Early life abuse (ELAb) initiates pathophysiological cascades resulting in long-term maladaptive stress responsivity, hyperalgesia, and an increased risk of psychopathology. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is effective in modifying psychological and somatic symptoms; thus, we predicted that MBSR would be particularly efficacious for women with ELAb.
Medically healthy women (mean age = 31 years) with or without a history of early (≤13 years) physical or sexual abuse provided self-report measures and were tested in the laboratory before and after randomization to standard MBSR (n = 52) or social support (SSG) (n = 60) for 8 weeks. The laboratory procedure involved pain testing using the cold pressor and temporal summation of heat pain (indexing central sensitization) procedures, and exposure to the Trier Social Stress Test. Plasma cortisol in response to the experimental protocol was assessed as area under the curve (AUC).
The interventions differentially impacted pain sensitivity and cortisol AUC for women with ELAb, as MBSR increased the temporal summation of heat pain intensity ratings (p = .024) and reduced cortisol AUC (p = .004). For women without ELAb, MBSR decreased cold pressor tolerance (p = .045) and decreased the temporal summation of heat pain intensity ratings relative to SSG (p = .024). Both MBSR and SSG improved depression symptoms and emotion regulation abilities (p values < .001); however, MBSR was associated with greater benefits in describing emotions (p = .008) and impulse control (p = .017) for women with ELAb.
Women with ELAb benefited from MBSR-specific improvements in central sensitization, mindfulness skills, and emotion regulation abilities. This is the first study to examine the efficacy of MBSR in modifying affective and somatic symptoms based on ELAb status and provides evidence for considering ELAb in tailoring treatment approaches.
Trial Registration: ClinicalTrials.gov Identifier: NCT01995916; https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT01995916.