Forget fears with mindfulness
Apparently mindfulness training makes it easier to unlearn fear reactions. This was discovered by researchers led by Johannes Björkstrand from the University of Southern Denmark in Odense in a small experiment with almost 30 he althy test subjects.
They divided their subjects into two groups at the beginning. Some completed a four-week mindfulness training guided by an app. The other participants, however, did not take part in any exercises. The scientists then asked both groups into the lab, where they showed the subjects various photos on a screen, some of which were paired with an uncomfortable electric shock. Meanwhile, the researchers monitored the skin conductance of the participants and were soon able to observe how the mere sight of the relevant images made the test subjects sweat: they had apparently learned to fear the images accompanied by an electric shock.
In a second round, Björkstrand's team then tried to erase the link between the images and the electric shocks in the minds of the participants. To do this, it showed them the photos in question again - but this time without an electric shock, to signal to the participants that the pictures no longer posed any danger. In psychology, this is also known as extinction. Numerous therapeutic approaches that are used in the treatment of anxiety disorders are based on this principle. The problem with this, however, is that fear is often easier to learn than to unlearn. As a result, extinction doesn't always last, and sometimes even small triggers are enough to bring back the original fear.
In order to test how long-lasting this had worked for the subjects, Björkstrand and his colleagues called them back to the laboratory 24 hours later. Again they showed them the recordings – without an electric shock – and measured their skin conductivity. They found that the extinction learning in subjects with mindfulness experience apparently had a longer lasting effect than in the control group. When looking at the photos, the former sweated less than the comparison persons, because on average they reacted much more anxiously to the photos than directly after completing the extinction training.
"Our results suggest that greater and longer-lasting treatment effects may be achieved by combining mindfulness training and exposure therapy," says Johannes Björkstrand. In order to check this, the experiment would have to be repeated with real anxious patients.