“If I had to go into a hearing and I can feel my face was getting red, my palms are sweaty … I would think, ‘Oh, my gosh, everyone in the courtroom is going to know that you’re super anxious. And you’re going to freeze and you’re going to forget what you’re going to say,'” Cho said. “Of course, all of those thoughts would then retrigger all the physiological reactions, then my heart would race even faster.”
A new outlook on fear
With the help of two hours’ worth of mindfulness classes weekly, daily 45-minute meditations and homework that challenged rigid beliefs, Cho learned how to distance herself from fearful thoughts and to be kinder to herself.
“My mind says, ‘You have a hearing tomorrow, and you’re going to be terrible at the hearing and you’re going to lose, and if you lose, your clients are going to sue you for malpractice. And then you’re going to become disbarred, and you’re going to become homeless,'” Cho said. “I was able to look at that thought and be like, ‘Oh, you know what, that’s just mental conditioning. That’s just some thoughts that my mind made up somewhere along the line, but there’s no evidence for it.'”
It’s not that she doesn’t experience fear or anxiety anymore, but her response to them has changed.
“I can recognize those thoughts as just random thoughts that my mind was making up,” Cho added. “I would go, ‘Oh, yeah, my mind is doing that catastrophic thinking again. What’s the more helpful thought that I can have?'”
Headspace let the participants use the app’s 10- to 20-minute daily guided meditations for free and provided adherence data to the researchers, but otherwise didn’t have any further involvement in the study, according to the study’s authors.
The findings suggested that “mindfulness training appears to improve the retention of fear extinction memories,” said the study’s first author Johannes Björkstrand, a researcher in psychology at Lund University in Sweden. In other words, fear extinction is the brain’s ability to form and save memories that tell it a once-feared situation is now safe.
How mindfulness changes minds
Cho’s experience, backed up by all these studies, was that practicing mindfulness helped her to restructure a negative mindset or to stop expecting the worst possible outcome in every situation.