January 2017 Tool of the Month: 18 + 9 Science-Based Reasons to Try Loving-Kindness Meditation

Lovingkindness meditation (LKM) is an effective way for highly self-critical people to engage their social safety system. LKM helps highly self-critical clients put a brake on the threat-based loop of self-criticism and negative emotions, and helps clients have a sense of safety and belonging. 

Motivating Highly Self-Critical Clients to try LKM 

Although LKM is a valuable tool for working with self-criticism, there are often obstacles that affect highly self-critical peoples’ willingness to try LKM. For example, they may believe that they do not deserve to be kind to themselves, or they may be critical of the LKM practice itself. To increase motivation to try LKM, we have found some clients benefit from reading the evidence-base for the approach. Fortunately, the evidence is ample and quickly growing! If a client is not convinced by the data that LKM will improve their own wellbeing, they may be more receptive to the evidence that it will make them more empathic and compassionate toward others.  

This post was inspired by Emma Sepalla’s “18 Science-Based Reasons to Try Lovingkindness Meditation!” We made it more up-to-date by adding some newer studies. So that you can easily reference Sepalla's original post, we kept the numbering used in the original post.

Widespread effects from seven weeks of practice

1. Increases positive, and decreases negative emotions

One of the earliest well conducted studies of LKM showed that seven weeks of LKM increased a variety of positive emotions, such as contentment, gratitude, hope, awe, and joy. Changes in positive emotions then led to increases in mindfulness and purpose in life, and decreases in depression. In addition, people’s relationships improved, and their illness symptoms decreased.

19. A comprehensive review of LKM 

A recent review paper found that LKM helps in the following five ways for mental-health difficulties: (i) positive and negative emotions, (ii) psychological distress, (iii) positive thinking, (iv) interpersonal relationships, and (v) empathic accuracy (how accurately people can infer the thoughts and feelings of another).

Physical Health

While this might be surprising for some people, LKM has been repeatedly shown to help with medical problems and physical illness.

3. Helps migraines 

Amongst people struggling with chronic migraines, researchers found that a single twenty-minute LKM resulted in immediate reductions in pain, as well as reductions in migraine-related negative emotions.

4. Coping with chronic pain 

When people with chronic back pain were randomized to LKM or standard care, LKM was found to result in greater improvements in pain, anger and psychological distress.

20. Good for your heart 

A recent study found that nitric oxide metabolism, a key cardiovascular process, differed between experienced and inexperienced meditators. The researchers thus concluded that LKM may improve cardiovascular health through improving nitric oxide metabolism.

21. Makes biopsies less painful  

LKM appears to decrease the pain experienced during breast biopsies.

Changes in the Brain 

Many studies have shown that meditation changes the brain. Several studies have shown that LKM changes the brain in ways that relate to empathy and emotion processing.

7. Increased brain activity

In one study, for example, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity while participants completed exercises designed to elicit feelings of social connection. During the exercises, a region of the brain associated with thinking about the self and others was especially active, suggesting that LKM may promote social connection. In another fMRI study, non-mediators and meditators were presented with neutral and emotion-related sounds while meditating. Compared to non-mediators, meditators showed increased activity in brain regions associated with emotional processing when listening to the emotion-related sounds. For a review of this topic, please see this paper.

8. Structural brain changes 

Leung and colleagues compared the brains of non-meditators to the brains of regular LKM meditators using MRI, and found that, compared to non-mediators, regular meditators had increased grey matter volume in brain regions associated with emotion processing.

Mental Health Effects

5.  Helps people struggling with PTSD 

A twelve-week LKM course significantly increased self-compassion and mindfulness amongst veterans. Increased self-compassion, in turn, led to decreased symptoms of depression and PTSD.

6. Helps people struggling with schizophrenia-spectrum disorders

In a 2011 pilot study, people suffering from schizophrenia-spectrum disorders participated in a six-week LKM course. After the course, participants reported more frequent and intense positive emotions, fewer negative symptoms (such as anhedonia), and increased satisfaction with life. Effects persisted three months after the LKM course.

16. Helps people struggling with self-criticism 

Highly self-critical people learned LKM in a group with a Buddhist monk over seven weeks. This reduced self-criticism and depression and also increased self-compassion and positive emotions. A three-month follow-up revealed that these changes persisted for at least three months after the group ended.

22. Helps people struggling with Borderline Personality Disorder more than mindfulness training

While researchers recently found that both continued mindfulness training and LKM decreased self-criticism amongst people with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), they found that only LKM improved BPD symptom severity, compassion and acceptance.

23. Online training can increase wellbeing

Compared to participants who took an internet-based exercise course, those who took an internet-based LKM course felt less anxious and donated more money to charity.

Changes your physiology and stress response

LKM changes your physiology in a way that makes people more resilient to stress.

2. Increases cardiac health, which increases feelings of social connection and enhances positive emotions

Sixty-five university employees were randomly assigned to either a two-month LKM condition or a waitlist control. Compared to participants in the control condition, those in the LKM condition experienced more positive emotions by the end of the study, especially if they had more vagal tone, a marker of cardiovascular health, at baseline. Increased vagal tone, in turn, led to increased positive emotions.

9. Increases parasympathetic nervous system activity 

Participants were either assigned to ten minutes of LKM or ten minutes of visualization before giving a speech to an unreceptive panel of judges. During the task, researchers measured participants' respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), a marker of parasympathetic control, as well as their respiration rate. Compared to the visualization exercise, LKM increased participants' RSA and decreased their respiration rate, suggesting that LKM helped participants relax.

Improves Relationships

11. Makes you a more helpful person

In a 2011 study, participants either received LKM training or short-term memory training. Then, all participants played a game designed to assess helpfulness (i.e. in a virtual maze, participants could find their own monetary prize and/or help another supposed player find their separate monetary prize). Participants in the LKM training group helped the other player more often than those in the memory-training group.

12. Increases compassion 

A recent review paper concluded that LKM can help healthcare providers cultivate compassion for both themselves and others.

13. Increases positive emotions and empathy 

Before and after either compassion or memory training, researchers measured how participants responded to videos of people performing everyday activities, and videos of people experiencing distress. After compassion (but not memory) training, participants experienced more positive emotions (and increased neural activity in brain regions associated with positive emotions) when viewing both types of videos. Participants in the compassion-training group also experienced more empathy (and increased activity in brain regions associated with empathy) when viewing videos of people performing everyday activities.

14. Decreases your bias against others 

In a study by Kang and colleagues, participants were assigned to six weeks of either LKM practice, LKM discussion (matched control), or a waitlist control group. At the end of the six weeks, only participants in the LKM group showed less implicit racism towards members of minority groups (I.e. homeless people and black people) to which they were not, themselves, a member of.

15. Increases social connection 

Kok and colleagues found that, after two months of LKM training, participants reported feeling more socially connected to others, which, in turn, led them to experience more positive emotions.

24. Makes you more present-centered and selfless 

A study by Garrison and colleagues found that, during meditation, experienced meditators (compared to novice meditators), had less activity in a wide array of brain regions, including regions that have previously been associated with mind-wandering and thinking about the self. Additionally, amongst experienced meditators, there was less functional connectivity between a variety brain region, including regions previously associated with thinking about the self, empathy and memory. The authors suggest that regular practice helps meditators become more present-focused and selfless in their practice.

25. Can reduce racial bias 

Stell and Farsides found that a brief LKM targeted at increasing positive feelings towards a specific racial group successfully did so, and also increased controlled processing and decreased automatic processing during a test of implicit bias. This, in turn, led participants who completed the brief LKM to have less implicit bias towards the racial group targeted by the LKM.

26. Increases positive and decreases negative aspects of relationships

In addition to supporting past research findings that suggest that LKM increases perceptions of social support, data from a recent pilot study suggest that LKM additionally decreases negative social exchanges (e.g. conflict and insensitivity).

27.  Increases compassion (for the self and others)

A pilot study found that, after four group LKM sessions, undergraduates reported more compassion (towards the self and others), compared to those who had not attended these sessions.

Has Both Immediate and Long-Term Effects 

The nice thing about LKM is that, even in small doses, it has both immediate and enduring effects.

17. Is effective even in small doses 

One study found that a brief LKM, compared to a closely matched 10-minute control task, led participants to feel more positively towards, and connected to, strangers.

18. Has long-term impact

A 2011 study tracked how positively participants felt after completing a LKM meditation intervention. After fifteen months, thirty-five percent of participants in the LKM group experienced more positive emotions compared to baseline. These effects were heightened if participants continued their LKM practice after the study, with positive emotions corresponding to the number of minutes participants meditated daily.

Article written by Christina Chwyl, Jason Luoma, and Melissa Platt

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