Sunday, February 27, 2011 Podcast Interview with Drs. Susan Orsillo & Lizabeth Roemer about The Mindful Way Through Anxiety

At, Dr. Trent Codd interviews Drs. Susan Orsillo and Lizabeth Roemer, two psychologists in the Boston area who are well-known within the mindfulness community for their work on mindfulness-based approaches to anxiety. They have recently authored a self-help book, The Mindful Way Through Anxiety: Break Free From Chronic Worry and Claim Your Life. The book came out last month.

The has a promotional code that allows you to receive a 20% discount off the book through the publisher. (Even with the discount, however, it seems to be cheaper through Amazon at the moment).

I've not read their book but have great respect for Drs. Orsillo and Roemer's work. (As graduate student, I did a research symposium with one of Dr. Roemer's students. Not only was Dr. Roemer really friendly, but she came across as incredibly engaged and expressive during the presentations.) 

We've previously featured Dr. Codd's podcast interviews with Steven Hayes, Rob Zettle, and Michael Twohig. If you've listened to any of these, you know that Dr. Codd is a thoughtful interviewer and has really great people on his podcasts. As Dr. Codd notes, this is one of his more accessible podcasts, and his interviewees offer very practical suggestions for working with anxiety.

To check out the podcast at the, click here. To check out the authors' website for their book, click here.

The citation for their book is:

Orsillo, S.M., & Roemer, L. (2011). The Mindful Way Through Anxiety: Break Free From Chronic Worry and Claim Your Life. New York, NY: Guilford .

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Yoga for Persistent Pain: New Findings and Directions for an Ancient Practice

Although the literature isn't nearly as large as that for mindfulness and meditation, there is a growing body of research on the use of yoga to address mental health concerns. In a recent issue of Pain, Wren and colleagues offer a brief summary of current research on the application of yoga to medical conditions.

One of the co-authors is Dr. James Carson, a former researcher at Duke who is now at the Oregon Health & Science University. Dr. Carson and his wife Kimberly developed an 8-week yoga program called Yoga of Awareness. You can download a bunch of Jim's research on mindfulness and yoga-based interventions on his Yoga of Awareness website.

The article examines 13 randomized controlled trials of yoga with pain and related medical conditions. The authors propose three potential pathways for the benefits of yoga: 1.) Physiological changes, such as decreased heart rate and improved strength, circulation, and flexibility; 2.) Behavioral changes such as increased social contact and regular physical activity; 3.) Psychological changes, such as increased awareness and mindful acceptance.

The growing literature is very encouraging. I expect we'll hear a lot more about yoga interventions in the future as the trend picks up steam. At moment, however, there's not a lot that unifies the studies other than yoga practice. They're based on a variety of yogic traditions--especially Inyengar and Hatha. What will likely be important to this literature in the future is the development of programmatic research around a specific yoga intervention (e.g., Yoga of Awareness) with more attention paid to the contributions of particular techniques and theorized mechanisms of change. It will be interesting to see if a particular yoga-based course eventually becomes as well known as specific mindfulness-based programs such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. I'm curious to see the evidence base on the use of yoga continue to move forward in a more systematic way, as I think there's great potential.


Wren, A.A., Wright, M.A., Carson, J.W., & Keefe, F.J. (2011). Yoga for Persistent Pain: New Findings and Directions for an Ancient Practice. Pain, 152, 477-480.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Psychology Today Blog Post: "Confronting Death with an Open, Mindful Attitude"

Back in November, I posted about a study in which the researchers examined the impact of mindfulness on mortality salience ("Being Present in the Face of Existential Threat"). Today, one of the authors and George Mason University professor Dr. Todd Kashdan published a blog post about the study on the Psychology Today website

Dr. Kashdan provides a nice summary of the research and reflects upon his personal interest in the topic. He writes:

So what do mindful people do that allows them to confront death in a non-defensive manner? What we found was that when asked to deeply contemplate their death, mindful people spent more time writing (as opposed to avoiding) and used more death-related words when reflecting on the experience. This suggests that a greater openness to processing the threat of death allows compassion and fairness to reign. In this laboratory staged battle, mindfulness alters the power that death holds over us. Pretty cool.

To read Dr. Kashdan's full post, click here. To read the Scientific Mindfulness post on the original article, click here.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Unwelcome Party Guest

This animated short by Joe Oliver illustrates a popular metaphor from the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy literature. I've heard the metaphor called "Joe the Bum" and "Aunt Edna"--here the uninvited guest is "Brian." (Also, my name!--there are any number of self-deprecatory comments I can insert here.)

The metaphor is used to illustrate the practice of acceptance or (in ACT terms) willingness.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Mindfulness-Based Treatments for Co-Occurring Depression and Substance Use Disorders: What Can We Learn from the Brain?

In a previous post, I wrote about the implications if a pilot study that Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP) may help people in recovery avoid relapse during depressed moods (Witkiewitz & Bowen, 2010). A recent article in Addiction by Brewer and colleagues explores how mindfulness-based treatments may be useful in treating people with both substance use problems and depression. (The authors of the article include a few of the developers of MBRP--Drs. Alan Marlatt and Sarah Bowen.)

The article is largely theoretical and includes explorations of potential neurobiological processes that may change through mindfulness training. It's relatively brief, so feel free to check it yourself!

To download a copy of the article, click on the citation below:

Brewer, J.A., Bowen, S., Smith, J.T., Marlatt, G.A., & Potenza, M.N. (2010). Mindfulness-Based Treatments for Co-Occurring Depression and Substance Use Disorders: What Can We Learn from the Brain? Addiction, 105(10), 1698-1706.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Mindfulness Practice Leads to Increases in Regional Brain Gray Density Matter

Last week, I posted a New York Times article about a study looking at brain changes following an 8-week mindfulness program. As promised, I've since read the study on which the article was based and am posting my own summary.

Lead by Dr. Britta Hölzel, a group of researchers, mainly located at Massachusetts General Hospital, examined changes in the brain following an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. As I've posted about before, previous research has indicated differences in cortical thickness in areas of the brains of experience meditators compared to age-matched control groups. The weakness of the previous studies is that it doesn't rule out that people with pre-existing differences in brain structure may be more likely to gravitate towards meditation.

In the current study, the researchers conducted MRI scans of 16 people 2 weeks before and 2 weeks after an 8-week MBSR course. This scans were compared against a control sample of 17 people on wait list for the course. Researchers scanned the wait list group twice about 2 months apart. In addition the scans, participants also completed the Five-Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ; Baer et al., 2006), a self-report measure of mindfulness.

As the researchers predicted, MBSR participants showed significant increases in gray matter density in the left hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with arousal, responsiveness, and emotion regulation, according to the researchers. They suggest these changes may reflect improvements in regulating emotional responding. These changes were unrelated to self-reported mindfulness scores on the FFMQ and to the amount of time people practiced mindfulness outside the course. Contrary to the researchers' predictions, there was no changes in the insula, a region of the brain associated with awareness.

I'll note here that the researchers predicted changes in the hippocampus and insula prior to conducting the study. After looking at these regions, they also conducted exploratory analyses to examine whether there were changes in other parts of the brain that they did not make specific hypotheses about. What this means is that the researchers had no prior expectations about whether these other areas would change. Since they had the data, they thought, "Hey, let's take a look!" There's nothing wrong with this, but it does mean these results should be interpreted more cautiously, since there were no prior reasons to believe they would change.

These exploratory analyses found increases in density in the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), the left temporo-parietal junction (TPJ), and in two regions of the cerebellum. In addition, there were changes in density within the brain stem. In the interests of space, I'll give a more general summary of the functions associated with these regions. According to the researchers, these regions of the brain appear to be associated with consciousness of one's self (TPJ), assessment of the self-relevance of stimuli (PCC), regulation of emotion and cognition (cerebellum).

This is a general summary of what the study found. As I'm not an expert in neuroscience, any errors in what I reported are likely mine. I encourage anyone interested to consult the original study if you want more detail.

Although this study shows greater methodological rigor in controlling for other possible influences other than meditation, as the authors note, their methodology is not completely airtight. Perhaps the biggest weakness is comparing a wait list control group against an active treatment. It's perfectly reasonable comparison, but the downside is that it doesn't control for the possibility of non-specific factors other than meditation influencing outcome. Said less technically, simply being in a group for 8 week may have caused changes independent of the actual mindfulness practices. In addition, the sample size is pretty small--which is understandable as neuroimaging research is expensive!

These caveats aside, this is a really important study in gathering further evidence that people may show actual physical changes in relevant areas brain through mindfulness practice. That significant differences were shown with only 8 weeks of mindfulness practice is pretty remarkable.

To download the article, click on the citation below:

Hölzel, B.K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S.M., et al. (2011). Mindfulness Practice Leads to Increases in Regional Brain Gray Density Matter. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimagining, 191, 36-43.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

New York Times: How Meditation Changes the Brain

The New York Times published an article today on a recent study that provides further evidence that regular meditation practice  affects the brain. Compared to a control group, people who meditated 30 minutes a day for 8 weeks showed changes in brain gray-matter density. The affected regions of the brain are associated with memory, stress, empathy, and what they call "sense of self."

The research article was published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. Dr. Britta Hölzel, a psychologist at Mass General and Harvard Medical School, is first author. (Coincidentally, I printed out a copy of the article last week but haven't had a chance to look at it yet. I guess I'll move it up in my queue and will hopefully post a summary within the next few weeks.) According to the article:Times

M.R.I. brain scans taken before and after the participants’ meditation regimen found increased gray matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory. The images also showed a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress. A control group that did not practice meditation showed no such changes.

I've written about changes in gray matter in meditators in a previous post, in which long-term meditators showed greater cortical thickness compared to non-meditators matched for age. A major difference between this study and those others is that the other studies looked at samples of experienced meditators whereas this study involved people who practed meditation for only 8 weeks! The article mentions a control group, but I wasn't clear if people were randomly assigned to either the control or meditation group. I'm really looking forward to reading the original article now! (UPDATE: I've since posted on the original article here.)

To read the Times article, click here.