Recently, Gretchen Reynolds at the New York Times reported on research that looked at the brain-altering benefits of mindfulness meditation. The study compared two groups of stressed-out, unemployed job seekers.
One group was given instruction on meditation that involved focusing on and experiencing all the pleasant and unpleasant thoughts and feelings they were having. Essentially, they were trained to not look away from their experience, but to simply observe it without judging it.
The second group was given a host of relaxation and distraction techniques, including chatting with each other and using humor. The interventions used in the second group encouraged participants to look away from the feelings and thoughts.
What’s interesting to me is that both groups reported feeling refreshed after 3 days of practicing their new techniques, but real differences showed up when the participants underwent brain scans.
Mindfulness Meditation’s Neurological Benefits
As Ms. Reynolds reports, in initial follow-up scans the self-observing meditation group showed greater communication “among the portions of their brains that process stress-related reactions and other areas related to focus and calm.”
Furthermore, “Four months later, those who had practiced mindfulness showed much lower levels in their blood of a marker of unhealthy inflammation than the relaxation group, even though few were still meditating.” (You can find the full text of her article here and her blog on wellness here)
Therapy and Long-term Change
The results of the study translate well to psychodynamic therapy. Instead of looking for ways to distract ourselves, reassure ourselves, or help ourselves avoid feeling what we really feel, psychodynamic therapy encourages us to experience and observe all that goes on within our minds and bodies.
By observing and understanding ourselves and our reactions, we can learn to let go of self-judgment. We can increase our acceptance of unpleasant emotions, which in turn reduces our suffering.
We all have distractions ready and waiting for us. We can sink into our phones, or become super active, or use mental tricks, or eat food, or use mood-altering substances. This can bring much-needed immediate relief.
But for lasting change, the kind of change that rewires your brain, something more is needed. Meditation and/or psychotherapy can be that something more.