Reduce Amygdala Mediated Stress responses with Mindfulness
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“It is vital to practice mindfulness to ensure you help the mind to relieve stress. Notably, constant fear and anxiety are likely to sabotage and hinder achievements. Mindfulness can be effective in dealing with both stress and anxiety.“ – Pick the Brain
Stress is an integral part of life. In fact, I’ve quipped that the definition of death is when stress ceases. People often think of stress as a bad thing. But, it is in fact essential to the health of the body. If the muscles are not stressed to some extent they deteriorate. As it turns out, this is also true for the brain. The same goes for our psychological health. If we don’t have any stress, we call it boredom. In fact, we invest time and resources in stressing ourselves, e.g. ridding rollercoasters, sky diving, competing in sports, etc. We say we love a challenge, but, challenges are all stressful. So, we actually love to stress ourselves. In moderation, it is healthful and provides interest and fun to life.
If stress, is high or is prolonged, however, it can be problematic. It can damage our physical and mental health and even reduce our longevity, leading to premature deaths. So, it is important that we employ methods to either reduce or control high or prolonged stress or reduce our responses to it. Mindfulness practices have been found routinely to reduce the psychological and physiological responses to stress. It is known that stress not only affects the body but also affects the brain, producing changes particularly in neural circuits involving the Amygdala. Mindfulness also alters the brain, particularly neural circuits involved in attention, executive functions, and emotion regulation. This suggests that mindfulness may also alter the Amygdala circuits in the brain to affect the stress responses.
In today’s Research News article “Mindfulness meditation training alters stress-related amygdala resting state functional connectivity: a randomized controlled trial.” See:
or see summary below or view the full text of the study at:
Taren and colleagues recruited adult participants from the community and measure perceived stress and also scanned their brains with functional magnetic imaging (f-MRI). They found that the greater the perceived stress in the individual the greater the functional connectivity between the Amygdala and the Cingulate Cortex. This verified the notion that stress can act by altering the neural circuits involving the Amygdala but was correlational and did not demonstrate causation.
Taren and colleagues then went on to examine the effects of meditation practice on these Amygdala circuits. They recruited unemployed community participants who were seeking employment and also exhibited high stress levels and randomly assigned them to either an intensive 3-day mindfulness meditation condition or a 3-day rest and relaxation condition. The mindfulness practice consisted of the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program condensed into an intensive 3-day period. In the rest and relaxation condition, the participants engaged in similar activities to those included in an MBSR program but were instructed to do them in a restful way rather than a mindful way. Before and after the 3-day intervention the participants underwent f-MRI scans of their brains.
The researchers found that prior to the intervention period both groups displayed relatively high functional connectivity of the Amygdala with the Cingulate Cortex, but following meditation training, but not relaxation, there was a significant reduction in this connectivity. They also found that a biological marker of stress, cortisol levels, was inversely related to reductions in the connectivity; the greater the reduction in connectivity the greater the reduction in the cortisol levels. This suggests that mindfulness training reduces stress responses by reducing the ability of the Amygdala to affect other brain regions.
These results are interesting and provide evidence of the types of changes in the brain produced by mindfulness training that underlie the stress reducing properties of mindfulness training. The Amygdala is known to be involved in stress responses and emotionality so reducing its ability to affect other neural structures would appear to be critical for mindfulness’ stress reducing properties. Hence, a coherent picture is emerging of the physiological mechanisms underlying the ability of mindfulness to reduce stress responses.
So, reduce amygdala mediated stress responses with mindfulness.
“The picture we have is that mindfulness practice increases one’s ability to recruit higher order, pre-frontal cortex regions in order to down-regulate lower-order brain activity. In other words, our more primal responses to stress seem to be superseded by more thoughtful ones.” – Adrienne Taren
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Taren, A. A., Gianaros, P. J., Greco, C. M., Lindsay, E. K., Fairgrieve, A., Brown, K. W., … Creswell, J. D. (2015). Mindfulness meditation training alters stress-related amygdala resting state functional connectivity: a randomized controlled trial. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 10(12), 1758–1768. http://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsv066
Recent studies indicate that mindfulness meditation training interventions reduce stress and improve stress-related health outcomes, but the neural pathways for these effects are unknown. The present research evaluates whether mindfulness meditation training alters resting state functional connectivity (rsFC) of the amygdala, a region known to coordinate stress processing and physiological stress responses. We show in an initial discovery study that higher perceived stress over the past month is associated with greater bilateral amygdala-subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC) rsFC in a sample of community adults (n = 130). A follow-up, single-blind randomized controlled trial shows that a 3-day intensive mindfulness meditation training intervention (relative to a well-matched 3-day relaxation training intervention without a mindfulness component) reduced right amygdala-sgACC rsFC in a sample of stressed unemployed community adults (n = 35). Although stress may increase amygdala-sgACC rsFC, brief training in mindfulness meditation could reverse these effects. This work provides an initial indication that mindfulness meditation training promotes functional neuroplastic changes, suggesting an amygdala-sgACC pathway for stress reduction effects.