ODENSE, Denmark — If you’re feeling extra jittery lately, your smartphone may be able to bring you some relief. A study by researchers in Denmark found that daily use of a mindfulness training app it easier for people to reduce their body’s fear reactions.
Mindfulness has been shown to reduce the intensity of negative emotions in healthy people and those suffering from psychological problems. Research has also revealed that mindfulness can help treat clinical emotional maladies like depression, anxiety, stress, and disorders stemming from trauma.
Scientists still don’t know all the biological mechanisms that cause people to reduce mental disorder symptoms when practicing mindfulness. That said, brain imaging has shown that mindfulness training can affect brain regions thought to be involved in extinction learning, or learning to let go of certain mental reactions such as fear.
Researchers collaborated on this latest study to show that mindfulness training helps the brain expel conditioned fear reactions and produce reductions in threat arousal responses. In the study, a subset of healthy people was randomly assigned to either take four weeks of daily mindfulness training via the Headspace mobile app or entered a waitlist control test.
After four weeks, the researchers then conditioned fear reactions in the test subjects, then within the same day, extinguished them. On the following day, the subjects were evaluated to measure the lasting effects on their fear reactions.
The fear reactions were created by showing participants neutral images on a computer screen. Some of the images also produced an electric shock to the participants’ hands. After a few shocks, the participants showed elevated arousal responses when viewing the pictures that delivered shocks, thereby demonstrating that they had learned conditioned fear reactions. Researchers measured these reaction with skin conductance, a sweat index connoting natural fight-or-flight reaction in humans. The researchers eliminated these reactions by showing the same pictures without the shocks.
After a 24-hour period to measure the retention of extinction learning, the study participants were hooked back up to the computer, but not shocked.
The results matched the researchers’ hypothesis. Those participants who had completed mindfulness training showed lower fear reactions the second day compared to the control group. Most people, with no mindfulness training, would still react to the images they were previously shocked for after 24 hours.
The authors believe that mindfulness has a specific effect on extinction retention.
“Our results suggest, that if you combine mindfulness training with exposure therapy, maybe you can achieve larger and longer lasting treatment effects,” said study first author Johannes Björkstrand in a media release. “In this way you could get at an underlying vulnerability factor and more people would respond to these treatments, but studies in clinical populations and actual treatment studies are needed before we can draw any firm conclusions in this matter.”
The study was conducted by a team from the University of Southern Denmark, Uppsala University, Lund University, Peking University, and Icahn School of Medicine.
The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.