t know the normal size of the hippocampus, the research indicates that after just eigh weeks of a mindfulness intervention, grey matter increased.
Both of studies offer convincing neurobiological data that a short 8-week mindfulness intervention results in improvements in brain structures that are clearly linked to parts of the brain involved in mood regulation.
Knowing that mindfulness meditation is backed by solid research and clearly leads to positive neurobiological changes, how can you integrate this beneficial treatment into your already busy practice? While we are all very busy and time seems to be at a premium, I’m here to share some good news: You don’t have to become a seasoned mindfulness practitioner to share this intervention with your patients. You have several options:
- Attend a mindfulness meditation training. The University of California, San Diego, has an excellent training program. There are also many benefits to us as clinicians when we develop our own mindfulness meditation practice.
- Find a clinician in your area who specializes in mindfulness meditation and begin referring your patients.
- Direct your patients to an online mindfulness program.
- Read mindfulness workbooks s they are effective in developing a personal mindfulness practice.
- I have a number of mindfulness meditation apps featured on my website. While not a comprehensive list, it’s a good introduction to some very helpful apps.
Finally, while medications are certainly important in the care of many of our patients, is it always enough? My experience says no. We need a variety of non-pharmacological interventions to add to the medication regime in hopes of achieving the best outcomes for our patients. Based on good solid data and a wealth of resources, I invite you to add mindfulness meditation to your clinical toolkit.
Saundra Jain, PsyD, LPC, is a psychotherapist in private practice in Austin, Texas, and executive director of the Mental Aerobics Project, which is focused on wellness and the impact of positive psychology on client outcomes.
- Hölzel BK, et al. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2010;5(1):11-17.
- Hölzel BK, et al. Psychiatry Res. 2011;191(1):36-43.