Mindfulness meditation training alters how we process fearful memories

Learning not to fear.


A typical method to treat anxiety disorders is to expose patients to the anxiety-provoking stimulus in a safe environment until it never again evokes fear, a procedure known as exposure therapy. This exposure gives a chance to discover that these stimuli are not threatening and thereby encourage adaptive regulation of emotional responses.

To be successful, first, new memory must be created between the stimulus and a feeling of safety, then the ‘safety memory,’ rather than the original fearful memory, must be recalled when the stimulus is presented again in a new environment.

Mindfulness meditation has been proposed to provide an optimal condition for exposure therapy because it involves experiencing the present moment with an open, curious, and nonreactive mindset.

Different studies have suggested that mindfulness meditation programs are useful for diminishing anxiety. However, the mechanisms were obscure.

In a new study, scientists at the Harvard Gazette explored enhanced learning of the ‘safety’ signal as one mechanism through which mindfulness can enable people to have a less reactive and more adaptive response to anxiety– inciting stimuli. The study reports that mindfulness meditation appears to help extinguish fearful associations.

Scientists used MRI brain scans and a fear-conditioning task to examine changes in neural networks associated with attention and memory following mindfulness meditation training. Forty-two participants completed an eight-week, mindfulness-based stress-reduction program in which they learned formal meditation and yoga practices.

Another 25 participants were randomized to an eight-week, exercise-based stress-management control group, in which they were taught about the impact of stress and performed light aerobic exercise. Scientists identified that changes in the hippocampus after mindfulness training were associated with enhanced ability to recall the safety memory, and thus respond more adaptively.

Gunes Sevinc, the first author of the paper, who is a postdoctoral research fellow at MGH, said, “Mindfulness training may improve emotion regulation though changing neurobiological responses associated with our ability to remember that a stimulus is no longer threatening.”

Sara Lazar of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program said, “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 actual present-moment threat. The data indicate that mindfulness can help us recognize that some fear reactions are disproportional to the threat, and thus reduces the fear response to those stimuli. Mindfulness can also enhance our ability to remember this new, less-fearful reaction, and break the anxiety habit.”

Other authors on the study were Britta K. Hölzel, Jonathan Greenberg, Tim Gard, Vincent Brunsch, Javaria A. Hashmi, Mark Vangel, Scott P. Orr, and Mohammed R. Milad.

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