Affective Neuroscience

Opinion: Meditation can remedy your sleepless nights

Opinion: Meditation can remedy your sleepless nights

From the series Working Out Happiness
Andrew Fleming, Columnist
Fri Sep 27, 2013
Andrew Fleming

Your prefrontal cortex is a blessing and a curse.

Located under your forehead, mankind’s hugely developed prefrontal cortex enables creativity, foresight and strategy. However, that same prefrontal cortex is responsible for those nagging thoughts that keep you up at night – the “what if” scenarios that become increasingly terrifying as their exigency approaches.

While these imaginary situations where you fail the test and lose the girl – or boy, depending on your anatomical preference – may not ever play out, the long term effects on your body from these thoughts actually can. When the brain invents a stressful situation (or replays something horrific that just happened), the sympathetic nervous system engages in very real fight-or-flight responses. These adrenaline pumping, heart-racing reactions are great at making you jump away from a moving car, but they can have incredibly detrimental effects in the long run. Our bodies are incapable of sustaining the stress we are capable of providing it. Stress can eventually lead to organ failure and death in mysterious and insidious ways.

Whether an increased risk for heart attack, coronary heart disease, arrhythmias or even just “sudden death,” you can, quite literally, stress yourself to death.

Hopefully you’re still reading, because there is hope. Now, meditation has long been frowned upon by Western culture as some sort of Eastern cultish religious nonsense. That being said, quieting your thoughts has nothing to do with religion, chi, Zen or anything else on a physiological level (and I mean that with absolutely no ill-words towards religions of any kind).

It has come to light in recent years that meditation is one of the healthiest things you can do for your brain, and subsequently, the rest of your body. This is coming from real neuroscientists doing real research on real brains – this is not the hippie stuff your parents warned you about.

The Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin produced hard data that short amounts of mindfulness meditation lead to increased influenza resistance. Akira Kasamatsu, M.D., went as far as monitoring the electronic activity of 48 priests and disciples of Zen Buddhism, a religious sect known for meditation. Their brain activity showed increased levels of what are known as alpha waves. These waves are heavily associated with being relaxed.

These long-time practitioners of meditation were literally able to tune their brains to a relaxed wavelength, regardless of how stressful a situation may be. Imagine being able to make stress go away with a conscious decision – these individuals don’t have to imagine that power. They already have it.

Countless scholarly articles reinforce this sentiment, explaining how mindful meditation can be used to manage chronic pain and reign in anxiety disorders.

To approach “mindfulness” from ground zero can seem difficult. The whole point of the exercise is to quiet the mind – something I struggle with on a daily basis. To begin, you need a mental focal point. Some people like to use the word “mantra,” but if that seems hokey, call it a focal point. Sometimes I just use the word “focus” as a constant reminder of what I’m trying to do. Relax every muscle in your body. Sit upright so you don’t fall asleep. See if you can sit there and do nothing but think less and less for 10 minutes. Use a timer on your phone so you don’t feel the need to peek at the time. It takes practice, but even if you don’t get it your first time, you’ll be amazed how good quiet time feels. It’s the kind of habit that takes little time and less planning. Do it in the library if you’re stressed and until you fall asleep when you’re antsy.

It’s your brain; learn to make it work for you.

Andrew Fleming is a junior in neuroscience. He can be reached at aflemin8@utk.edu.

Meditation’s Antianxiety Effects Visible on Brain Imaging

Individuals with no experience in meditation who participate in mindful meditation training sessions for as little as 4 days show changes in specific brain mechanisms that correlate with a reduction in anxiety, a new imaging study shows.

“There is plenty of evidence that meditation can improve a host of issues, such as pain and cognitive function, and anxiety is perhaps at the top of the list,” explained lead author Fadel Zeidan, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow in neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest School of Medicine, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

“But what we’ve been able to do is to correlate, through imaging, changes in specific brain regions that are related to anxiety, even in a cohort of people with no anxiety or depression.”

The findings were published online April 24 in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Buffer to Anxiety

For the study, Dr. Zeidan and his colleagues recruited 15 healthy volunteers with normal levels of anxiety and no experience in meditation to participate in 4 20-minute training sessions to learn the technique for mindful meditation.

This involves a focus on breathing and a conscious acknowledging of distracting thoughts and emotions, combined with a decision not to react to them.

“You’re trained to focus on keeping a very straight posture and the sensations of the rise and fall of your chest and abdomen as you breathe,” Dr. Zeidan explained.

“If your mind becomes distracted, you acknowledge the distraction, let it go, and focus back on the breathing. You are regulating your emotional responses.”

Before and after each meditation training session, the participants, who included graduate students and faculty, received brain activity imaging with pulsed arterial spin labeling magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

The participants also were administered the State Anxiety Inventory, a 20-item subscale of the State Trait Anxiety Inventory, before and after the brain imaging.

While the participants reported meditation-related reductions in anxiety ratings by as much as 22%, the MRIs showed anxiety relief to be associated with activation of the anterior cingulate cortex and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), which show decreases in activity when anxiety is present.

The vmPFC is also implicated in the alteration of contextual evaluation of affective processes, the authors write.

“Activation in the vmPFC is associated with modulating higher-order affective appraisals, including cognitive regulation of negative emotions.”

In addition, reports of greater anxiety correlated with greater default-related activity (ie, posterior cingulate cortex) on MRI, “possibly reflecting an inability to control self-referential thoughts,” the authors write.

The brain mechanisms related to the reduction of anxiety through mindful meditation in healthy people have never been identified, so the findings help confirm that the changes do occur, said Dr. Zeidan.

“It shows that mindful meditation can be sort of this buffer to anxiety. After just a brief training, you can reduce this ruminative thought process, change your attention, and change the context in how you respond to things,” he said.

Potential Payoff

Amit Sood, MD, director of research and practice in the Mayo Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota, said that such changes are not unexpected over such a short period.

“I’m not surprised to see the correlations with reductions of anxiety in 4 days — other studies looking at brain structure have reported seeing these changes after just 4 to 6 hours of training,” said Dr. Sood.

“What I would be surprised to see, however, is if they were still doing it on their own after 6 months,” he noted.

“People can learn it quickly, but then they forget. A change in habit requires a lot of effort. People have to carve out the time in their busy days, and what tends to happen is will power depletion.”

The study demonstrates, however, the potential payoff, he added.

“I wouldn’t call this a landmark study, but it does validate the overall theme we’re seeing in this field,” Dr. Sood said.

“It adds another bullet point of how we can understand emotional and brain states, and eventually this may help us better classify people based on what is actually happening in the brain, beyond their displayed symptoms.”

Dr. Zeidan and Dr. Sood report no relevant financial relationships.

Meditation’s Antianxiety Effects Visible on Brain Imaging.