Mindfulness – long-hailed as a way to calm anxiety and panic attacks – could be the secret to overcoming and rationalising our fears, according to a new study.
It’s a simple fact of life that we’re all afraid of something. From spiders and public speaking to heights and flying, the severity of your fears (or, in extreme cases, phobias) can determine how much they influence your life.
In the past, there’s been one tried and tested way to overcome fear: exposure therapy. Any therapist will tell you that exposing yourself to the scenarios you fear the most (gradually, and in a safe environment, of course) can allow your brain to learn that the causes of your fears are not as threatening as you expected at first, and therefore change your emotional response over time.
But now, thanks to new research, we may have another tool to add to our belt when it comes to fighting our fears.
According to a new study led by a team of researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, practicing mindfulness could help us to react to fears in a more rational way and “extinguish fearful associations”. Essentially, by practicing mindfulness, we could retrain our brains to react to our fears in a more rational and “present” way – meaning we’re calmer, less emotional, and, most importantly, no longer scared stiff.
Mindfulness – a meditation technique in which you focus your awareness on the present moment by acknowledging, but not analysing or acting on, your feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations – has long been touted as a method to help people suffering with anxiety and panic attacks, but this new study has revealed it’s potential to gradually change the way our brain responds to feelings of fear.
“Mindfulness training may improve emotion regulation by changing the way our brain responds to what we’re afraid of and reminding us that it is no longer threatening,” said Gunes Sevinc PhD, one of the paper’s authors.
In order to conduct the study, the team of researchers used MRI brain scans and a series of fear-conditioning tasks to look at how changes in the brain associated with abilities such as attention and memory changed after mindfulness meditation training.
As part of the study, the group of participants were split in two, with 42 people taking part in an eight-week mindfulness program, and the other 25 took part in an “exercise-based stress management control group”, where they learned more about the impact of stress and did some light exercise. The researchers found that the participants who learnt how to properly practice and implement mindfulness were able to better recall a “safety memory” which helped them in the process of overcoming their fear.
“Fear and anxiety have a habitual component to them - the memory of something that provoked fear in the past will trigger a habitual fear response when we are reminded of the event, even if there is no direct threat at the present,” explained Sara Lazar, PhD, the study’s senior author.
“The data indicates that mindfulness can help us recognise that some fear reactions are disproportional to the threat, and thus reduces the fear response to those stimuli,” she continued. “Mindfulness can also enhance our ability to remember this new, less fearful reaction, and break the anxiety habit.”