February 17, 2010
Science Daily/University of Pennsylvania
A new study in which training was provided to a high-stress U.S. military group preparing for deployment to Iraq has demonstrated a positive link between mindfulness training, or MT, and improvements in mood and working memory.
The study found that the more time participants spent engaging in daily mindfulness exercises the better their mood and working memory, the cognitive term for complex thought, problem solving and cognitive control of emotions. The study also suggests that sufficient MT practice may protect against functional impairments associated with high-stress challenges that require a tremendous amount of cognitive control, self-awareness, situational awareness and emotional regulation.
To study the protective effects of mindfulness training on psychological health in individuals about to experience extreme stress, cognitive neuroscientist Amishi Jha of the Department of Psychology and Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Penn and Elizabeth A. Stanley of Georgetown University provided mindfulness training for the first time to U.S. Marines before deployment. Jha and her research team investigated working memory capacity and affective experience in individuals participating in a training program developed and delivered by Stanley, a former U.S. Army officer and security-studies professor with extensive experience in mindfulness techniques.
The program, called Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT™), aims to cultivate greater psychological resilience or "mental armor" by bolstering mindfulness.
The program emphasized integrating mindfulness exercises, like focused attention on the breath and mindful movement, into pre-deployment training. These mindfulness skills were to regulate symptoms in the body and mind following an experience of extreme stress. The importance of regularly engaging in mindfulness exercises was also emphasized.
"Our findings suggest that, just as daily physical exercise leads to physical fitness, engaging in mindfulness exercises on a regular basis may improve mind-fitness," Jha said. "Working memory is an important feature of mind-fitness. Not only does it safeguard against distraction and emotional reactivity, but it also provides a mental workspace to ensure quick-and-considered decisions and action plans. Building mind-fitness with mindfulness training may help anyone who must maintain peak performance in the face of extremely stressful circumstances, from first responders, relief workers and trauma surgeons, to professional and Olympic athletes."
The study findings are in line with prior research on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR, programs and suggest that MMFT may provide "psychological prophylaxis," or protection from cognitive and emotional disturbances, even among high-stress cohorts such as members of the military preparing for deployment. Given the high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental-health disturbances suffered by those returning from war, providing such training prior to deployment may buffer against potential lifelong psychological illness by bolstering working memory capacity.