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Teachers in MBSR show less brain reactivity to negative emotion stimuli

28 Dec 2021 11:09 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Public school teachers often report high levels of job-related stress, burnout, and low job satisfaction. 40% of teachers leave the profession within their first 5 years of teaching. While studies show mindfulness-based interventions can improve teacher well-being, many of these studies lack long-term follow-up, active comparison groups, and objective outcome measures. 

Carroll et al. [Mindfulness] evaluated the relative efficacy of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) compared to an active comparator program on measures of teacher well-being, emotional regulation, and neuro-cognitive functioning.

The researchers assigned 83 Australian K-12 teachers (average age = 45 years; 88% female) experiencing work-related stress to MBSR or a Health Enhancement Program (HEP). Groups were matched on age, gender, and fMRI eligibility. The 8-week MBSR and HEP programs met weekly in 2.5-hour group sessions with a full-day retreat in week 5 or 6. The MBSR program was a standard MBSR program tailored for teachers.

The HEP program included music therapy, physical activity and functional movement (e.g., walking, stretching, posture, balance, and core strength), and stress management education.

Participants were assessed at baseline, post-intervention, and 5-month follow-up on a battery of self-report measures and computer-administered neuropsychological tests. Self-report measures assessed perceived stress, mood, affect, emotional regulation difficulties, and mindfulness (Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire or FFMQ).

The computer-administered neuropsychological tests assessed facial expression recognition, attention, vigilance, executive function, cognitive flexibility, and working visual memory. 

A subset of 55 participants also underwent fMRI scanning at baseline and immediate post-intervention. fMRI scans were performed while participants counted the number of words displayed on a computer screen. The words varied in emotional valence, and the researchers expected negative emotional words would slow down response time compared to neutral words (an expectation not borne out in the data). The negative emotional words included words related to the stresses teachers would normally encounter such as “paperwork.”

Attendance in both study groups was high, with participants attending 88% and 89% of the sessions. Both programs received high satisfaction ratings.

All of the self-report measures showed significant improvement over time, regardless of group assignment. In both groups, there were large effect size decreases in stress and burnout, large-to-medium effect size increases in mindfulness, and medium effect size increases in well-being and emotional regulation. Improvements were maintained at 5-month follow-up.

In the overall sample, the percent of teachers stating they intended to quit teaching decreased from 54% at baseline to 31% at post-intervention and 35% at 5-month follow-up. However, there was no group differences detected for intention to quit teaching. 

Neuropsychological measures of visual working memory, sustained attention, and cognitive flexibility showed improvement from baseline to post-intervention in both groups. These improvements were maintained on 5-month follow-up.

While the researchers state the MBSR group showed a greater improvement in accuracy on a sustained attention task than controls, the lack of a significant interaction term suggests the groups improved similarly. 

The fMRI scans showed that MBSR participants exhibited post-intervention decreases in brain activation in regions associated with emotional processing, while the HEP group did not. These regions included the inferior temporal gyri, left and posterior cingulate gyri, left claustrum, insula, amygdala and cerebellum, and right hippocampus and parahippocampus.

This result suggests the possibility that MBSR participants had become less reactive to negative emotional stimuli as a result of the intervention.

The study shows MBSR and HEP were equally effective in decreasing stress and burnout and improving mindfulness, well-being, emotional regulation, and neurocognitive functioning out to 5 months after intervention.

The only between-group difference was that MBSR participants showed reduced brain reactivity to negative emotional stimuli. This may be an objective brain measure of improved emotional regulation untapped by the self-report measures.


Carroll, A., Sanders-O’Connor, E., Forrest, K., Fynes-Clinton, S., York, A., Ziaei, M., Flynn, L., Bower, J. M., & Reutens, D. (2021). Improving Emotion Regulation, Well-being, and Neuro-cognitive Functioning in Teachers: A Matched Controlled Study Comparing the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Health Enhancement Programs. Mindfulness.

Link to study

American Mindfulness Research Association, LLC. 

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