Cancer Survivor Mindfulness Influences Health Characteristics of Primary Support Person

A diagnosis of cancer can be a terrifying experience not only for the patient, but for his/her primary social support person (PSSP) as well. Much of current cancer research is aimed at treating the individual with the diagnosis and increasing his/her quality of life. Up until recently, understanding the impact of a cancer diagnosis on the survivors’ surrounding social networks and PSSP had yet to receive the attention it deserved.

Dr. David Black, USC Assistant Professor of Preventive Medicine, and colleagues at the Keck School of Medicine sought to examine psycho-social health related symptoms of cancer survivors and their PSSP in order to understand interpersonal dynamics and develop future preventive interventions for this dyad.

Not only did authors target gaps in existing literature regarding survivors’ PSSPs, but also underrepresented communities including Hispanics – who often “have less access to preventive services and medical care.” The participants of this study included 409 Hispanic survivors with a colorectal cancer diagnosis and forty-seven of their PSSPs.

Participant data were collected using validated questionnaires assessing employment of daily activities, health-related behaviors (smoking, alcohol use, physical activity) and psychosocial (fatigue, perceived stress, dispositional mindfulness).

Results showed that among suvivors and PSSPs alike, mindfulness was negatively associated with stress, smoking, and alcohol consumption. Among survivors, there was also an inverse association between mindfulness and fatigue that was partially mediated by reduced stress. Interestingly, the greater level of mindfulness reported by the survivor, the lower level of stress the PSSP conveyed, perhaps indicating mindfulness as protective on interpersonal processes.

Despite initial findings suggesting the disposition of mindfulness to have a possible role in the health of cancer survivors and their PSSP, “only a small proportion of patients reported using mind–body interventions such as mindfulness-based meditation.” Thus, authors suggest “a possible role for integrating methods to enhance mindfulness in such health promotion activities in clinical and community settings.”

Augmenting mindfulness at the survivor and PSSP levels could be the focus of future efforts dedicated to improving the health and quality of life of cancer survivors and their social networks.

HSC Professional Development Workshop: Mindfulness

Tuesday, February 24 at 12pm
RSVP by February 19th at

“Mindfulness is being present in the moment, fully aware without judgment. It
allows you to be in the here and now with awareness of your mind and body. This
workshop will introduce mindfulness based stress reduction tools to increase
personal awareness and deal with stress.”
~Rachel Plasencia, LCSW
Rachel Plasencia is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Employee Assistance
Professional with the USC Center for Work and Family Life.
Her clinical experience focuses on the workplace including stress, civility at work and work life balance. She
emphasizes a strengths based approach with a special attention to mindfulness and
facilitates a mindfulness group for faculty and staff at the CWFL.

Mindfulness Meditation Linked with Structural Changes in the Older Adult Brain

A new study has found that mindfulness meditation is associated with structural brain changes in older adults. The exploratory longitudinal pilot study, led by researchers at the University of California Los Angeles and the University of Southern California, found changes in gray matter in the precuneus as well as cortical and subcortical regions in the brains of older adults who participated in a mindfulness training program focused on mitigating sleep problems.

The study appeared November 12th, 2014 in Neuro Open Journal and was directed by USC Assistant Professor of Preventive Medicine, Dr. David Black.

According to the authors, “Mindfulness-based Interventions (MBIs) have previously been associated with structural brain changes in normal healthy adults. However, it remains unknown if standardized MBIs can impart similar changes in older adults as well”. To address this gap, the researchers sought to examine the effect of a standardized MBI on gray matter volume of older adults.

The pilot study included a subsample of 6 older adult community volunteers from a larger trail that examined the efficacy of a MBI on sleep complaints. Participants received a weekly, 2-hour, group-based mindfulness meditation course for 6 sessions that was facilitated by a certified mindfulness teacher with over 20 years of mindfulness practice. Brain scans were conducted prior to and after the intervention.

Voxel-wise analysis revealed one cluster indicating a significant gray matter increase in the right precuneus and decreases in the left prefrontal cortex, right hippocampus, right thalamus, and right parietal cortex. The authors concluded that the observed increase of gray matter within the precuneus may implicate meditation-induced changes of the default mode network, and that the observed gray matter decreases in cortical and subcortical regions may have been driven by MBI-related remediation of brain architecture subserving sleep complaints.

These findings “highlight the need for future research to investigate neuroplastic changes that are associated with mindfulness meditation in older adults”. According to the authors, research examining the effects of MBIs on brain morphology in this population has broad implications pertaining to understanding training-induced changes in the older adult brain that might have implications for improved mental health in our aging population.

Free access to the full article at:

Mindfulness Training Improves Stress Management in Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) Nurses

A new study has identified a promising way to improve stress management in pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) nurses. The pilot study, led by USC-affiliated Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles researchers, found that participating in a brief mindfulness meditation intervention helped nurses to reduce stress and burnout. Reduced levels of stress were also found one month after the intervention ended.

The study appeared online October 20th, 2014 in Journal of Pediatric Nursing and was directed by USC Associate Professor, Dr. Jeffrey Gold.

According to the authors, “Nurses are particularly vulnerable to stress and burnout, with little time in their schedule to commit to self-care or intensive stress reduction programs”. To address these issues, the researchers sought to determine if it would be feasible to deliver a brief mindfulness-based intervention on site at the PICU unit, and whether the intervention would be an effective method for nurses to manage stress.

The pilot intervention included 38 PICU nurses from an urban pediatric academic hospital. Participants received daily 5-minute mindfulness meditation practices over the course of 30 days. Intervention content was based on the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, but was modified to be PICU-specific in order to address the specific challenges faced by PICU nurses.

Over one-half of the nurses on the unit showed interest in participating in the mindfulness-based intervention, and 89% of the nurses that signed up attended at least one intervention session. The authors concluded that these findings indicated an on-the-job mindfulness-based intervention is viable for this nursing population. In addition to reductions in stress and burnout, participants also reported improved job satisfaction and self-compassion.

The authors state that changes in stress, burnout, self-compassion, and job satisfaction have implications for improving nurses’ professional caregiving, career longevity, and interrelations on the unit.

Although future, larger studies are needed to expand on the results, according to the authors, the findings demonstrate that “brief interventions that support on-the-job self-care and stress-reduction may prove useful in hospital settings”.

SEARCH INSIDE YOURSELF featuring Chade-Meng Tan

Date: October 22, 2014
Time: 6:30pm
Location: Bovard Auditorium

Chade-Meng Tan (Meng) is Google’s Jolly Good Fellow (which nobody can deny). Meng was one of Google’s earliest engineers. Among many other things, he helped build Google’s first mobile search service, and headed the team that kept a vigilant eye on Google’s search quality. His current job description is, “Enlighten minds, open hearts, create world peace”.  He is also the author of the highly acclaimed book Search Inside Yourself.search_yourself

Outside of Google, Meng is the Founder and (Jolly Good) President of the Tan Teo Charitable Foundation, a small foundation dedicated to promoting Peace, Liberty and Enlightenment in the world. He is a Founding Patron of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE). He is also a Founding Patron of the World Peace Festival, and adviser to a number of technology start-ups.

Register for this event

Image: Twitter, Chade-Meng Tan at the United Nations.

Mindful Self-Compassion Class Begins

Date: October 16 (Thursdays)
Time: 5:15-7:45pm
Where: University Religious Center

Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) is a program developed by Kristin Neff, the pioneering researcher in the field of self-compassion ( and the author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind; and Christopher Germer, a clinical psychologist who specializes in mindfulness and compassion-based psychotherapy ( and the author of many books including A Mindful Path to Self-Compassion.

In this program, you will learn:
– Self compassion as a skill that can help you to meet life’s difficulties with more wisdom and kindness.

– How to offer yourself the compassion you would naturally extend to a dear friend or stranger.

– A courageous attitude of mind that will give you emotional stability and resilience to be more fully present with uncertainty so that you can recover from life’s difficulties and move on with more ease and confidence.

Research has shown that self-compassion greatly enhances emotional well-being. It boosts happiness, reduces anxiety and depression, and can even help you stick to your diet and exercise routine. All that’s required is a shift in the direction of your attention–recognizing that as a human being, you, too, are a worthy recipient of compassion.

From the New York Times
The research suggests that giving ourselves a break and accepting our imperfections may be the first step toward better health. People who score high on tests of self-compassion have less depression and anxiety, and tend to be happier and more optimistic. Preliminary data suggest that self-compassion can even influence how much we eat and may help some people lose weight.

This idea does seem at odds with the advice dispensed by many doctors and self-help books, which suggest that willpower and self-discipline are the keys to better health. But Kristin Neff, a pioneer in the field, says self-compassion is not to be confused with self-indulgence or lower standards.

“I found in my research that the biggest reason people aren’t more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they’ll become self-indulgent,” said Dr. Neff, an associate professor of human development at the University of Texas at Austin. “They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line. Most people have gotten it wrong because our culture says being hard on yourself is the way to be.”

Imagine your reaction to a child struggling in school or eating too much junk food. Many parents would offer support, like tutoring or making an effort to find healthful foods the child will enjoy. But when adults find themselves in a similar situation – struggling at work, or overeating and gaining weight – many fall into a cycle of self-criticism and negativity. That leaves them feeling even less motivated to change.

“Self-compassion is really conducive to motivation,” Dr. Neff said. “The reason you don’t let your children eat five big tubs of ice cream is because you care about them. With self-compassion, if you care about yourself, you do what’s healthy for you rather than what’s harmful to you.”

Register for this class

Mindfulness in the Classroom: Implementing the University-Wide Initiative

Date: September 25, 2014

The Contemplative Pedagogy Initiative brings together USC faculty to learn from each other about using reflective, meditative, contemplative, or other similar elements in teaching. It is sponsored by the USC Center for Excellence in Teaching. All who teach at USC in any discipline or program are welcome to any and all events.

12:30-1:45 pm, DML 233, lunch provided – RSVP to Dana Coyle .

USC International Conference on Yoga, Mindfulness, and Integrative Health

Date: September 20, 2014

The Mayo Clinic, UCSF’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, Duke Univ., Univ. of AZ, Cleveland Clinic, and many other centers of excellence in healthcare offer yoga therapy and meditation as both wellness methods and treatment modalities. Duke University’s health care center for Integrative Medicine, with ten physicians and a large number of supporting health care providers introduces its work with these words: “More and more people of varied ages, abilities and health conditions are turning to yoga to find ease in body and mind. This trend is fueled, in part, by a growing body of research suggesting that yoga may offer relief from a host of ailments—ranging from hypertension and fibromyalgia, to cancer, depression and insomnia. In fact, nearly 14 million Americans, say that a doctor or therapist has recommended yoga to them, according to a study by Harris Interactive Service Bureau.”

The National Institutes for Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) lists its ongoing research projects involving meditation on its website which notes that: “Most meditative techniques started in Eastern religious or spiritual traditions” but that “A 2007 national Government survey…found that 9.4 percent of respondents (representing more than 20 million people) had used meditation in the past 12 months” for health related matters.

The numbers have continued to rise in tandem with strong growth in research on the mental and physical health implications of yoga and meditation practices. We are witnessing a sea change in the way health will be perceived and preserved in the foreseeable future. But at the present time, we are at a watershed moment where the foundations of our understanding of the nature of well being are being challenged and transformed by insights that are both very ancient and completely novel at the same time.

The USC International Conference on Yoga, Mindfulness, and Integrative Wellness seeks to explore the latest advancements at the forefront of the intersection of yoga, meditation, and integrative health. We are inviting papers on reviews of current scientific research in any aspect of Yoga, Mindfulness, Breath Control, and Other Meditation Methodologies Applied to Physical, Mental, Social or Relational Wellbeing and Wellness.

Mindfulness Training Improves Sleep Problems in Older Adults

by Stephani Sutherland, PhD

As we get older, our sleep patterns naturally shift, but many people—as many as half of those over 55—develop sleep disturbances. When we don’t get enough sleep, we might feel groggy or grumpy, but the shortfall can also have serious health consequences. Experts recommend improving our “sleep hygiene”—habits that promote healthy sleep. But in a recent study by researchers at USC and University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), mindfulness trumped sleep education for improving sleep in people over 55.

The researchers presented the study in April at the 2014 annual meeting of the Society of Behavioral Medicine in Philadelphia, PA.

For the study, David S. Black, director of the BioMind Lab at Keck Medicine of USC, and colleagues recruited 49 volunteers aged 55-90 from the Los Angeles area who were suffering from sleep disturbances but not diagnosed with clinical insomnia. For six weeks, half the subjects attended a sleep education course, in which they learned from a trained health professional about the biology of sleep, stress-busting techniques, and how to promote better sleep, like turning off the TV well before bedtime and getting out of bed when you sleep eludes you.

The other half of the group trained in mindfulness meditation through the Mindful Awareness Practices program at UCLA. Under the tutelage of an experienced mindfulness teacher, students learned practices like sitting mindfulness, in which one sits quietly while keeping their attention on their breath; mindful eating, which focuses attention on the sensations experienced while eating a grape, for example; and walking meditation.

Whereas sleep improved only slightly in those with the sleep-hygiene training, mindfulness practitioners saw a 28% improvement in overall sleep quality. In addition to measuring sleep characteristics, the researchers assessed elements of mental health in the participants like quality of life, depression and well-being. These too improved more with mindfulness than with the educational course.

Six of the subjects in the mindfulness training also underwent brain scans before and after the training. The researchers used a technique called voxel-based morphometry to determine from the images the volume of gray matter in the cortex, the brain’s outer layer that gives rise to thought. Compared to the start of the study, after learning mindfulness the subjects had more gray matter in a part of the cortex called the right precuneus, which is key to our self-awareness. Some other areas, including the left prefrontal cortex and the right hippocampus, diminished over the six-week mindfulness course.

It remains unclear what exactly underlies the changes in cortical volume. The researchers hypothesize that the subjects’ lost sleep may have impacted the brain’s structure, and these changes might have been righted by mindfulness meditation, but the question will require further study.

So if, as you get up in years, your sleep starts to deteriorate, by all means clean up your sleep habits. But you might also consider a mindfulness course, according to the findings.

Read more here.

Improving Sustained Attention with Mindfulness Meditation

by Stephani Sutherland, PhD

Mindfulness has been widely touted as a way to improve attention—in fact the term is often used to mean attention management—but how does practice really affect our mind’s focus? A study by USC researcher Randye J. Semple set out to answer that question and found that some but not all aspects of attention improved with practice.

Forty-five subjects were assigned to practice either mindfulness meditation or progressive muscle relaxation, which mimics the physical benefits of mindfulness, or were placed on a wait-list for mindfulness training and served as control subjects. Those in the mindfulness group received two individual training sessions, and then were asked to practice mindfulness for twenty minutes twice daily for four weeks with the help of an audiotape, written instructions and an activity log.

After the four weeks, subjects underwent a series of tests meant to measure qualities of attention. In one task, for example, participants were instructed to press a red button each time a letter appeared in the center of a computer screen, but to press a blue button when they saw the letter “X” specifically preceded by the letter “A.” Participants also performed tests to measure their mood and anxiety level.

The tests gauged four aspects of attention: Sustained vigilance describes how well one keeps their attention on the task at hand; concentration marks the ability to focus on a task; inhibition of distraction keeps our mind from wandering to other stimuli; and executive control describes the ability to override pre-learned assumptions.

Semple’s analysis revealed that subjects who practiced mindfulness meditation showed improvements in sustained attention not seen in those who trained in physical relaxation. Concentration and inhibition of distraction, in contrast, did not differ between the groups.

Although the study was small and short, it makes some progress toward our understanding of how mindfulness practice enhances specific aspects of attention.

The study was published in Mindfulness in 2010.

Read more here.