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Recent research: two studies on relationships, two on body to mind effects, and two on mindfulness

Here are details of half a dozen recent research papers - two on relationships, two on body to mind effects, and two on mindfulness.  Fuller details, links and abstracts of all the studies mentioned are given further down this post.

First a couple of relationship studies.  Gibb & colleagues reported on "Relationship duration and mental health outcomes", a subject close to my heart after celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary last autumn.  They found that "Longer relationship duration was significantly associated with lower rates of depression, suicidal behaviour and substance abuse/dependence, even after adjustment for covariates."  They also reported (somewhat surprisingly considering some earlier research studies) that "In most cases the associations did not vary with gender. Legal relationship status (legally or de facto married) was not significantly related to mental health once due allowance was made for relationship duration."  Meanwhile Karelina & DeVries published on "Modeling social influences on human health" saying "The health benefits associated with social support (both reduced risk and improved recovery) are evident in a variety of illnesses and injury states; however, the mechanisms by which social interactions influence disease pathogenesis remain largely unidentified. The substantial health impact ... is not accounted for solely by peer-encouraged development of health behaviors. Instead, social interactions are capable of altering ... several endogenous mechanisms (inflammatory signals, glucocorticoids, and oxytocin) by which social interactions influence health outcomes."  So the dramatic results reported in last autumn's post "Strong relationships improve survival as much as quitting smoking" are mediated both by improved health behaviours and through direct mind-to-body effects.  Recently I've been interested by studies looking the other way at body-to-mind effects. 

So Huang et al report on "Powerful Postures Versus Powerful Roles: Which Is the Proximate Correlate of Thought and Behavior?".  They found that "Although past research has found that being in a powerful role and adopting an expansive body posture can each enhance a sense of power, two experiments showed that when individuals were placed in high- or low-power roles while adopting an expansive or constricted posture, only posture affected the implicit activation of power, the taking of action, and abstraction."  How we feel affects our body posture, but we can also deliberately change our body posture to help change how we feel and act.  This is fascinating information both for individuals and for therapists.  I plan to write more on this over these next weeks.  In another body-to-mind study Hung & Labroo published "From Firm Muscles to Firm Willpower: Understanding the Role of Embodied Cognition in Self-Regulation" and found "Participants who were instructed to tighten their muscles, regardless of which muscles they tightened-hand, finger, calf, or biceps-while trying to exert selfcontrol demonstrated greater ability to withstand the pain, consume the unpleasant medicine, attend to the immediately disturbing but essential information, or overcome tempting foods," the authors write.  The authors found that the muscle tightening only helped when the choice aligned with the participants' goals (for example, to have a healthier lifestyle). They also found that the tightening of muscles only helped at the moment people faced the self-control dilemma. (If they did it beforehand, they felt depleted by the time it was time to make a choice.)" 

And for studies five and six of this report, here are two on mindfulness.  Ljótsson & colleagues describe "Long-term follow-up of internet-delivered exposure and mindfulness based treatment for irritable bowel syndrome."  Encouragingly they found that at 15-18 month follow up "Treatment gains were maintained on all outcome measures, including IBS symptoms, quality of life, and anxiety related to gastrointestinal symptoms, with mainly large effect sizes."  Good stuff!  Hölzel e al also looked at mindfulness and startingly reported that "Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density." Over a brief 8 week training programme they found " ... that participation in MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking".  This is further research demonstrating the continuing "plasticity" of the adult brain. 

Gibb, S. J., D. M. Fergusson, et al. (2011). "Relationship duration and mental health outcomes: findings from a 30-year longitudinal study." The British Journal of Psychiatry 198(1): 24-30.  [Abstract/Full Text] 
          Background: Marriage is known to be associated with improved mental health, but little research has examined whether the duration of a cohabiting relationship is associated with mental health. Aims: To examine the associations between relationship duration and mental health problems in a birth cohort of 30-year-olds. Method: Associations between relationship duration and mental health were examined using a generalised estimating equation approach. Associations were adjusted for covariates, including prior mental health problems. Results: Longer relationship duration was significantly associated with lower rates of depression, suicidal behaviour and substance abuse/dependence, even after adjustment for covariates. In most cases the associations did not vary with gender. Legal relationship status (legally or de facto married) was not significantly related to mental health once due allowance was made for relationship duration. Conclusions: Increasing relationship duration, but not legal relationship status, has a protective effect on mental health for men and women.

Karelina, K. and A. C. DeVries (2011). "Modeling Social Influences on Human Health." Psychosom Med 73(1): 67-74.  [Abstract/Full Text]   
          Social interactions have long-term physiological, psychological, and behavioral consequences. Social isolation is a well-recognized but little understood risk factor and prognostic marker of disease; it can have profoundly detrimental effects on both mental and physical well-being, particularly during states of compromised health. In contrast, the health benefits associated with social support (both reduced risk and improved recovery) are evident in a variety of illnesses and injury states; however, the mechanisms by which social interactions influence disease pathogenesis remain largely unidentified. The substantial health impact of the psychosocial environment can occur independently of traditional disease risk factors and is not accounted for solely by peer-encouraged development of health behaviors. Instead, social interactions are capable of altering shared pathophysiological mechanisms of multiple disease states in distinct measurable ways. Converging evidence from animal models of injury and disease recapitulates the physiological benefits of affiliative social interactions and establishes several endogenous mechanisms (inflammatory signals, glucocorticoids, and oxytocin) by which social interactions influence health outcomes. Taken together, both clinical and animal research are undoubtedly necessary to develop a complete mechanistic understanding of social influences on health.

Huang, L., A. D. Galinsky, et al. (2011). "Powerful Postures Versus Powerful Roles: Which Is the Proximate Correlate of Thought and Behavior?" Psychological science 22: 95-102.  [Abstract/Full Text] 
          Three experiments explored whether hierarchical role and body posture have independent or interactive effects on the main outcomes associated with power: action in behavior and abstraction in thought. Although past research has found that being in a powerful role and adopting an expansive body posture can each enhance a sense of power, two experiments showed that when individuals were placed in high- or low-power roles while adopting an expansive or constricted posture, only posture affected the implicit activation of power, the taking of action, and abstraction. However, even though role had a smaller effect on the downstream consequences of power, it had a stronger effect than posture on self-reported sense of power. A final experiment found that posture also had a larger effect on action than recalling an experience of high or low power. We discuss body postures as one of the most proximate correlates of the manifestations of power.

Hung, I. W. and A. A. Labroo (2010). "From Firm Muscles to Firm Willpower: Understanding the Role of Embodied Cognition in Self-Regulation." Journal of Consumer Research[Abstract/Full Text]          
The next time you feel your willpower slipping as you pass that mouth-watering dessert case, tighten your muscles. A new study in the Journal of Consumer Research says firming muscles can shore up self-control.  Authors Iris W. Hung (National University of Singapore) and Aparna A. Labroo (University of Chicago) put study participants through a range of self-control dilemmas that involved accepting immediate pain for long-term gain. In one study, participants submerged their hands in an ice bucket to demonstrate pain resistance. In another, participants consumed a healthy but awful-tasting vinegar drink. In a third experiment, study participants decided whether to look at disturbing information about injured children devastated by an earthquake in Haiti and donate money to help. And in a final study, researchers observed actual food choices people made as they shopped for lunch at a local cafeteria.  "Participants who were instructed to tighten their muscles, regardless of which muscles they tightened-hand, finger, calf, or biceps-while trying to exert selfcontrol demonstrated greater ability to withstand the pain, consume the unpleasant medicine, attend to the immediately disturbing but essential information, or overcome tempting foods," the authors write.  The authors found that the muscle tightening only helped when the choice aligned with the participants' goals (for example, to have a healthier lifestyle). They also found that the tightening of muscles only helped at the moment people faced the self-control dilemma. (If they did it beforehand, they felt depleted by the time it was time to make a choice.)  For example, in one study, health-conscious participants drank more of a health tonic (one part vinegar, 10 parts water) while they were tightening their muscles and drinking the healthy tonic. Those who were less health conscious were not affected by muscle tightening.  "The mind and the body are so closely tied together, merely clenching muscles can also activate willpower," the authors write. "Thus simply engaging in these bodily actions, which often result from an exertion of willpower, can serve as a non-conscious source to recruit willpower, facilitate self-control, and improve consumer wellbeing."

Ljótsson, B., E. Hedman, et al. (2011). "Long-term follow-up of internet-delivered exposure and mindfulness based treatment for irritable bowel syndrome." Behaviour Research and Therapy 49(1): 58-61.  [Abstract/Full Text] 
          We conducted a follow-up of a previously reported study of internet-delivered cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) for IBS, based on exposure and mindfulness exercises (Ljótsson et al. (2010). Internet-delivered exposure and mindfulness based therapy for irritable bowel syndrome - a randomized controlled trial. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 48, 531-539). Seventy-five participants from the original sample of 85 (88%) reported follow-up data at 15-18 months (mean 16.4 months) after completing treatment. The follow-up sample included participants from both the original study's treatment group and waiting list after it had been crossed over to treatment. Intention-to-treat analysis showed that treatment gains were maintained on all outcome measures, including IBS symptoms, quality of life, and anxiety related to gastrointestinal symptoms, with mainly large effect sizes (within-group Cohen's d = 0.78-1.11). A total of fifty participants (59% of the total original sample; 52% of the original treatment group participants and 65% of the original waiting list participants) reported adequate relief of symptoms. Improvements at follow-up were more pronounced for the participants that had completed the full treatment and maintenance of improvement did not seem to be dependent on further treatment seeking. This study suggests that internet-delivered CBT based on exposure and mindfulness has long-term beneficial effects for IBS-patients.

Hölzel, B. K., J. Carmody, et al. (2011). "Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density." Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging 191(1): 36-43.  [Abstract/Full Text]
          Therapeutic interventions that incorporate training in mindfulness meditation have become increasingly popular, but to date little is known about neural mechanisms associated with these interventions. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), one of the most widely used mindfulness training programs, has been reported to produce positive effects on psychological well-being and to ameliorate symptoms of a number of disorders. Here, we report a controlled longitudinal study to investigate pre-post changes in brain gray matter concentration attributable to participation in an MBSR program. Anatomical magnetic resonance (MR) images from 16 healthy, meditation-naïve participants were obtained before and after they underwent the 8-week program. Changes in gray matter concentration were investigated using voxel-based morphometry, and compared with a waiting list control group of 17 individuals. Analyses in a priori regions of interest confirmed increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus. Whole brain analyses identified increases in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum in the MBSR group compared with the controls. The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.

 

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