Brief mindfulness meditation training can positively affect mood and heart rate, according to a study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (2010; 16 [8], 867–73). The purpose of the study—which compared participants in brief mindfulness meditation training with those in sham meditation—was to distinguish the effects of believing that one is meditating, of receiving facilitator attention and of performing breathing exercises from the effect of cognitively focusing on mindfulness. Researchers also wanted to examine whether three sessions of mindfulness meditation training would improve cardiovascular variables, such as heart rate and blood pressure, and whether it would enhance mood and decrease anxiety.

Investigators from Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, and the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, both in North Carolina, conducted a randomized, controlled study of college-aged students with no prior meditation experience. Subjects were assigned to one of three groups: meditation, sham meditation or control.

Out of 88 students recruited, 82 completed the study, which included meeting for a 20-minute training each day on 3 consecutive days. The same facilitator led both the meditations and the sham meditations. All participants completed a mood profile inventory before the first and third sessions and after the third session, as well as an anxiety inventory before and after all three sessions. Investigators measured subjects’ heart rates and blood pressure levels before the first, second and third sessions and after the first and third sessions. All participants met in small groups of five to eight students and sat in chairs in the same room at approximately the same time of day for all three sessions.

Mindfulness meditation participants received instruction on mindfulness meditation for 13 minutes. The last 7 minutes were held in silence. The sham meditation group received instruction “to take deep breaths as we sit in meditation” with no further elaboration. The last seven minutes were also silent. Both groups believed that they were meditating. Control group members were told to sit for 20 minutes. They were allowed to speak only with each other.

As expected, participants in both the meditation and sham meditation groups experienced a reduction in anxiety, since breathing exercises are also effective at lowering anxiety. In meditation participants, however, tension decreased more. Control group members remained the same. Meditation group members showed the largest changes, with a significant drop in heart rate after each session and an 88% drop in stressed mood, compared with a 32% drop in stressed mood among sham meditators and a 34% drop among control subjects. Only mindfulness meditation group members showed improvements in depression, fatigue and confusion. Blood pressure did not change significantly.

Fadel Zeidan, PhD, lead study author and research fellow at Wake Forest University, said, “Our findings suggest that brief mindfulness meditation was effective above and beyond the ‘placebo effect’ of a sham meditation training program.” Study authors noted that benefits can be realized immediately after brief training on young healthy adults. In addition, mindfulness meditation is more effective than sham meditation for reducing depression, tension, fatigue, confusion, anxiety and heart rate. More research was recommended to assess the value of mindfulness meditation for clinical patients.