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In eight weeks, you may be able to nail a challenging yoga pose, start marathon training, or become a regular at a new fitness studio. But changing your brain structure through Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)? New research says that’s not likely.
In the most comprehensive study published on the program to date, researchers found no brain changes in participants who completed an eight-week MBSR program. These new findings are in contrast with contrast previous research, which highlighted the ability of the eight-week MBSR program to lead to substantial brain changes.
In their analysis, the study’s authors point specifically to the participant pool as a potential cause for the disparities between studies. While previous studies relied on participants who sought out a MBSR program, this study examined a randomized group of participants. The study’s authors believe that this motivation (or lack thereof) among participants is important to consider. Those who elect to sign up for a MBSR program may do so due to a high amount of self-identified stress. In contrast, those who didn’t seek out the course may not share these elevated stress levels. As a result, the former may have more space for neurological changes, compared to the latter, the study authors say.
So, does MBSR still result in any brain changes? Potentially, but it may be less likely in people who aren’t already experiencing high stress levels.
What does this mean for MBSR programs and practices?
The eight-week MBSR program teaches mindfulness meditations and stress-relieving yoga postures. And while not every MBSR program may lead to permanent structural changes in your brain, that doesn’t mean the practice isn’t impactful. A previous study published in 2020 found that the program led to a significant decrease in depression and pain in participants with chronic pain.
Time may also be an important factor to consider. One of the first studies published on MBSR found that the brain regions controlling attention, sensory perception, and sensory processing were thicker in participants with a long-term meditation practice, signifying a lower risk for cognitive decline.
Additionally, in a 2018 investigation, researchers associated long-term meditators with increased emotional regulation when viewing negative imagery. In the same study, short-term meditators demonstrated this regulation only when presented with positive imagery. This is one sign that the key to reaping the benefits of MBSR may not be in completing the program itself, but in integrating the tools into your life for the long haul.
Students in an MBSR class often have a realization that they operate in a never-ending state of pressure, Colleen Gallagher, a qualified teacher of MBSR, says. A MBSR program brings this type of low-level, constant, stress to the surface, allowing students to develop effective coping strategies, she says. Gallagher says she views MBSR as a toolkit. In addition to focusing on the present moment, the course is about preparing for the longterm. In her experience, she says she sees students gain an understanding what may trigger their anxious thoughts, as well as how to counter and reframe such thinking.
Why is a consistent practice important?
While you may not be training for an endurance race or practicing your Handstand every day, mindfulness meditation abides by the same principle: practice, practice, practice. “Exercises have the most exponential return if you do them daily, rather than once in a while,” Max Strom, a yoga teacher, author, and breathing teacher, says. Strom focuses on the formation of a toolkit when it comes to a daily breathwork or meditation practice. Instead of waiting for your breaking point, he says that integrating these practices into your life on a daily basis will equip you for those more perilous moments. He equates the necessity of a regular practice to knowing (and practicing) CPR before the time comes when you need to administer it.
What if I’m struggling to maintain a consistent practice?
Unfortunately, there’s no secret formula to help you stick to a regular mindfulness meditation. (Sorry!) However, if you’re having trouble finding the time to commit to it, Strom says it’s critical to frame it as an intentional decision, rather than a chore. “Learning to make the commitment is part of the practice,” he says. “Because it’s not just with bodily habits, it’s our entire way of life.” It has to be something you prioritize. That may mean rising out of bed a little earlier or skipping that second episode of your favorite show. But, hey, ultimately, you’re committing to your long-term well-being.
A MBSR program comes with a 40-minute daily time commitment, and Gallagher says she encounters participants who struggle to fit that into their routines. In response, she suggests setting a routine of sorts by practicing meditation in the same place (yes, even the same chair) at the same time every day. This type of consistency can help you stick to a regular regimen. It also may mean slowly increasing your practice time. When she first started meditating, Gallagher says she only sat for five minutes a day, before gradually extending it to 10 minutes, and eventually longer sessions.
While meditation is often seen as an individualized practice, it doesn’t have to be. Gallagher says she recommends connecting with others who are also committed to a regular mindfulness session. By checking in on a regular basis through group texts or in-person classes, you’ll be held accountable (in a good way!) for your daily regimen. Because, ultimately, no one wants to face the wrath of the group text.
This story has been updated to correct Colleen Gallagher’s title. She is a qualified teacher of MBSR, not a MBSR-certified teacher. It has also been updated to clarify Gallagher’s position on the role of MBSR in preparing for the longterm future. We regret the errors.