Mindfulness-based therapies may change the way some regions of the brain process information, according to a small study published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology.
The study looked at the effects of mindfulness on anxiety, one of the most common mental health issues children and adolescents face. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 25.1% of teens 13 to 18 years old have experienced clinically significant anxiety symptoms at some point in their lives. The Anxiety and Depression Association of American reports that 80% of children and teens who meet diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder do not receive treatment.
Can Mindfulness Change the Brain?
For the study, researchers recruited nine adolescents between the ages of 9 and 16 who each had generalized, social, or separation anxiety disorder as well as a parent with bipolar. Participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while performing a challenging task and experiencing emotional distractions.
Following fMRI, participants completed 12 weeks of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. This approach blends cognitive therapy, a modality that encourages participants to recognize and alter automatic negative thoughts and behaviors, with mindfulness, the practice of slowing down and noticing things in the present moment. Mindfulness is closely tied to meditation, and many meditation practitioners use mindfulness as their primary form of meditation.
After 12 weeks of MBCT, participants showed changes in brain regions associated with emotional processing. Specifically, the bilateral insula, lentiform nucleus, thalamus, and left anterior cingulate showed increased activation when participants were exposed to emotional stimuli.
The study’s authors say that the changes in the insula are particularly interesting, since previous research suggests this brain region monitors and responds to bodily states.
The study was very small and did not include a control group, so it may be premature to conclude that mindfulness can change the brains of all adolescents. However, a number of previous studies have shown meditation may be able to change the brain and alter bodily states.
Antidepressants may often be prescribed along with therapy to adolescents diagnosed with anxiety, but many children and teens who are at risk of developing bipolar may not do well on these medications. Mindfulness is a type of intervention that is considered to have little to no risk.
Mindfulness and Mental Health
A number of previous studies suggest mindfulness can alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression. A 2010 meta-analysis of previous studies found that the effects of mindfulness frequently extended well beyond the end of treatment. This study also found mindfulness to be effective regardless of the number of treatment sessions.
Mental health professionals and educators are increasingly using mindfulness-based approaches to help adolescents and children. The University of Exeter’s Mindfulness in Schools Project teaches students to cultivate mindfulness in an academic setting. Preliminary results appear to indicate the program eases stress even in students whose anxiety levels are non-clinical.
Mindfulness does not have any side effects and carries no risk of addiction, so this approach may be an ideal choice when parents or teens are reluctant to try medication.
- Any anxiety disorder among children. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/prevalence/any-anxiety-disorder-among-children.shtml
- Children and teens. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/children
- Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78(2), 169-183. doi:10.1037/a0018555
- Reynolds, G. (2016, February 18). How meditation changes the brain and body. Retrieved from http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/02/18/contemplation-therapy
- Strawn, J. R., Cotton, S., Luberto, C. M., Patino, L. R., Stahl, L. A., Weber, W. A., . . . Delbello, M. P. (2016). Neural function before and after mindfulness-based cognitive therapy in anxious adolescents at risk for developing bipolar disorder. Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology, 26(4), 372-379. doi:10.1089/cap.2015.0054
- Study shows changes in brain activity after mindfulness therapy in adolescents. (2016, July 20). Retrieved from http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-07/uoca-ssc072016.php
- Weare, K. (2012, April). Evidence for the Impact of Mindfulness on Children and Young People [PDF document]. Exeter: The Mindfulness in Schools Project. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/10
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