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Meditation: An Unconventional Approach

 

              The constant updates to the DSM exemplify the evolution of research done in the field of psychology. One of many goals of psychology is to find new ways to better alleviate symptoms of psychological disorders. There are a multitude of approaches, such as pharmaceutical drugs and talk therapy, focused on improving the symptoms of anxiety disorder and depression. However, a new, unorthodox approach to eliminating symptoms of these alienating disorders is mindfulness-meditation. Mindfulness-meditation is the practice of concentrating “present-moment sensations and experiences,” (Desrosiers et al. 2013. 1-8). Meditation is well-known for its relaxing and serene effects on individuals, so psychologists, therapists, and psychiatrists are taking advantage of this ancient method of tranquility and giving it an alternative purpose: a therapeutic application in relieving symptoms for psychological disorders.  

                The promise that mindfulness-meditation alleviates anxiety and depressive symptoms may seem a bit of a stretch at first thought; however, numerous studies show the brain’s physical adaptation in individuals who meditate. One specific study by Dr. Sara W. Lazar, an Associate Researcher in the Psychiatry Department at Massachusetts General Hospital compared individuals who were once “meditation-naïve,” but were asked to participate in a meditation program, to a control group.  After the program, researchers noticed those who meditated had an increase in gray matter in the left-hippocampus and temporo-parietal junction. The hippocampus is involved in assisting learning, memory, and emotion regulation, so an increase in gray matter in the left hippocampus results in better memory and emotional regulation. The temporo-parietal junction, the other brain region that displayed a large amount of increase in gray matter, is involved in compassionate, non-judgmental thinking and empathy. Lazar stated that the increase in gray matter to the temporo-parietal junction meant an increase in compassion and empathy for others. The increase in gray matter in both brain regions, due to meditation, is thought to result in higher compassionate thinking, emotion regulation, and impulse control; all three outcomes reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.

 Another study performed by Lazar showed how meditation decreases gray matter in the amygdala. The amygdala is involved in emotion regulation (flight or fight responses) and stress, so an increase in gray matter in the amygdala would mean an increase in impulsive emotions and stress. However, because there was a decrease in gray matter, the individuals who meditated had lower stress and impulsive emotions (Lazar et al. 2009. 11-17). Lazar and her colleagues discovered meditation’s ability to physically and positively change the cortical structure of the brain.

Meditation’s physical effects on the brain have led to the adaptation of meditation as a treatment of autistic related symptoms, such as anxiety, depression and aggression. The studies mentioned previously show how meditation helps relieve unwanted emotional symptoms (stress, aggression, etc.). Because meditation activates regions of the brain that promote compassionate thinking, empathy, and impulse-control, meditation is a promising therapeutic approach to autism.  Although little research has been studied on the specific effects of meditation on anxiety, aggression, and depression in autistic individuals, a few, small studies have been performed. One study, published in 2011 in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders by Signh et al., was conducted on three children and adolescents with Asperger syndrome, who engaged in unmanageable, aggressive behavior at home. The children were taught to use a meditation technique, “Meditation on the Soles of the Feet,” to inhibit any aggressive emotions or behaviors by teaching patients to quickly shift their attention from the event, person, or thing that triggered aggression to the soles of their feet. The results of the study showed that the level of aggressive behavior decreased significantly within a year and there were no aggressive outbursts three-years after the treatment. This study stated that other individuals with other autism spectrum disorders (ASD) were able to learn the meditation technique as well.  The results suggests that the practice of shifting attention to the present moment should be further studied and used to decrease aggressive symptoms in children with ASD. Another study published in January 2013 in the journal Research in Developmental Disorders, Spek et al. found that meditation-based therapy showed a decrease in anxiety and depression symptoms in individuals with ASD, and the individuals who participated in the meditation practices also saw an increase in positive emotions not seen in the control group. This was the first study to demonstrate the effects of meditation therapy on individuals with ASD, regardless this, once again, proves the effectiveness of meditation practices in the lives of individuals with psychiatric and behavioral disorders due to ASD. 

Meditation has been effective in helping individuals who suffer from psychological disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and anger. It allows individuals to feel in control of their emotions and positively respond to them.  Now that we see meditation’s positive influences, further research would only help validate this promising therapeutic alternative to assisting autistic individuals with alienating symptoms. 

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