A new study finds that mindfulness can be an effective mood management tool for people with multiple sclerosis (MS).

MS affects almost 1 million people in the United States and 2.3 million people worldwide. It is the most common neurological condition in young adults.

Although much remains unknown about the various forms of MS, new research from Ohio State University in Columbus suggests a way to help people with MS mitigate the mood changes that often accompany the condition.

The study suggests that mindfulness training can be an effective means of managing the emotional volatility that affects many people with MS. It may also improve mental processing speed.

“Our results provide promising evidence that mindfulness training can help [people with MS] deal with their emotions in a more constructive and positive way,” says corresponding study author Ruchika Prakash, an associate professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

“Studies suggest that 30–50% of [people with MS] experience some form of psychiatric disorder. Anything we can do to help them cope is important for their quality of life.”

— Ruchika Prakash

The results of the original study and secondary analysis now appear in the journals Rehabilitation Psychology and Neuropsychology, respectively.

Mindfulness is a stress reduction practice with a long history. It involves a person paying greater conscious attention to the present moment with acceptance and without judgment.

During mindfulness, people learn to focus on breathing and remaining consciously aware of the feelings in their bodies.

The American Psychological Foundation recommend mindfulness as a means of deriving significant psychological benefits.

For the study, the researchers sorted 61 people with MS into one of three groups to assess the benefits of mindfulness training itself and in comparison with adaptive cognitive training (ACT). This is another technique with potential value for those with MS.

ACT utilizes computer games designed to help people reduce the impact of some of the psychological effects of MS. These include issues with paying attention, being able to effectively switch focus, and organizing or making plans.

In the study:

  • One group received mindfulness training for 4 weeks.
  • One group received ACT for 4 weeks.
  • One group received no special training during the course of study.

Before training and again afterward, the researchers asked the participants about their experience with emotional regulation. The participants responded to statements such as, “When I’m upset, I lose control over my behavior,” and, “I experience my emotions as overwhelming and out of control.”

Individuals also took the Brief Repeatable Battery of Neuropsychological Tests both before and after training to help the researchers assess their cognitive status at both times.

The original study looked at the benefits of mindfulness training for people with MS. The scientists found that individuals who had received mindfulness training were better equipped to regulate their emotions than people from either of the other groups.

A secondary analysis that looked at cognitive status assessments from the participants before and after taking part in the mindfulness training found that it also improved their processing speed.

“This is an exciting finding because processing speed is a core cognitive domain impacted in [MS],” says Prakash, admitting, “We were somewhat surprised that this training intervention that we thought would mostly impact emotion regulation also enhanced processing speed.”

Neither mindfulness nor ACT affected working memory, which is another area of concern for many people with MS, during the study.

“This was a small pilot study, so we need to replicate the results, but these findings were very encouraging,” says Prakash, adding, “It is exciting to find a treatment that may be helpful in more than one way for people with [MS].”

Since mindfulness is an internal mental practice, it is not physically arduous and requires no special equipment. “Anyone can use mindfulness — even individuals with limited mobility who often find other training techniques, like exercise training, to be more challenging.”

The researchers are currently working toward replicating the results of this study with a larger cohort of participants.

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