(NaturalNews) It has been well established that stress and anxiety hamper healing and lead to worse outcomes in people with chronic diseases such as cancer. Now, a new study conducted by researchers from the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine and published in the journal Stress and Health, shows that a program focusing on mindfulness meditation and expressive art can actually produce changes in the brain leading to lower stress levels.
Although the researchers had previously studied the effects of Mindfulness-based Art Therapy (MBAT) on stress and quality of life on cancer patients, the new study was the first time anyone had looked at the physiological effects of the therapy.
“Our goal was to observe possible mechanisms for the observed psychosocial effects of MBAT by evaluating the cerebral blood flow changes associated with an MBAT intervention in comparison with a control of equal time and attention,” said lead author Daniel Monti.
The study was performed on 18 people who had been diagnosed with breast cancer between six months and three years prior to the start of the study, and who were not currently receiving any treatment for the disease. Participants were randomly assigned to either to a control group, consisting of an education program, or to an MBAT group.
The MBAT therapy consisted of two parts. The first part, Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), included courses in awareness of breathing, awareness of emotion, and mindful eating, listening, walking and yoga. The second component consisted of art activities designed to give participants the ability to express themselves – particularly their emotions – in a meaningful way, as well as to improve their self-regulation and coping abilities.
All participants answered a 90-question symptom checklist at both the beginning and end of the eight-week study. Researchers also took functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of the participants while at rest, while performing a neutral task, while meditating, while performing a stressful task, and then at rest again. These scans allowed the researchers to get a picture of cerebral blood flow in response to various activities.
Participants who underwent MBAT therapy scored significantly lower on anxiety tests than participants in the control group. They also showed significantly more blood flow to the brain’s emotional centers, including the left insula, which plays a role in the perception of emotions, the amygdala, which regulates the experience of stress, the hippocampus, which regulates the physiological stress response, and the caudate nucleus, associated with the experience of rewards.
The observed changes in cerebral blood flow help explain prior findings that MBSR therapy can significantly reduce anxiety, depression and other forms of psychological distress.
In women with breast cancer, reduction in psychological distress is significantly correlated with improved immune function, as well as higher quality of life and more effective coping.
“With the sample size enlarged, perhaps we can extrapolate these results to other disease populations and gain a fuller understanding of the physiological mechanisms by which mindfulness practices confer psychological benefits,” Monti said.
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