“A pet is an island of sanity in what appears to be an insane world. Whether a dog, cat, bird, fish, turtle, or what have you, one can rely upon the fact that one’s pet will always remain a faithful, intimate, non-competitive friend, regardless of the good or ill fortune life brings us.” –Boris Levinson, PsyD, Child Psychologist
Any animal can be a therapy pet, but put thought into finding the ideal pet
It depends on your child’s individual needs and his or her innate appreciation of or connection with the creature. Parents often think of furry animals like dogs or cats or “pocket pets” as the best therapy animals. Dogs and cats are the most common, but they are not the only effective options. (And some are problematic: perhaps a family dog or cat is of no interest to your child, or is stressful because its behavior–easily agitated cats and chronically fussy dogs aren’t therapeutic!
What fascinates your child? What do they want–what creature(s) are they drawn to? And are you willing to take care of this pet? Your child’s therapy pet is not a lesson in responsibility… though that may be an outcome someday. The pet is a therapist first, not a teaching tool. Since you may be the responsible one, the pet must work for your needs and household too.
The right creature will reduce your child’s stress and continually delight them in some way.
Dogs and cats
Under the best circumstances, the right dog or cat will choose your child, calming them down or drawing them out of their shell. Dogs and cats are ideal for symptoms of anxiety, autism spectrum disorders, or depression. The right dog or cat is calm, loyal, and patient, and helps an insecure child or one who can’t handle emotional demands. Dogs also support physical exercise, and provide opportunities for significant life lessons.
True story – Some juvenile prison systems have dog programs, where the inmate is assigned a troubled shelter dog to train and teach appropriate dog behavior. Young inmates often empathize with a dog’s abuse history, and training the dog helps them learn patience, forbearance, and anger management. The trained dogs are them adopted out to the community. A program I personally know about has had very positive outcomes.
Pocket pets help children who like touch, and bring out a child’s nurturing side. Small animals can also be playful and amusing–ferrets have especially silly antics. It’s important the pet likes to be held, but it’s also important to prevent it from escaping and hiding. Their small size and habitat needs are better for small living spaces, and they can go anywhere with the child in a small carrier. A concern may be their shorter lifespans. Is your child able to handle loss and learn from it?
Birds are smart ‘pocket pets’ and very loyal to the person they bond with. A bird that’s purchased young or been hand-fed as a chick is tame and will readily perch on a child’s shoulder or finger… or happily hide out in a pocket. Most birds can be taught words, whistles, or even songs in human language. They are pretty, charming, highly interactive, and long-lived. Birds are good for depressed children who need energy and stimulation, and children with ADHD who need attention and interaction. Like a pocket pet, a bird can also travel with a child in a small carrier.
Reptiles aren’t often considered as therapy pets, but reptile lovers will tell you that they are indeed therapeutic and have inidividual personalities. Most are quite beautiful. Many like to be held and carried.
“She fell asleep in my shirt and nobody saw her. I noticed I was able to communicate with other people without problems. When I started to feel anxiety I put my hand over her and it calmed me down… I was able to go in [a store], do what I needed to do and get out without a panic attack.”
–Teen with social anxiety disorder speaking about her Bearded Dragon.
Ask if a pet store will allow your child to hold one of their reptiles for sale. Common pet store lizards that are good for children are: leopard geckos, bearded dragons, and iguanas (which need lots of handling at first). Like other small animals, reptiles can escape. Turtles are usually easy to find, but not lizards or snakes. There are lizard leashes on the market for this reason. Most snakes available on the market like to be held, or will accept it if handled often.
Beautiful calming aquariums are excellent sources of visual delight and serenity. There is a reason aquariums are placed in waiting rooms and in psychiatric hospital settings. They provide gentle entrancing movement in a miniature natural world—they are healing like Nature is healing. An aquarium is good for children with intense anxiety they can’t express, often with schizophrenic or autistic symptoms. The soft bubbling sound can be calming because it is steady and hides noises that may overstimulate a child who’s grappling with a stream of upsetting thoughts. Read more about “calming rooms” and how visual and audio environments help children with tantrums, “Calming room ideas to prevent tantrums in autism and other disorders.”
Insects (yes, insects)
I have two stories about therapy with insects
True story – A depressed 9-year-old boy was regularly teased at school, then came home to a single mother who was always too distracted by dating concerns to spend time with him. His father found a second wife and started a new family and showed little interest in him. The boy was smart and very interested in science. He befriended a neighbor who kept hissing cockroaches to feed her lizards, and he would visit often and ask to hold a roach and pet it to make it hiss. The neighbor allowed the boy to borrow one to take to school for show-and-tell, which he brought along in a plastic container. The students were both fearful and intensely curious about this giant roach. Except for the squeamish, everyone wanted to pet it to make it hiss. He became the coolest kid in class. His teacher was impressed because he told the story about hissing cockroaches, where they were from, and how they were part of a forest ecosystem. He stopped being teased, and his teacher gave him more attention with science studies… all thanks to a lowly roach.
True story – An 11–year-old boy with ADHD found a praying mantis in his backyard and picked it up. He knew from school it wouldn’t bite, and that it caught and ate other insects. He wandered around nearby homes looking for bugs to feed it. When he caught something, he enjoyed watching the mantis snatch the bug from his finger and eat it with gross crunching sounds and goo…. awesome for a kid like him. He was allowed to keep the mantis in an empty aquarium. As Nature has it, it died in the Fall. His parents, however, purchased mantis eggs from a nursery to populate the yard the next summer. When they hatched, the boy spent hours amusing himself by finding and feeding the baby mantis population,and watching them grow to adulthood. It reduced the hours he’d spend indoors on video games,and connected him with nature outdoors.
Most people know that dogs are good for one’s wellbeing, but these creatures literally improve one’s physical and mental health.
Dogs are medicine.
1. They lower our blood pressure
Research has proven time and time again that dogs significantly lower heart rates and blood pressure, before and after performing strenuous tasks. Blood pressure drops when one pets a dog. Petting dogs have also been known to ease pain and improve one’s immune system. It is like a dog’s mere presence is beneficial for pet owners.
2. They offer a soothing presence
Pets, particularly dogs, offer a soothing presence when one is performing tasks that take up a lot of mental energy. This goes a long way in helping speed up recovery of mental conditions. It is well-known that some children will only respond to animals due to trauma or autism or intense anxiety.
3. They offer unconditional love and acceptance
Dogs are incapable of criticizing, judging or voicing their opinions. They snuggle up next to you even if you smell like poop. Two reports describe the medical benefits of pets. According to a 2013 white paper from the American Heart Association “…owning a pet, particularly a dog or a cat, is associated with decreased cardiovascular risk factors.” The November 2015 Current Gerontology and Geriatrics Research published research showing “pet therapy programs have been shown to be effective in helping improve socialization abilities, lower blood pressure, and combat loneliness.”
There are other great therapy pets : “Benefits have been seen in owners of pets ranging from dogs, cats, birds, and fish to goats, chimps, and snakes.” Be sure the right animal is matched to the owner.
4. Dogs alter our behavior
You or your child could come home annoyed at a million little problems that happened during the day, and maybe even taking anger out on someone. But imagine that before this happens, a smiling, tail-wagging dog walks up for attention.
Imagine, you or your child kneels and pets her, she licks your face and you smile. Just like that, your behavior is altered and chances that someone will become a casualty of frustration are now much better. People calm down in the presence of a dog, and don’t anger easily or use curse words. Dogs make us slow our minds and our speech.
5. Dogs promote touch
There is no disputing the healing power of touch. An article published on Huffington Post cites that a 45-minute massage can reduce the levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and build white blood cells which optimize one’s immune system. Hugging floods human bodies with oxytocin, a hormone that lowers heart rates, blood pressure and stress levels.
A study conducted at the University of Virginia showed that holding hands reduces stress-related activity in the hypothalamus region of the brain, which makes up part of the emotional center. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that stroking a dog can boost dopamine and serotonin levels while lowering heart rate and blood pressure.
6. Dogs distract us
It’s not a problem but a benefit! Dogs take us out of our heads and plunge us into another reality – one that involves affection, food, water… and scratching doggie butt for as long as we allow it. Distraction is sometimes the only thing you or your child needs when you have lost mental or emotional control. It is tough to ponder feeling awful when your dog is breathing in your face.
7. Dogs make us responsible
Owning a dog comes with responsibility and research has shown that responsibility promotes mental health. Psychologists assert that applying our skills to a job and taking ownership of a task helps build our self-esteem, which is why dogs are the most common therapy animals. When your child nurtures a happy healthy dog, it reinforces confidence and a sense of competence. This is especially important for troubled children who are often overtaken by their own thoughts and emotions. Finally, pet care helps kids and teenagers learn independence and brings structure to their day.
Dogs pull a depressed or anxious child (or parent) out of their troubled head.
8. Dogs increase social interaction
Staying connected to other people or creatures is good for our depression. Starting a conversation is particularly scary for people suffering from depression. That isn’t true with dogs. They are natural social magnets that help pet owners connect with other people and maintain positive social contact. Walk a dog, and people come up to meet the dog.
9. Dogs help one get into physical shape
Other than grooming, dogs need physical stimulation. This means taking walks and going out to a park to play. In the process of tossing a Frisbee or hiking with your pup, you get to exercise and enjoy nature simultaneously.
The energy boost consequently boosts your mood or blow off some steam. Blood flow and oxygen to the brain is good for depression. When outside with a dog, your skin synthesizes vitamin D from the sun, which helps fight symptoms of depression.
10. Dogs are great listeners
The most effective way to release stress is to talk about it with someone. But what if you don’t have the courage to approach a friend? What if the idea of talking about your innermost worries makes you anxious? Pet owners, particularly those who own a dog, will share their wishes and thoughts with a caring partner, with the guarantee that they won’t be disclosed to someone else. Even better, you can talk about your worries knowing that you won’t be judged
11. Dogs provide sensory stress relief
Movement and touch are some of the most effective ways to manage stress. Dogs offer the need for touch such as in grooming, petting and exercising them. Such tasks also help with sensory stress relief, which is particularly important for people suffering from depression.
12. Dogs help you find meaning and joy in life
Taking care of a dog can help lift morale and increase a sense of self-worth, optimism, and fulfillment. If you’ve adopted a shelter dog, it’s also fulfilling to know you (and your child) provided a home to a dog that may have otherwise been euthanized.
Take care of your dog and your dog will take care of you.
The physical and mental health benefits of owning a dog for children, teenagers, and even the elderly are proven by research.
Note: Owning a dog is not a miracle cure for a family and child coping with anxiety and depression. Dogs are for those who appreciate and love domestic animals, and those who invest money and time to keep their dog healthy and happy.
By Andy McNaby
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An amazing variety of creatures make good therapy animals: dogs, cats, “pocket pets” like ferrets, birds, and reptiles are therapeutic for children who struggle with any disability: physical, behavioral, and developmental. A calm smiling dog, an affectionate cat, or a small pet a child can hold is a great therapist. The right therapy animal offers unconditional love and affection, and the ideal animal makes your child feel special. Measurable benefits have been seen with many creatures “ranging from dogs, cats, birds, and fish to goats and snakes.”
If you are considering therapy pet, strategically pick the right animal.
When identifying a pet, monitor your child’s interactions when they are first introduced to the creature. Be honest with yourself, the therapy animal you think is best may not be the best for your child. Hyperactive and barking dogs, aloof or mean cats, fearful hamsters, and noisy birds don’t work and can be outright stressful. Pay attention—people are often unaware how much stress a fussy pet causes with distractions and chaos.
What is the right animal?
The animal’s natural manner fits your child’s emotional needs.
Quiet–if your child easily experiences sensory overload;
Soft, active, or affectionate–traits that help a withdrawn or anxious child;
Interactive–if your child needs to maintain interest or needs attention: a bird that speaks, or a dog that follows instructions;
The animal likes to be with your child for long periods. The animal has a preference for your child.
Your child is able to treat the pet humanely. (Animals can be abused consciously or unconsciously by troubled children.)
You appreciate the animal too and aren’t concerned about mess, smell, hair, or feathers in your home. You should consider yourself the one responsible for its care. This pet is a therapist first, and not a lesson in responsibility. Your child can learn responsibility another way.
The child’s pet should still be welcome and cared for if it doesn’t work out for your child. If it’s not wanted, consider a rescue shelter or humane society that can find a caring owner.
Most people are familiar with therapy dogs. Their natural affinity with humans is the reason why dogs are the most popular of pets. And research shows dogs reduce depression and anxiety. If you are interested in getting a puppy to train as a therapy animal, you can find instructions on how to train certified therapy dogs, and pick up tips for training your dog to fit your home. (Real certified dogs need significantly more training so they can trusted in nursing homes, hospitals, and schools.) “How to train a therapy dog”
The parrots and parrot-like or hooked beak birds are smart and can have marvelous personalities. They will affectionately bond with their owner for life. These colorful birds can be trained to perch on a finger or shoulder and spend time with people, other birds, even dogs and cats! The best low-cost option is a parakeet, a low maintenance, happy chirpy creature, easily tamed, and easily trained to talk.
“Patients hold and stroke cockatiels so tame that they often fall asleep in a human lap.” Maureen Horton, the founder of “On a Wing and a Prayer” tells of “non-responsive patients in wheelchairs who suddenly begin speaking again while petting a cockatiel as their relatives weep at the transformation.” She described bringing her birds to visit a group of violent teenage delinquents who clamored to touch a cockatoo named Bela. “For a few minutes,” Horton says, “these hardened criminals became children again.” — “On a Wing and a Prayer,” a pet-assisted therapy program, uses birds to visit patients.” Connie Cronley, Tulsapeople.com
Fish can’t be held, but few things beat the visual delight and serenity of a beautiful aquarium. Fish have personalities and form interactive communities in a tank, which are fun to watch, and individuals are fun to name. There is a reason aquariums are common in waiting rooms and clinics, lobbies, and hospitals. They help people relax and calmly pass the time.
Little mammals that like to be cuddled and carried around, often in pockets, are good therapy: ferrets, mice, rats, gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, and very small dogs. It is best to select a young animal that is calm and won’t bite, and handle it gently and often so that it becomes accustomed to being held. Challenges with many pocket pets include running away or escaping their enclosures, urine smell, and unwanted breeding. As the main caretaker, you will want to be comfortable with their needs.
Snakes and lizards are also excellent pets and demand little attention, and they are readily accepted by children. My bearded dragon, Spike, comes with me to my support groups. Dragons are a very docile species–safe with young children and popular with teens and parents. Other good species are iguanas, and geckos.
“I’d have to say my Leopard Gecko Mindy is very much therapy for me. She really is my therapy lizard, she wants to sit with me when I’m upset and tolerates me, which even my two dogs and cat won’t. She’ll just find a place on me and curl up and be like “I’m here, I won’t leave you.”” –User name “Midori”, Herp Center Network
Properly trained horses are extraordinarily healing. certified horse therapy programs are considered medically effective treatment and often covered by health insurance. Horses benefit disabled children and teens across the board: those with physical disabilities such as paralysis and loss of limbs, mental/cognitive disabilities such as development disabilities and retardation, and children with mental and behavioral disorders. The horses are selected for their demeanor and trained to reliably respond appropriately to children who may misbehave. Therapists are specially trained also to collaborate with the horse as a team. Horses have a “large” serenity and a lack of concern with the child’s behavior. They are also intelligent and interactive like dogs, provide a warm soft hide to lean on, and they empower their riders. A child on a horse will connect with the animal’s rhythmic bodily movement, which stimulates the physical senses and keeps the child physically and mentally balanced. According to parents and children in these programs, horses change lives. New research proves horses are genuinely effective: Study Suggests That Equine Therapy is Effective.
How has your child’s pet improved mental health?
Your comments help others who read this article.
Children’s best friend, dogs help autistic children adapt (summary) Journal: Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2011, Universite de Montreal
Dogs may not only be man’s best friend, they may also have a special role in the lives of children with special needs. According to a new study, specifically trained service dogs can help reduce the anxiety and enhance the socialization skills of children with Autism Syndrome Disorders (ASDs). The findings may lead to a relatively simple solution to help affected children and their families cope with these challenging disorders.
“Our findings showed that the dogs had a clear impact on the children’s stress hormone levels,” says Sonia Lupien, senior researcher and a professor at the Université de Montréal Department of Psychiatry and Director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress at Louis-H. Lafontaine Hospital, “I have not seen such a dramatic effect before.”
“A growing body of scientific research is showing that our pets can make us healthy, or healthier. “That helps explain the increasing use of animals — dogs and cats mostly, but also birds, fish and even horses — in settings ranging from hospitals and nursing homes to schools, jails and mental institutions.”
“In the late 1970s that researchers started to uncover the scientific underpinnings animal therapy. One of the earliest studies, published in 1980, found that heart attack patients who owned pets lived longer than those who didn’t. Another early study found that petting one’s own dog could reduce blood pressure.
“More recently, says Rebecca Johnson, a nurse who heads the Research Center for Human/Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, studies have been focusing on the fact that interacting with animals can increase people’s level of the hormone oxytocin. “That is very beneficial for us,” says Johnson. “Oxytocin helps us feel happy and trusting.” Which, Johnson says, may be one of the ways that humans bond with their animals over time.”
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You need peace and calm in your household, and you can provide the touch that supports all other approaches: Therapy; disciplined meditation and yoga, anti-anxiety medications (don’t be afraid to use them), but they’re not the best long-term solution. There are proven techniques for calming yourself, your stormy child, and all other family members.
1. Calming yourself in the tension-filled moment
Become consciously aware of your tension and ask: What are my options for coping with my tension right now? Brainstorm options ahead of time and create a list because you won’t be able to process in the moment. For example: take a very deep breath, then silently count to 10 backwards. Another idea: eliminate distractions. Turn off the cell phone, send others out of the room, pull the car over, turn off the music… You must strategically choose your response to a common situation.
Ways to calm your child in the moment
Note: the techniques are different for each child depending on their disorder and its characteristics. Experiment to find out what works with your child’s typical patterns at home, in school, with others, and in other situations that are stressful for them.
In a steady voice, give them directions or requests to calm down. You will need to repeat yourself periodically as they struggle with their inner storm. If you ask them to move to another space or use their own calming, skills, use your body language to initiate the act. If you ask them to take a deep breath, do it yourself. If it helps them to punch a pillow, punch it yourself and hand it over.
2. Be your own cheerleader.
Silently think, “I can handle this;” “I’m the one in control;” “I am the calm upon the face of troubled waters…” Have fun with it.
3. Give your child a calm place to go.
There’s nothing like a kid cave, or a blanket fort, a special garden spot, or other time-out space, even the car. My personal favorite is a tree house.
4. Give them extra time to “change channels”
An anxious child or teen is stuck in a fear loop, and has great difficulty moving from one environment to another–something called “transitioning.” Some typical transition problems occur when: coming home from school; getting out of the car after a long ride; going to bed after a stimulating activity; and waking up in the morning. Plan extra time for transitions. If they are too wound up but not hurting anything, wait them out.
5. Redirect their focus to physical action.
Draw attention to something to distract them in the moment (this is a useful kind of channel-changing). A young child could be directed to a physical activity (draw, grapple with clay, throw a Nerf ball against the wall), a teen can be allowed to play their favorite music (if you hate it, have them use headphones, or you use earplugs, seriously.); shoot baskets; or take the dog for a walk.
6. Other supports
Animals heal, but strategically pick the best animals. See “Animals that make the best therapy pets.” Think of a calm smiling dog, a calm affectionate cat, or a little mellow animal like a hamster or turtle, and you’ve got pet therapists. Energetic or barking dogs or scratchy kitties probably won’t work.
A big squeeze. People and many kinds of animals are comforted with enveloping physical pressure, like a full hug. I’ve completely wrapped anxious children and teens in a blanket or coat, and they quickly calmed down. Teach your child the self hug… and hug yourself often, too!
You may be able to stop things before they start. Once a situation has passed, ask yourself what happened just prior to your child’s episode. Was there a trigger? Did they just transition from one kind of place to another? Do you have options for removing the trigger? Triggering events can be so small or elusive that you miss it. The child’s sibling could have sniffed or rolled their eyes without you noticing. An object your child or teen reached for (like a remote control) could have just been unintentionally grabbed by someone else. If you can identify the little frustrations that send them to the stratosphere and address them immediately, it will reduce the length of distress.
Calming your home for the long term
Calm your emotional self first and think Zen. If you can take 5 minutes during a day, even a stressful day, sit quietly and breathe, and consciously work at eliminating all thoughts, ALL THOUGHTS, you would calm down. Not thinking anything is the hard part of meditation, yet it is the skill that makes it work, and there’s proof.
Maintain bodily calm with the big three: exercise, sleep, and healthy diet. I know you’ve heard this a million times already, but there’s good reason and proof. If you can’t simultaneously maintain all three habits in your family, take one at time and you will still see benefits.
Calm the sensations that exist in your home environment. Reduce noise, disorder, family emotional upheavals, and the intrusive stimulation of an always-on TV and other screen time, etc. Create a place for quiet time in your home where anyone can go that’s contemplative, where people agree to behave as if they’re in a library, or a place of worship, or a safe zone. Or create a time period for settling in, such as right after school, or right before dinner.
Did you know that psychiatric hospital units are designed to keep patients calm? I’ve toured a number of psychiatric hospitals, and the best ones I saw had these elements.
Soothing visual environment: they had windows and lots of light, plants, beautiful aquariums with gorgeous fish and lots of bubbles, and a TV screen with a film or a burning log. All great for relaxation and brain-calming.
Soothing sound environment: besides the bubbling aquarium, there was low-energy music of various styles.
Soothing physical environment: soft furniture, a large table where people could gather in the comfort and buzz of a group, and nooks where people could remove themselves from the group buzz to avoid over-stimulation or listen to music on headphones.
1. Do not communicate strong emotions in your voice. What you say absolutely does not matter as much as how you say it! Negative tone of voice is the only thing an upset child or teen will hear. Yes I know, this is hard to control when you are excited or under stress! (Later on, after the incident, apologize for how you said something, but don’t apologize for an appropriate direction or request you made.) Practice vocal neutrality. Take a deep breath and an extra 2 seconds to squash the urge. Which is better: “Will you please let the cat out?” versus “Will you PULLEEEEZ let the cat OUT!!!
2. Don’t pressure the child to calm down when they’re not ready—it takes time for anyone to unwind. Wait patiently while a child or teen works through ugly emotions and finishes spewing their ugly stuff. Let them have their catharsis. We all need to release our stuff, and we all need others to patiently listen and endure.
In my support group, I’ve observed that very stressed parents need at least one solid hour to vent and cry before they’re calm enough to benefit from other parents’ supportive words and sympathy. They start out with ugly or devastating emotions–things they might not say to anyone outside the safety of the group–and eventually calm down and come to peace with their situation. That’s when they are able to listen to the support and advice from other members.
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ABSTRACT – Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density Britta K. Hölzelab, James Carmodyc, Mark Vangela, Christina Congletona, Sita M. Yerramsettia, Tim Gardab, Sara W. Lazara Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging,Volume 191, Issue 1, Pages 36-43 (30 January 2011)
Summary in plain English: Meditation causes structural changes in the brain associated with memory, empathy, and stress, according to new research. Researchers examined MRI scans of participants over a period of 8 weeks. Daily meditation sessions of 30 minutes produced measurable changes in subjects with no previous meditation history. The anxiety and stress region of the brain, the amygdala, produced less gray matter. In a non-meditating control group, these positive changes did not take place.
“Therapeutic interventions that incorporate training in mindfulness meditation have become increasingly popular, but to date little is known about neural mechanisms associated with these interventions. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), one of the most widely used mindfulness training programs, has been reported to produce positive effects on psychological well-being and to ameliorate symptoms of a number of disorders. Here, we report a controlled longitudinal study to investigate pre–post changes in brain gray matter concentration attributable to participation in an MBSR program. Anatomical magnetic resonance (MR) images from 16 healthy, meditation-naïve participants were obtained before and after they underwent the 8-week program. Changes in gray matter concentration were investigated using voxel-based morphometry, and compared with a waiting list control group of 17 individuals. Analyses in a priori regions of interest confirmed increases in gray matter concentration within the left hippocampus. Whole brain analyses identified increases in the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum in the MBSR group compared with the controls. The results suggest that participation in MBSR is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.“