Mind Over Matter: Fighting Pain with Mindful Acceptance

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Many of us struggle to deal with negative emotions. Recently, a team of researchers at Yale, Columbia and Dartmouth led by Hedy Kober, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at Yale, investigated the potential of mindful acceptance—a technique that involves consciously attending to and accepting an unpleasant experience without reacting to it—as a strategy to process these emotions.

After providing brief instruction on mindful acceptance to subjects who had no prior experience with meditation, the researchers exposed them to both negative images and painful temperatures, comparing their reports of pain and brain activity when they were exercising the technique to when they were reacting naturally. They sought to discover whether mindfulness was helpful in reducing pain and to illuminate the neurological process by which that reduction might occur.

Examining changes in brain activity, Kober and her team found that subjects both reported and experienced less pain when exercising mindful acceptance. They also observed that this effect did not rely on the activation of the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that is involved in cognitive control. To Kober, this finding is of particular importance. “Anybody could learn this,” she noted. For young children, the elderly, those who suffer from substance abuse, those who live with psychological disorders, and even for those who are simply stressed, the activation of prefrontal cortex can be made more difficult. Discovering that mindful acceptance circumvents the need to engage that area of the brain means that this strategy could have wider applications than other techniques that do rely on top-down, or goal-oriented, cognitive control from the prefrontal cortex.

This study is part of a recent boom in explorations of the neurological effects of mindfulness. Dr. Kober remembers when, at the beginning of her career, she was cautioned against pursuing her scientific interest in meditation because of the practice’s obscurity. Today, as a result of the compounding effects of mainstream popularity and increasingly convincing evidence from brain imaging, mindfulness has become a frontier of advancement in clinical psychology––one that has Dr. Kober at its forefront.

“Every time that we find anything, we want to replicate it,” Kober says. But what Kober is most excited about is the potential to use these findings to broaden the applications of mindfulness in the lives of those who need it most, including stressed-out college students. To that end, she is interested in conducting a study in which her team would teach mindfulness to Yale students during their freshman year and observe whether it helps them navigate the first few semesters of college more smoothly.

For students and others struggling through difficult situations, the practice of mindfulness could be a source of much-needed help.