How Mindfulness May Change the Brain in Depressed Patients

I’ve seen the benefits of Mindfulness practice in my own life and in the lives of my clients for many years. Scientific studies continue to affirm the benefits with an increasing frequency of studies and an expanding set of tools.

As Alvin Powell describes in his recent article in Mindful magazine,

The number of randomized controlled trials — the gold standard for clinical study — involving mindfulness has jumped from one in the period from 19951997 to 11 from 20042006, to a whopping 216 from 20132015.
randomized controlled trials

Rising scientific interest in the benefits of mindfulness practice

The tools used to study the effects of mindfulness also continue to increase. For example,  Harvard researchers are using brain scans to explore how 8-weeks of training in present-moment awareness might break the cycle of self-rumination. Findings from this research may add to growing evidence that mindfulness can help sufferers of depression, chronic pain, and anxiety.

Researchers are quick to note that well-designed, well-run studies confirm mindfulness effects similar to other existing treatments, but not necessarily better results than existing treatments. Why, then, is there so much interest in mindfulness? As  Benjamin Shapero, an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital’s (MGH) Depression Clinical and Research Program explains, “Many people don’t respond to the frontline interventions.  Individual cognitive behavioral therapy is helpful for many people; antidepressant medications help many people. But it’s also the case that many people don’t benefit from them as well. There’s a great need for alternative approaches.”

To better understand how mindfulness works in the brain, Shapero and his colleague Gaëlle Desbordes, are using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which not only takes pictures of the brain, as a regular MRI does, but also records brain activity occurring during the scan. They are studying clinically depressed patients, performing functional magnetic resonance imaging scans before and after an eight-week course in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, or MBCT.

During the scans, participants complete two tests, one that encourages them to become more aware of their bodies by focusing on their heartbeats (an exercise related to mindfulness meditation), and the other asking them to reflect on phrases common in the self-chatter of depressed patients, such as “I am such a loser,” or “I can’t go on.” After a series of such comments, the participants are asked to stop ruminating on the phrases and the thoughts they trigger. Researchers will measure how quickly subjects can disengage from negative thoughts, typically a difficult task for the depressed.

I encourage you to read Powell’s complete article and to check back for the results of these ongoing studies.

With so much public interest in Mindfulness and increased activity in the scientific community, I predict that we will soon have a much greater understanding not only of how Mindfulness benefits us, but also how it works, and for which problems it is most effective.

Mindfully yours,

Dr. Pamm

Seven Tips for Getting More Sleep

Few of us get the optimal amount of sleep that we need. If we’re depressed, we often over sleep, but don’t feel rested. Or we might have the habit of packing as much as we can into each day, staying up late and rising early to do as many activities as we can possibly squeeze into the day. Neither situation is good, but depriving ourselves of sleep takes a toll on our wellbeing, which can have very serious consequences for our job performance, driving skills, relationships, health, and happiness.

This month’s issue of Mindful magazine has “Seven Tips for Getting More Sleep,” excerpted from Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time by Rick Hanson.

I agree with the author that “two things get in the way of sufficient sleep: not setting enough time aside for it, and not having deep and continuous sleep during the time allotted.”[1]

I encourage you to put on your comfy pajamas, grab your teddy bear, and read the entire article for yourself. But if you’re feeling sleepy now, here’s a quick synopsis—you can read the details after you’re refreshed by a great night’s sleep!

  1. Decide on how much time you want to set aside for sleep each night. Work backwards from your wake-up time and plan what you need to do during the hour before your bedtime to get to sleep on time.
  2. Observe the “reasons” that come up to stay up past your bedtime. Prioritize. What’s more important, your health and well-being—or (fill in the blank)?
  3. Really enjoy feeling rested and alert when you get enough sleep.You’ll be motivated to do it again!
  4. Consider the advice of organizations like the National Sleep Foundation: In the last hour or two before bedtime, relax; don’t eat, drink coffee or alcohol, exercise, or smoke; keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet, with a good mattress, and use earplugs if your partner snores.
  5. Do what you can to lower stressChronic stress increases hormones like cortisol, which will make it hard to fall asleep or wake you up early in the morning.
  6. Make a deal with yourself to worry or plan in the morning. Focus on things that make you feel happy and relaxed, or the sensations of breathing. Bring to mind the warm feeling of being with people who care about you. Have compassion for yourself.
  7. Relax your tongue, lips and jaw, and eyes; take five to ten long exhalations; imagine your hands are warm (and tuck them under the pillow); rest a finger or knuckle against your lips; imagine you are in a very peaceful setting; progressively relax each part of your body, starting with your feet and moving up to your head.[2]

If you’re still awake and reading, good night!


Dr. Pamm



[1] “Seven Tips for Getting More Sleep,”, Dec. 2014.

[2] Ibid.