People who suffer from bipolar disorder are prone to episodes of depression and mania and often show heightened psychological and physiological responses to emotion-provoking stimuli. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is a promising treatment for people with affective disorders that is designed to improve emotional regulation and decease dysfunctional beliefs. Dysfunctional beliefs include the beliefs that one must always be perfect or that one must be loved by everyone.
Docteur at al. [Journal of Clinical Psychology] tested the association between participation in the MBCT program and physiological response to emotional stimuli among adults diagnosed with bipolar disorder who are in remission.
The researchers assigned 67 adults diagnosed with bipolar disorder in remission (age = 47 years; 64% female) to an 8-week MBCT program. The program met weekly in 2-hour group sessions. Participants were assessed at three time points: 2 months prior to treatment (baseline), immediately before treatment, and immediately after treatment.
Participants served as their own controls, allowing researchers to compare changes occurring between baseline and pre-MBCT with changes occurring between pre-MBCT and post-MBCT.
At each assessment point, participants completed a self-report measure of dysfunctional beliefs and had their skin conductance captured in response to a set of 36 positive (e.g., puppies), negative (e.g., accidents) and neutral (e.g., landscapes) images.
The skin conductance response (SCR) is a measure of changes in the skin’s ability to conduct an electrical current due to changes in sweat gland activity. When people are emotionally aroused, sweat gland activity increases thereby increasing skin electrical conductance.
The results showed that dysfunctional attitudes did not change in the interval between baseline and pre-MBCT, but they did decrease significantly from pre- to post-MBCT.
Analyses of SCR changes were only performed on that one-third of the sample that showed SCR changes greater than 0.04 μSv. In that subsample, there was no change in average SCR to negative images from baseline to pre-MBCT, but a significant decrease in average SCR to negative images from pre- to post-MBCT (Cohen’s d=0.73). Changes in dysfunctional beliefs were correlated with changes in SCR, but did not mediate that change.
The study shows that participation in MBCT is associated with reduced dysfunctional beliefs and physiological responses to negatively emotionally charged images in people with bipolar disorder in remission. It is possible that such changes, if in fact due to the intervention, may help prevent the recurrence of bipolar episodes. SCR potentially offers an objective marker of response to behavioral intervention.
The study is limited by the absence of a randomized comparison condition and the small size of the subset of participants included in the SCR analyses that limited the power of the mediation analyses.
Docteur, A., Gorwood, P., Mirabel-Sarron, C., Kaya Lefèvre, H., Sala, L., & Duriez, P. (n.d.). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy efficacy in reducing physiological response to emotional stimuli in patients with bipolar I disorder and the intermediate role of cognitive reactivity. Journal of Clinical Psychology.
Link to study