In-Depth on Our Latest Paper: Who Benefits Most from Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Training (MBSR)?

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If you’ve read our previous posts, you know that our recent work has focused on social comparison, physical activity, and women’s health. Ultimately, this work is intended to help us design treatment programs that will promote physical activity and improve other physical and emotional health outcomes. But we’re also interested in how factors such as gender and pre-treatment health experiences can help us target existing, effective treatments to the right people. Our most recent publication, in Journal of Health Psychology, focuses on this topic; specifically, identifying pre-treatment characteristics that predict outcomes after the popular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program.

What is MBSR?

Mindfulness, or non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, is positively associated with a number of health outcomes. MBSR is an 8-week program that teaches participants about the influence of mindfulness on stress and health, guides mindfulness meditation practice, and facilitates group discussion. The program also includes a full day of meditation (seven hours) following the sixth week of the program. Participants are expected to continue meditation outside of class, as well as to practice mindfulness during daily activities (such as eating and communication with others). Given the overlapping research interests of the Mindfulness, Stress & Health Lab and CHASE Lab, such as identifying ways to improve mind-body health, we teamed up on this paper with the goal of better understanding the characteristics that predict who benefits most from mindfulness training.

What did we do?

We conducted a secondary analysis on data from an existing project. Our goal was to examine whether baseline anxiety, sleep quality, or gender could predict change in two different outcomes, from before to after participating in MBSR. The first outcome was emotion regulation, which is how an individual controls (or regulates) their emotions. Two emotion regulation techniques we examined were emotion suppression (a way to manage your feelings by essentially muting them) and cognitive reappraisal (changing your thinking to change how you feel). The second outcome was physical symptoms of stress, such as headaches and fatigue. For this paper, we chose to include only the people who completed both the pre- and post-treatment questionnaires (203 participants).

What did we find?

We found improvements in both of our outcomes from pre- to post-treatment among both men and women, with men showing greater improvement in emotion suppression than women. In other words, when it came to emotion suppression, men benefited the most from the MBSR program by showing a bigger drop in suppressing their emotions from the beginning to the end of the program. In addition, people who started the program with higher levels of anxiety and worse sleep quality actually saw the most improvement in physical symptoms of stress. Those who started with higher anxiety also showed greater improvements in cognitive reappraisal. Overall, it appeared that men, individuals with high anxiety, and those with poor sleep quality ended up benefiting the most from the MBSR program.

What does this tell us?

Our findings suggest that evaluating baseline characteristics may be an important first step in identifying who can benefit the most from mindfulness training. This information may help clinicians refer people to MBSR who have a high likelihood of benefiting from it, and steer other people toward different treatments. 

What was it like to work on this paper?

Dr. Greeson and I started developing the idea for this paper back in 2018, when I graduated from Rowan. I took a health psychology class with Dr. Greeson as an undergraduate and loved the topics we learned, especially the introduction to mindfulness. During a meeting with Dr. Greeson we discussed my interest in research and mindfulness, and that is where the idea of this paper began Then, once I began working for Dr. Arigo in the CHASE Lab in 2018, we were able to identify a direction we could take the paper that overlapped with all of our interests, so Drs. Arigo, Greeson and I decided to work together as co-authors.

Writing this paper as first-author was intimidating, but also a huge learning experience for me. I could not have asked for better mentors to help guide me through this process, and both Drs. Arigo and Greeson have taught me so much when it comes to developing and taking the lead on a paper. I also appreciated the collaborations we had with the co-authors on this brief report (at Duke University and the University of Pittsburgh), and how everyone was able to contribute information based on their own expertise. Overall, we saw this paper evolve from an idea, to a conference presentation, and now to a brief report in the Journal of Health Psychology, which is an exciting accomplishment.

 – Megan Brown, CHASE Lab Research Coordinator

This project is a great example of cooperation between research groups to learn from an existing dataset. It’s not easy to manage a project with so many contributors, and Megan did a great job with guidance from us. I enjoyed the opportunity to work with and learn from the Mindfulness Lab and I hope that this is the start of a long-term partnership.

– Dr. Dani Arigo, CHASE Lab Director

As a professor, researcher, and mentor, you always want to support bright, eager students who show interest and initiative. Megan was one of the top students in my Health Psychology class her senior year, and I knew she had the aptitude for graduate school. Working on this paper together, in partnership with Dr. Arigo, Megan was able to grow as a scholar, to develop her scientific writing, and to integrate feedback from collaborators across Psychology and Medicine. Perfect preparation for a PhD program!*

– Dr. Jeff Greeson, Mindfulness Lab Director

Next Steps

For this paper, we focused on whether pre-treatment characteristics predict outcomes after a standard MBSR program. While there is plenty of evidence that mindfulness training can reduce stress and enhance mental health, far less is known about the impact of mindfulness training on objective measures of physical health (like obesity, blood pressure, or blood sugar), or, whether mindfulness training benefits diverse groups of people. Future research is needed to not only identify factors that best predict outcomes of mindfulness training, but to also directly compare how helpful mindfulness programs are for different types of people, facing different types of stressors. New, adapted Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBIs) aim to go beyond the general MBSR program and target specific symptoms or conditions like depression, chronic pain, and heart disease. This raises an important, ongoing question about “What works best, for whom, and why?” By studying predictors of outcomes – in addition to outcomes per se – we can better tailor existing mindfulness programs, increase access, and improve outcomes for as broad a group of people as possible.

*And Megan is joining the CHASE Lab as a clinical psychology Ph.D. student this fall! Like what we do? See here for more information about doctoral training with us.

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