Study finds mindfulness meditation protocol has profound impact on fear

A new study has found that spending some time every day engaged in mindfulness meditation training can help get rid of old learned fear reactions, reducing the unwanted anxiety and distress the practitioner feels when exposed to the fear trigger. The study involved healthy participants who were subjected to a small electric shock that conditioned them to have a fear reaction linked to certain images.

The fear response that results from some type of past trauma can be very difficult to overcome, resulting in many people who experience extreme anxiety or other similar reactions when faced with something that triggers their trauma. Reducing this conditioned fear response will reduce the arousal that results, helping someone overcome PTSD and similar disorders. Actually getting past the fear can be difficult, however.

Meditation to forget your fears

Researchers with several universities, including the University of Southern Denmark and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, investigated the use of a readily available consumer meditation app called Headspace on healthy participants who had developed a conditioned fear response to certain images created by using a small but uncomfortable electric shock to their hands.

The researchers noted that after experiencing these shocks, the participants began to show evidence of 'autonomic arousal responses' when viewing the images even when they didn't experience a shock. This led to the process of extinction learning, which is a process in which the researchers teach the participants to no longer fear the images.

This was done simply by having the participants view the images, but without receiving electric shocks. After a while, the participants stopped experiencing an automatic fear of the associated pain, which is called fear extinction. However, and as is well known, this fear extinction process doesn't tend to hold up very well over time and sufferers tend to become fearful again to certain degrees over time.

Favorable results

After 24 hours, the researchers evaluated how well the participants retained their fear extinction learning by hooking them up to the shocking device, showing them the trigger images, but not shocking them.

The team found that participants who had been assigned to meditate every day with an app called Headspace retained their level of fear extinction from the previous day, but the control group (which did not meditate) had rebounded to experience 'a substantial increase in fear' compared to the day before. This was despite evidence that the two groups had both experienced the same initial levels of fear extinction.

The findings indicate that mindfulness meditation practice may have a profound effect on helping practitioners overcome the autonomic fear response that results from exposure to triggers related to past trauma. Unlike subjective reports about how the meditator feels, which can be biased, this study shows changes in how the body automatically reacts to exposure to the triggers.

As well, the results indicate that meditation may improve the effectiveness of exposure-based therapies, which involve safely exposing the patient to their trigger. It also seems that daily meditation practice may help establish longer-lasting benefits related to healing from trauma.