Fear has always been the evolutionary factor that has helped humans stay safe. In today’s world, however, fear responses or phobias are more a hindrance than help. To overcome these phobias, accumulating scientific evidence shows that ‘mindfulness’ practice could help in unlearning the fear response.
A new study from researchers at the University of Southern Denmark, Uppsala University, Lund University, Peking University and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, shows that mindfulness training facilitates extinction of conditioned fear reactions, producing lasting reductions in threat-related arousal responses.
The purpose of mindfulness is to help an individual focus on stimuli occurring in the present moment rather than the fear response. It is commonly believed that mindfulness can help people feel calmer, more serene and more motivated in their day-to-day lives. The findings of an increasing number of studies are now backing up that evidence, indicating that mindfulness practice can bring real benefits for physical and, especially, mental health.
This new study, published in Nature Scientific Reports, has suggested that if you start practising mindfulness, you will find it easier to unlearn your phobias and remain fear-free.
For the study, researchers recruited 26 healthy people and divided them randomly into two t groups. Participants from one group underwent a daily mindfulness session for four weeks through a popular app, while the other received no such session. After four weeks, all the participants had to undergo an experiment related to the fear response for a couple of days.
Initially, the participants learned a fear response by watching a slideshow of images. When a particular image came up on the screen, they also received mild electric shocks, to reinforce an association of unpleasant shocks with the images. Therefore, whenever a particular image came up, participants would experience increased sweating, a mark of the ‘fight or flight’ response.
Once this association was created among the participants, the researchers then proceeded to eliminate this reaction. They achieved this by repeatedly showing the participants the same set of images; but, this time, without delivering any electric shocks. They wanted to find out in which of the participants, if any, the unlearning of the fear response would stick, since fearful associations, typically, tend to return very quickly.
On a subsequent day, the investigators displayed the same slideshow of images to all the participants while having them hooked up to the device that they used to deliver shocks. But, this time, they did not deliver any shocks.
Results indicated that the participants, who had received mindfulness training earlier, did not experience a fear reaction when they viewed a photo with which they had earlier formed an unpleasant association. However, in the other group of participants, who had not received the same mindfulness training, the fear response made a comeback, as demonstrated by skin conductance measurements that assessed physiological markers of a psychological arousal.
“We can show that mindfulness does not only have an effect on subjective experiences of negative emotions, as has been shown previously, but that you can actual see clear effects on autonomic arousal responses, even with a limited amount of training,” explained Dr Johannes Björkstrand, lead author on the study.
Dr Björkstrand believes that adding mindfulness therapy to exposure therapy, which is typically used to help other overcome phobias, could boost its effectiveness.
“Our results suggest that, if you combine mindfulness training with exposure therapy, maybe you can achieve larger and longer lasting treatment effects. In this way, you could get at an underlying vulnerability factor and more people would respond to these treatments,” he explained. However, studies in clinical populations and actual treatment studies are needed before drawing any firm conclusions in this matter.
The researchers now want to move forward and investigate the underlying neurobiological mechanisms that are involved. “We are currently repeating the experiment with twice the number of participants, and the whole thing is carried out inside an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanner equipped with an extra strong electro-magnetic field so that we can measure their brain activity to a high degree of precision throughout all parts of the experiment,” said Prof Ulrich Krik, co-author of the study.
“We hope to show that the effect is robust and that we can replicate the current findings, and also say what processes in the brain are involved in producing these effects,” he added.