Biobehavioral Mechanisms of Mindfulness as a Treatment for Chronic Stress: An RDoC Perspective

Chronic Stress (Thousand Oaks). 2017 Feb;1:2470547017711912. doi: 10.1177/2470547017711912. Epub 2017 Jun 22.


Mindfulness-based interventions have been heralded as promising means of alleviating chronic stress. While meta-analyses indicate that mindfulness-based interventions significantly reduce global measures of stress, how mindfulness-based interventions modulate the specific mechanisms underpinning chronic stress as operationalized by the National Institute of Mental Health research domain criteria (RDoC) of sustained threat has not yet been detailed in the literature. To address this knowledge gap, this article aims to (1) review evidence that mindfulness-based interventions ameliorate each of the 10 elements of behavioral dysregulation characterizing sustained threat via an array of mindful counter-regulatory strategies; (2) review evidence that mindfulness-based interventions modify biological domains implicated in sustained threat, such as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, as well as brain circuits involved in attentional function, limbic reactivity, habit behavior, and the default mode network; and (3) integrate these findings into a novel conceptual framework of mindful self-regulation in the face of stress-the Mindfulness-to-Meaning Theory. Taken together, the extant body of scientific evidence suggests that the practice of mindfulness enhances a range biobehavioral factors implicated in adaptive stress coping and induces self-referential plasticity, leading to the ability to find meaning in adversity. These mechanistic findings can inform the treatment development process to optimize the next generation of mindfulness-based interventions for greater therapeutic efficacy.

Keywords: allostatic load; amygdala; attention network; default mode network; habit systems; hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis; mindfulness-to-meaning; reappraisal; stress; sustained threat.