Reduce Reward-Driven Eating with Mindfulness

Mindfulness eating reward2 Mason

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“Mindless eating is looking at environmental cues and triggers around eating. Mindful eating is about awareness of internal and external cues that trigger eating.” – Megrette Fletcher


Obesity is epidemic in the industrialized world. In the United States the incidence of obesity, defined as a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or above has more than doubled over the last 35 years to currently around 35% of the population. Although the incidence rates have appeared to stabilize, the fact that over a third of the population is considered obese is very troubling.


It is particularly troubling because of the effects of obesity on health. Being obese has been found to shorten life expectancy by eight years and in extreme cases by 14 years. This results from the fact that obesity is associated with cardiovascular problems such as coronary heart disease and hypertension, stroke, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and other diseases. Unfortunately, the epidemic of obesity has been resistant to prevention and treatment. Despite copious research and a myriad of dietary and exercise programs, there still is no safe and effective treatment. Hence, there is a need to explore alternative methods to prevent or treat obesity.


Mindfulness is known to be associated with lower risk for obesity. This is promising but much more research is needed to understand the mechanism by which mindfulness affects obesity in order to optimize its effectiveness. In today’s Research News article “Reduced Reward-driven Eating Accounts for the Impact of a Mindfulness-Based Diet and Exercise Intervention on Weight Loss: Data from the SHINE Randomized Controlled Trial”

Mason and colleagues randomly assigned male and female obese participants to either of two interventions; mindfulness or control. Both contained 12 weekly 2.5-hour diet and exercise weight loss programs conducted in a group format. The mindfulness group included additional training in mindful eating, stress reduction, and emotion regulation while the control group included additional training in nutrition and physical activity. They measured reward-based eating, perceived stress, and weight loss at the end of the intervention and 6 and 12 months later.


They found that both groups lost weight over the intervention and maintained that weight loss a year later. There was a trend toward greater weight loss in the mindfulness group. Significantly, the mindfulness group demonstrated significantly greater reductions in reward-driven eating which were associated with great weight loss. There were no significant changes in perceived stress. These results suggest that mindfulness training may supplement diet and exercise in weight loss programs by improving the individual’s ability to refrain from reward-driven eating.


Reward-driven eating is characterized by a lack of control over eating, a preoccupation with food, and a lack of satiety. Craving is a key driver of this kind of behavior producing a drive to overeat highly palatable food for reward. This is a major obstacle to weight loss. Mindfulness training may improve the individual’s awareness of and attention to their internal state, thereby reducing responses to outside stimuli. Hence, mindfulness training may be effective for weight loss by reducing this obstacle of reward-driven eating, producing more normal eating in response to physiological cues of hunger and satiety.


It is interesting that mindfulness training did not reduce perceived stress as mindfulness has been repeatedly shown to reduce perceived stress. This may indicate that the stress of engaging in a diet and exercise program for weight reduction is immune to mindfulness intervention.


A strength of this study is that the control condition was so carefully crafted to be very similar to the mindfulness condition in all ways except for the mindfulness training itself. This is an unusually good control condition which accounts for the majority of potential confounding variables that could contaminate the results. As a result, it can be concluded with reasonable certainty that mindfulness training when added to a diet and exercise weight reduction program improves the outcome by reducing reward-driven eating.


So, reduce reward-driven eating with mindfulness.


“mindful eating does not have to be an exercise in super-human concentration, but rather a simple commitment to appreciating, respecting and, above all, enjoying the food you eat every day. It can be practiced with salad or ice cream, donuts or tofu, and you can introduce it at home, at work, or even as you snack on the go (though you may find yourself doing this less often).” – Jenni Grover


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Blink Less with Long-Term Meditation

Meditation Eye Blink2 Kruis


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“The emotional effects of sitting quieting and going within are profound. The deep state of rest produced by meditation triggers the brain to release neurotransmitters, including dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins. Each of these naturally occurring brain chemicals has been linked to different aspects of happiness” – Chopra Center


Contemplative practices produce improvements to the practitioners’ ability to think (cognition), their ability to regulate emotions, and to their mental health. They also produce marked changes to the nervous system including the size, activity, and connectivity of structures in the brain. All of these brain structures rely on neurotransmitters for communications between their cells (neurons). These are special molecules that transmit the signals between neurons. Without them, the brain would cease to function.


Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is distributed throughout the brain and appears to be involved in a wide variety of brain functions. It is classified as a neuromodulator. That is, it alters the overall activity levels of widespread areas of the nervous system. As a result, it is involved in a wide variety of functions including pleasure, motor function, thinking, memory, motivation, arousal, and activation. In other words, its involved in most everything. Dysfunction in the dopamine system has been associated with a number of physical and mental diseases, including Parkinson’s Disease, Schizophrenia, and ADHD.


Dopamine, like most neurotransmitters is difficult to measure as it is released in miniscule quantities and is broken down very quickly. In living humans its activity can be indirectly measured by measuring the rate and pattern of eye blinks. It has been shown that dopamine is particularly involved in the control of the eyelid and blinking, with high blink rates associated with high levels of dopamine and low rates with low levels. In today’s Research News article “Effects of meditation practice on spontaneous eyeblink rate”

Kruis and colleagues take advantage of this association of dopamine with eye blink rates to indirectly measure the effects of meditation on brain dopamine levels. They compared long-term meditators (at least 3-years of experience with meditation naïve participants. The naïve participants were then randomly assigned to an 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training, and 8-week health education program, or a no-treatment control group.


They found that long-term meditators had significantly slower blink rates than meditation naïve participants and also they had a different pattern of blinks, with longer periods without eye blinks, interrupted by short periods of frequent blinks. It didn’t matter what type of meditation that they engaged in. The slower rate and different pattern of eye blinks are indicative of lower levels of dopamine in the brains of long-term-meditators. Eight-weeks of MBSR or health education did not change eye blink rates or pattern. This suggests that short-term meditation practice is insufficient to significantly alter dopamine levels.


The results are interesting and suggest that in addition to the known effects of meditation on brain structures it also appears to affect neurochemistry. In particular, the results suggest that meditation can change the overall levels of an important neuromodulator, dopamine. It can be speculated that this effects of long term meditation on a transmitter with widespread activity and function may, at least in part, be responsible for meditations widespread effects on physical and mental health of practitioners. It should be pointed out, however, that 8-weeks of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training is sufficient to produce many of the effects of meditation on physical and mental health. Since, Dopamine levels were not affected by 8-weeks of MBSR training the change in dopamine levels are probably not responsible for these effects. It remains for future research to further explore this tantalizing speculation.


So, blink less with long-term meditation.


“if you learn how to properly meditate, and commit to a daily practice, you will alter concentrations of various neurotransmitters, including dopamine.  There is evidence in particular that mindfulness meditation is capable of increasing signaling in areas of the brain involved in emotional regulation and control of attention.” – Mental Health Daily


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Improve Mind-Body Connection with Mindfulness



By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.” – Sarah Lazar


The mind and body are intrinsically intertwined. The old distinction between mind and body has been shown to be a false distinction. The brain, the organ of the mind, also controls the physiology, while the activity of the physiology affects the brain. So, mind and body are interconnected. Hence, mind practices should also affect the physiology just as physiological changes affect the mind.


Contemplative practices have been shown to influence both the mind, brain, and the physiology. Among the many physiological effects of contemplative practices are alterations of the cardiovascular system, producing reductions in heart rate, heart rate variability, and blood pressure. Contemplative practices have also been shown to alter the nervous system changing the size, activity, and connectivity of brain structures. These changes can be measured in many ways, but a convenient and inexpensive non-invasive method to document changes in brain activity is by recording the electrical activity of the nervous system from the scalp, known as the electroencephalograph or EEG. Indeed, the changes in brain activity produced by contemplative practices can be seen in the EEG.


Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was one of the first contemplative practices to be applied to improving human well-being. It is an amalgam of practices, including meditation, yoga, and body scan. It has been shown to be beneficial for cardiovascular function and to change neural activity. One way to look at the integration of mind-body activity is to measure the relationship between brain activity and cardiovascular activity over time. In today’s Research News article “Entrainment of chaotic activities in brain and heart during MBSR meditation”

Harvard neuroscientist: Meditation not only reduces stress, here’s how it changes your brain

Gao and colleagues investigated the effects of an 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training program on the coordination of electrical activity from the nervous system (EEG) with the electrical activity from the heart (Electrocardiogram, ECG). The EEG and ECG were recorded during 10-minutes of mindful breathing both before and after MBSR training.


They measured the chaotic nature of the activity in both the EEG and ECG employing a measure of wavelet entropy. This measure documents the unpredictability and random nature of the signals. They found that after MBSR training there was a reduction in the entropy of both the brain waves, EEG, and the heart electrical activity, ECG. This demonstrates that MBSR training results in reduced variability and randomness of the electrical activities of both the heart and brain. Significantly, they found that the entropy of the EEG and EKG were highly correlated as a result of MBSR training. That is, the lower the entropy of the EEG, the lower the entropy of that ECG. In other words, as the brain activity became less chaotic, so did the activity of the heart. They were coordinated.


One way that Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training might produce these effects on the level of entropy and its coordination of the heart and brain activities is by its effects on the autonomic nervous system. This system has two roughly opposing systems, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Sympathetic activation tends in activate the heart and brain while parasympathetic activity tends to reduce activation of both. If these two systems oppose one another instead of acting in a coordinated fashion, then greater variability of the EEG and ECG would be expected. MBSR has been shown to reduce the activity of the sympathetic nervous system both centrally and peripherally and increase parasympathetic activity. The current results, then, could well have occurred by MBSR producing better coordination of the balance of sympathetic and parasympathetic activity.


Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) appears to improve the coordination between the mind and body. This is emphasized in the body scan and yoga components of MBSR where attention to sensations from the body is emphasized. It is also emphasized during meditation as a result of learning to attend to the sensations associated with breathing. So, MBSR would seem well suited to increasing the coordination of mind and body. Today’s Research News results support this idea.


So, improve mind-body connection with mindfulness.


“We can intentionally shape the direction of plasticity changes in our brain. By focusing on wholesome thoughts, for example, and directing our intentions in those ways, we can potentially influence the plasticity of our brains and shape them in ways that can be beneficial.” – Richie Davidson


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Change Brain Activity in Depression with Mindfulness


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“Skeptics, of course, may ask what good are a few brain changes if the psychological effects aren’t simultaneously being illustrated? Luckily, there’s good evidence for those as well, with studies reporting that meditation helps relieve our subjective levels of anxiety and depression, and improve attention, concentration, and overall psychological well-being.”Alice Walton


In the last few decades, scientists have discovered that the brain is far more malleable than previously thought. Areas in the brain can change, either increase or decrease in size, connectivity, and activity in response to changes in our environment or the behaviors we engage in. This process is referred to as neuroplasticity. The nervous system is constantly changing and adapting to the environment. For example, the brain area that controls the right index finger has been found to be larger in blind subjects who use braille than in sighted individuals.  Similarly, cab drivers in London who navigate the twisting streets of the city, have a larger hippocampus, which is involved in spatial navigation, than predefined route bus drivers. Hence experience changes size, activity, and connectivity of the brain. These changes in the brain are called neuroplasticity.


Over the last decade neuroscience has studied the effects of contemplative practices on the brain and has demonstrated that these practices produce neuroplastic changes in widespread areas. Indeed, mindfulness practices have been shown to not only alter how we think and feel but also to alter the nervous system, producing changes in the size, activity, and connectivity of specific structures and systems in the nervous system. Depression has been shown to also involve changes to the nervous system and is significantly improved by mindfulness practices. As a result of mindfulness practices’ ability to alter the brain and relieve depression, these practices have been incorporated into various psychotherapies for depression.


Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) was specifically developed to treat depression. It has been shown to be remarkably effective. Putting all these pieces together, it would seem likely that MBCT relieves depression by altering neural systems. In today’s Research News article “Multi-dimensional modulations of α and γ cortical dynamics following mindfulness-based cognitive therapy in Major Depressive Disorder”

Schoenberg and Speckens investigated changes in brain activity produced by MBCT using sophisticated techniques to explore the electrical activity that can be recorded from various regions of the scalp (Electroencephalogram, EEG). They compared patients with major depressive disorder who were randomly assigned to receive 8-weeks of group Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) or treatment as usual, waitlist control. They found that MBCT treatment produced clinically significant improvements in depressive symptoms, self-compassion, over identification with painful thoughts and feelings, and mindfulness. This is not surprising, and replicates the well-established finding that MBCT is highly effective in treating depression.


They recorded the EEG of both groups while they performed a Go/NoGo task. Performance on this task has been shown to be deficient in depressed patients and indicates deficient executive function. They found that MBCT significantly downregulated α and γ power in the electrical activity of the brain. This indicates that there was and increase the excitability of the cerebral cortex. This is generally associated with greater positive mood and decreased negative emotions. This suggests that MBCT may relive depression by its effects on the neural systems underlying the depressed mood.


They also found an enhancement of the α-desynchronisation occurring in response to the Go/NoGo task when negative material was presented, but decreased α-desynchronisation when positive material was presented. This suggests that MBCT activates the neural networks underlying positive emotion. These are the systems that are usually relatively inactive in depression. This again suggests that MBCT may relieve depression by enhancing the activity of neural systems responsible for positive mood, thus working in opposition to the negative mood so characteristic of depression.


Finally, they found that MBCT increased intra-hemispheric α-coherence of the fronto-parietal circuit. This coherence has been shown to be related to improved attention and reduced mind wandering. In depression, mind wandering is highly related to rumination which tends to reinforce and support the depressed state. This suggests that MBCT may relive depression by enhancing the coherence of neural systems responsible for attention, thus inhibiting the mind wandering and rumination so characteristic of depression.


Hence the present study found evidence for changed electrical dynamics in the cortex of depressed patients following Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). The changes that were observed reflect changed processing of emotional information and attention, such that positive mood was enhanced, negative mood was reduced, and mind wandering and rumination decreased. All of these processes tend to counteract depression and may at least in part be responsible for the effectiveness of MBCT in treating depression.


So, change brain activity in depression with mindfulness.


“Being in the present moment, accepting what is, without wanting to change or interpret it, will greatly enhance emotional well-being, leading to healthier thinking patterns that will touch and better every other aspects of your life.” – Jonathan Banks


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Better Measurement of Mindfulness, Anxiety, and Depression


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“Thus, differing assessments may support implicitly distinct theoretical positions with respect to operationalizing mind- fulness. . . . researchers must be well informed and intentional in their selection of assessment tools because the breadth of currently available assessments provides researchers with a variety of measures, each with specific strengths and weaknesses. Not surprisingly, the various measures resulting from the diverse operational definitions of mindfulness have, at times, been found to be uncorrelated or only modestly associated, providing further evidence of confusion within the mindfulness literature.” – Adam Hanley


A prerequisite in science is that in order to study something you have to be able to measure it. With many concepts such as mindfulness, depression, and anxiety that reflect subjective states, there are currently no objective means to measure them. Measurement then falls to some kind of after the fact test or to a self-report. Traditionally, these variables have been measured with paper and pencil psychometric tests, such as the Cognitive Affective Mindfulness Scale-Revised, the Beck Depression Inventory, or the Profile of Mood States. They ask the participant to answer the question in regard to how they generally feel. These forms are filled out before and again after an intervention to assess the effect of the intervention on these subjective states.


With the advent of smart phones, a different kind of assessment method has emerged and is gaining greater popularity. It is sometimes called ecological momentary assessment (EMA). Individuals receive messages on their smart phones periodically asking them to answer questions about their state at the present moment. This can be done on multiple, somewhat randomly selected, occasions over the day or longer. It provides a measure that doesn’t require the participant to estimate how they feel in general, but rather uses an average of measures provided by the participant at various times.


In today’s Research News article “Ecological momentary assessment versus standard assessment instruments for measuring mindfulness, depressed mood, and anxiety among older adults”

Moore and colleagues recruited elderly (over 65 years of age) participants with clinically significant anxiety distress. They compared the results for participants’ levels of mindfulness, depression, and anxiety measured either by traditional paper and pencil measures of how they were in general to those measured with an ecological momentary assessment (EMA) using smart phones. To obtain the EMA measures participants were sampled 3 times per day for ten days. The participants were randomly assigned to receive Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program or a health education program. They were compared both before and after the interventions with both the traditional and EMA measurements.


Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) involves training in meditation, body scan, and yoga. It has been shown previously to increase mindfulness, and to decrease depression and anxiety levels in normal individuals and those with anxiety disorders, including the elderly. Moore and colleagues found in their study that on average both measures showed an increase in mindfulness and decreases in depression and anxiety, but, the effects were only statistically significant for ecological momentary assessment (EMA) and not for the traditional paper and pencil measures. These results suggested that EMA measurement in more sensitive and less unstable than traditional measures. To further document this, they calculated the number of participants that would be needed to show a statistically significant effects for the two measurement types and found that EMA measures required nearly half as many participants as the traditional measures. Hence, they found that EMA measure are substantially more sensitive and is capable of detecting differences with fewer participants.


These results indicate that ecological momentary assessment (EMA) is a better way to assess the states of research participants. Obtaining measures at a variety of points in time appears to produce more accurate results than asking the participant to estimate their overall states. This makes sense that actual measures are superior to participant estimates. The EMA technique is more expensive, takes more time and effort, and is more intrusive into the daily lives of the participants, but may be worth it for the improved accuracy and sensitivity.


“If you’ve ever struggled with depression, take heart. Mindfulness, a simple yet powerful way of paying attention to your most difficult emotions and life experiences, can help you break the cycle of chronic unhappiness once and for all.” – Mark Williams


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Improve Psychological and Physical Effects of HIV with Yoga

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“Yoga is not just about the physical side, it’s also about the mind-body connection. I think having that awareness and accepting their condition can help them when they go out into the world, and lift up their self-esteem. Life is fast – yoga can help them be calm and still.” – Surang Sengsamran


HIV is a virus that gradually attacks the immune system. It destroys a type of white blood cell called a T-helper cell (CD4 Cell). This isn’t a problem unto itself, but the immune system is our body’s natural defense against illness. Hence, HIV infection makes it harder to combat other infections and diseases. If HIV is untreated, these secondary infections produce chronic illness and eventually death. It is important, then, in treating HIV infection to strengthen the immune system and increase the levels of CD4 in the blood to fight off disease.


More than 35 million people worldwide and 1.2 million people in the United States are living with HIV infection. In 1996, the advent of the protease inhibitor and the so-called cocktail changed the prognosis for HIV. Since this development a 20 year-old infected with HIV can now expect to live on average to age 69. Hence, living with HIV is a long-term reality for a very large group of people.


People living with HIV infection experience a wide array of physical and psychological symptoms which decrease their perceived quality of life. The symptoms include muscle aches, anxiety, depression, weakness, fear/worries, difficulty with concentration, concerns regarding the need to interact with a complex healthcare system, stigma, and the challenge to come to terms with a new identity as someone living with HIV. Hence, patients with HIV infection, even when controlled with drugs, have a reduction in their quality of life.  There is thus a need to find methods to improve the quality of life in people who are living with HIV infection.


Mindfulness has been shown to strengthen the immune system. It also improve psychological and physical well-being in people suffering from a wide range of disorders including depression and anxiety. It has also been shown that mindfulness is associated with psychological well-being and lower depression in patients with HIV infection. Integrated Yoga is a contemplative practice that includes postures, breathing practices, relaxation techniques, and meditation. It has been shown to increase mindfulness, and reduce anxiety and depression. So, it would stand to reason that Integrated Yoga would be beneficial for people who are living with HIV infection.


In today’s Research News article “Effect of Integrated Yoga (IY) on psychological states and CD4 counts of HIV-1 infected patients: A randomized controlled pilot study”

Naoroibam and colleagues randomly assigned patients with HIV infection to either a one-hour per day, six-days per week Integrated Yoga practice for one-month or to a treatment as usual condition. Compared to before treatment and the control group, they found that the Integrated Yoga practice produced a significant reduction in anxiety and depression levels and an increase in T-helper cell (CD4 Cell) counts in the blood. It should be kept in mind that there was not an active control condition. So, it is unclear if the effectiveness of Integrated Yoga practice was due to exercise effects or perhaps to expectancy effects, researcher bias effects, etc. It will remain for future research to sort out exactly what is responsible to the improvement in the HIV patients.


Regardless, these are exciting and potentially important results suggesting that Integrated Yoga practice may not only improve the psychological well-being of HIV infected patients but also strengthen the immune system. This would make them better able to combat other infections and diseases.


So, improve psychological and physical effects of HIV with yoga.


“As you become more adept at yoga, you learn which poses can help you, depending on how you are feeling physically. There are certain poses that assist in relieving fatigue, diarrhea, anxiety, depression. You do learn about the nature of self, but you also learn that so much is beyond your control. It helps you realize, somehow, to trust in a higher being.” – Steve McCeney


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


This and other Contemplative Studies posts are available at the Contemplative Studies Blog


Improve Psychological Health of Veterans with a Mantra

Improve Psychological Health of Veterans with a Mantra


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“Asking for clarity provides a way to begin to see a path out of the pain of personal issues. With spiritual support the pain begins to be released, the path becomes clearer and the next step to create the rest of life begins to emerge.” – The Merritt Center


Alternative and Complementary techniques have been growing in acceptance and use over the last couple of decades. With good reason. They have been found to be beneficial for physical and mental health. Contemplative practices have been shown to improve health and well-being. These include mindfulness practices, meditation, yoga, mindful movement practices such as tai chi and qigong, and spiritual practices such as contemplative prayer. One ancient practice that is again receiving acceptance and use is mantra practice.


In today’s Research News article “Multi-site evaluation of a complementary, spiritually-based intervention for Veterans: The Mantram Repetition Program”

Butner and colleagues investigate the effectiveness of a form of mantra practice, Mantram Repetition Practice (MRP) on the mindfulness, mental health, and spirituality of veterans. The MRP involves the repetition of a sacred word or phrase over and over again to slow the individual down and produce one-pointed attention. It is effectively a mindfulness meditation practice, except that there are no formal practice periods. The participant is trained to engage in MRP during their daily activities, periodically and as needed, particularly during times of confusion and stress. The individual selects a sacred word or phrase for use in MRP from a list that have particular meaning to them and within their preferred religious practice. Typical Christian words and phrases are “My God and My All”, “Jesus, Jesus”, “Son of God”, “Hail Mary”, “Mother of Jesus”, “Lord Jesus Christ”, “Son of God, have mercy on me.”


Butner and colleagues recruited veterans and measured mindfulness, physical and mental health, and spirituality before and after an 8-week Mantram Repetition Program (MRP) training. The veterans attended weekly training sessions, were encouraged to do homework and to use the MRP during their daily lives. Typical times were while waiting, doing mechanical tasks such as doing dishes, exercising, when encountering annoying situations, while eating, before bed, and to manage unwanted emotions. They found that after 8-weeks of MRP training and practice the veterans demonstrated significantly higher mindfulness and spirituality including greater peace, more meaning in life, and greater faith. After training the veterans also had significant reductions in psychological distress, including reduced somatization, depression and anxiety.


It should be noted that there was not an active control group. Improvement was documented by comparing before to after training scores. Because of the lack of active control, there are many confounding, alternative, explanations for the findings. These include participant expectancy effects, experimenter bias effects, simple improvement over time, occurrences between the beginning and end of the treatment period, etc. The results clearly demonstrate that the veterans improved substantially over the 8-weeks. It will remain for future research to verify that it was the Mantram Repetition Practice (MRP) and not a confounding variable that was responsible for the changes.


These caveats notwithstanding, the finding for MRP are compatible with those produced by other mindfulness programs with the exception of increased spirituality. It is possible that MRP produces its beneficial effects due to its development of mindfulness. Alternatively, spirituality, by itself, has been shown to be related to better physical and psychological health. So, MRP may be effective due to its improvement of spirituality in the veterans. It may also be that the combination of increased mindfulness and increased spirituality improves effectiveness or that the two have additive effects.


So, improve psychological health of veterans with a mantra.


“The veterans experiences with spirituality were real and unique, significantly contributing to growth. They needed the inclusion of Christian spirituality as part of their process in posttraumatic growth, and it was the key element in them moving forward.” – Sharon Flowers


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies

Improve Drug and Alcohol Relapse Prevention with Mindfulness


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“it’s tempting to conclude that mindfulness is the “best new thing” for addiction treatment, but that in reality, further study is needed. It absolutely has promise, we have a lot more to learn, this is the beginning.” – Sarah Bowen


Substance abuse is a major health and social problem. There are estimated 22.2 million people in the U.S. with substance dependence. It is estimated that worldwide there are nearly ¼ million deaths yearly as a result of illicit drug use which includes unintentional overdoses, suicides, HIV and AIDS, and trauma. In the U.S. about 17 million people abuse alcohol. Drunk driving fatalities accounted for over 10,000 deaths annually and including all causes alcohol abuse accounts for around 90,000 deaths each year, making it the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States.


Obviously there is a need to find effective methods to prevent and treat substance abuse. There are a number of programs that are successful at stopping the drug abuse, including the classic 12-step program emblematic of Alcoholics Anonymous. Unfortunately, the majority of drug and/or alcohol abusers relapse and return to substance abuse. Hence, it is important to find an effective method to prevent these relapses.


Mindfulness practices have been shown to improve recovery from various addictions. Mindfulness-based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) has been developed to specifically assist in relapse prevention and has been shown to be effective. “MBRP integrates mindfulness practices with cognitive-behavioral Relapse Prevention therapy and aims to help participants increase awareness and acceptance of difficult thoughts, feelings, and sensations to create changes in patterns of reactive behavior that commonly lead to relapse. Mindfulness training in MBRP provides clients with a new way of processing situational cues and monitoring internal reactions to contingencies, and this awareness supports proactive behavioral choices in the face of high-risk relapse situation.” – Grow et al. 2015


An important treatment component that may contribute to the effectiveness of MBRP is that it be practiced at home. The program recommends that meditation be practiced for 45 minutes a day. Yet, there has been no systematic research concerning compliance with home practice and its effects on the efficacy of treatment. In today’s Research News article “Enactment of Home Practice Following Mindfulness-based Relapse Prevention and its Association with Substance-use Outcomes”

Grow and colleagues recruited adults with substance abuse disorders who had successfully completed withdrawal and a therapeutic program randomly and were in remission. “Primary substances of abuse were alcohol (45.2%), cocaine/crack (36.2%), methamphetamines (13.7%), opiates/heroin (7.1%), marijuana (5.4%), and other (1.9%).” They were assigned to either a Mindfulness-based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) program or a standard aftercare program. The MBRP program consisted of 8 weekly 2-hour closed small group (6-11) sessions.


They found that MBRP participants engaged in home practice that peaked immediately after treatment and declined slightly 2 to 4-months post-treatment. Importantly the amount of home practice was significantly inversely related to cravings for drugs and the frequency of drug use post-treatment. In other words, the more the participant practiced at home the less they craved drugs and the less they used them. This underscores the potential importance of home practice.


It is important to note that the results do not demonstrate that engagement in home practice caused less craving and drug use as these results were correlative. It is possible that less craving and less drug use caused more home practice or that some third factor such as the degree of addiction was responsible for both. Regardless the present results indicate that there needs for closer study of what transpires outside of the treatment sessions as potential influences on the success of treatment.


So, improve drug and alcohol relapse prevention with mindfulness.


“If there is no opportunity to use then there is no internal struggle. It is this internal struggle that feeds the cravings. Trying to fight cravings is like trying to block a waterfall. We end up being inundated. With the approach of mindfulness, we step aside and watch the water (cravings, impulses & urges) just go right past.” – Chris Walsh


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Improve Parenting with Mindfulness


By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“It’s as simple as practicing paying full attention to our kids, with openness and compassion, and maybe that’s enough at any moment.” – Mark Bertin


Raising children, parenting, is very rewarding. But, it can also be challenging. Children test parents frequently. They test the boundaries of their freedom and the depth of parental love. They demand attention and seem to especially when parental attention is needed elsewhere. They don’t always conform to parental dictates or aspirations for their behavior. They are often affected more by peers, for good or evil, than by parents. It is the parents challenge to control themselves, not overreact, and act appropriately in the face of strong emotions. Meeting these challenges becomes more and more important as the youth approaches adolescence, as that is the time of the greatest struggle for independence and the potential for damaging behaviors, particularly, alcohol, drugs, and sexual behavior.


The challenges of parenting require that the parent be able to deal with stress, to regulate their own emotions, and to be sensitive and attentive to their child. These skills are exactly those that are developed in mindfulness training. It improves the psychological and physiological responses to stress. It improves emotion regulation. And it improves the ability to maintain attention and focus in the face of high levels of distraction. So, it would seem reasonable to postulate that mindfulness training would improve parenting skills.


In today’s Research News article “Integrating Mindfulness with Parent Training: Effects of the Mindfulness-Enhanced Strengthening Families”

Coatsworth and colleagues add mindfulness training to an empirically validated program for enhancing parenting skills called the Strengthening Families Program (SFP). The mindfulness enhancements were listening with full attention, nonjudgmental acceptance of self and child, emotional awareness of self and child, self-regulation in parenting, and compassion for self and child. They compared families of 6th and 7th grade students randomly assigned to receive either the Strengthening Families Program (SFP), the Mindfulness-Enhanced the Strengthening Families Program (MSFP), or a home study control. Training was delivered in 7 weekly, 2-hour, sessions, where the parents and youth meet in separate sessions.


They found that the mothers in both the SFP and MSFP groups self-reported significantly improved levels of self-regulation in parenting, better emotional awareness of youth, greater positive affective/interaction quality with their youths, and higher levels of family involvement than the control group. They also reported better monitoring and alcohol rule communication with their youth. The youths reported that their mothers demonstrated significantly improved listening with full attention, better self-regulation in parenting, and greater compassion/acceptance toward their youths. In terms of the fathers, they found greater emotional awareness of youth, more compassion/acceptance for their youths, more compassion/acceptance for themselves as parents, more positive affective/interaction quality, and higher levels of family involvement. Interestingly, adding the mindfulness component increased the impact of the training for the fathers but not the mothers.


The findings clearly demonstrate that the Strengthening Families Program improves parenting and that the addition of a mindfulness component improved its effectiveness for fathers. These results suggest that mindfulness training is important in improving parenting particularly for fathers. These results were found for a particularly important and challenging time for parents, the beginning of the transition to adolescence.


So, improve parenting with mindfulness.


“Mindful Parenting is a contemplative practice through which our connection to our child, and awareness of our child’s presence, helps us become better grounded in the present moment.” – The Mindful Parent


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


Shape the Brain to Improve Attention with Meditation

By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“Regular meditators activated fewer brain regions than non-meditators in order to achieve the same performance during an attentional task. This is evidence that meditation training can increase brain efficiency in attention and impulse control.” – Elisa Kozasa


One of the primary effects of meditation training is an improvement in the ability to pay attention to the task at hand and ignore interfering stimuli. This is an important consequence of meditation training and produces improvements in thinking, reasoning, and creativity. These improvements are known to occur due to the effects of meditation training on the brain. It appears That meditation increases the size, connectivity, and activity of areas of the brain that are involved in paying attention.


A common method to study the activity of the nervous system is to measure the electrical signal at the scalp above brain regions. Changes in this activity are measurable with mindfulness training. One method to observe information processing in the brain is to measure the changes in the electrical activity that occur in response to specific stimuli. These are called evoked potentials or ERPs. The signal following a stimulus changes over time. The fluctuations of the signal after specific periods of time are thought to measure different aspects of the nervous system’s processing of the stimulus.


The P3 response in the evoked potential (ERP) occurs around a quarter of a second following the stimulus presentation. It is a positive change that is maximally measured over the central frontal lobe. The P3 response has been associated with the engagement of attention. So, the P3 response is often used as a measure of brain attentional processing with the larger the positive change the greater the attentional focus. The N2 response in the evoked potential (ERP) generally precedes the P3 response. It is a negative change that is maximally measured over the frontal lobe. The N2 response has been associated with the engagement of attention to a new or novel stimulus. So, the N2 response is often used as a measure of brain attentional processing with the large the negative changes an indication of greater discrimination of new stimuli.


In today’s Research News article “Event-related potential correlates of mindfulness meditation competence”

Atchley and colleagues measure the P3 and N2 responses in naive, novice (less than 1000 hours of experience), or experienced (more than 5000 hours of experience) meditators in an attempt to measure the effects of amount of meditation practice on brain function. The participants listened to a series of tones. ERPs were measured under two conditions. In the first condition they were asked to push a button whenever and infrequent high-pitched tome occurred. In the second condition they meditated by counting breaths and were asked to ignore the tones.


They found that all groups had lower P3 responses in the breath counting condition, but both groups of meditators had greater reductions in the response than the naïve participants. This suggested that meditation training improves the ability to screen out distracting or irrelevant stimuli. Meditators also had a greater reduction in N2 amplitude than the naïve group in the breath counting condition. This suggests that meditation training improves the ability to react less to new stimuli and thereby have an improved ability to ignore new stimuli and not react to novelty.


It is interesting that no differences were found between novice and experienced meditators. But, their definition of a novice meditator as having less than 1000 hours of experience may actually have produced a group of fairly experienced meditators as the novice group averaged 2.4 years of meditation experience. Perhaps with a less experienced group, differences with experienced meditators may have been seen.


Regardless, the results demonstrate that meditation reshapes the brain to improve the ability to pay attention to the task at hand and ignore irrelevant and/or distracting information. So, shape the brain to improve attention with meditation.


To cultivate attention, it is sufficient to rely on one basic principle: return again and again to what is already there. Our body knows how to sit straight. Our breath knows how to flow naturally. Our mind and our hearts already know how to rest. In this practice, we simply allow them to do that. Whenever there is a disturbance, we return to what is already there. – Ken McLeod


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies