In their first study from 2018, the authors showed that Acem Meditation improves stress management in a number of ways: better sleep, less anxiety, less mental distress, less pain. In a recent study, which was published in Frontiers in Psychology in January, they showed that meditators with a higher level of defensive functioning at the outset obtain the strongest improvement of stress-related problems.

Psychological change matters

«In the new study, with the same participants from six Norwegian companies, we investigated the changes of both defensive functioning and stress indicators,» says Anne Grete Hersoug, Ph.D., one of the authors behind the study. «Those who practiced Acem Meditation obtained a favorable combination of reduced defensive functioning and improvement of stress-related problems. This suggests that reduction of both defensive functioning and stress problems is obtainable with Acem Meditation.»

The new study provides evidence that defensive functioning moderates the effects of meditation. Hersoug adds: «For unknown reasons, there was also a reduction of defensive functioning in the control group, who did not learn to meditate. Nevertheless, it is likely that the reduced defensive functioning in the meditation group was linked to meditation, though it cannot be proven that Acem Meditation directly reduced the defensive functioning.»

What is the function of defense mechanisms?

When we are stressed, our defensive functioning tends to be more strongly activated. More stress often makes us feel worried and less capable of coping with discomfort and challenges. When we have little sense of control, defense mechanisms may be used as a way of coping. Internal and interpersonal conflicts activate difficult emotions, such as anxiety and anger. Defensive functioning may make the emotions less disturbing. While some defense mechanisms are adaptive, others are more immature.

In a nutshell – and beyond

Hersoug sums up: “Those who learned to meditate got better sleep, less anxiety, less inner disquiet and less pain. The recent study indicates that these improvements are associated with the reduction of defensive functioning.”

In the control group, who did not practice meditation, there was no significant reduction of stress-related problems, and thus, no moderating effect of defensive functioning was possible. It would have been preferable to allocate participants to the meditation group and the control group in a randomized way, as this would provide a more solid base for observing differences between the groups, but that was not possible in this study.

Hersoug concludes cautiously: «This is a first study, and further research is warranted to see whether the findings can be consistently replicated.»

Anne Grete Hersoug, Morten Wærsted & Bjørn Lau (2021): Defensive functioning moderates the effects of nondirective meditation. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 629784;  DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.629784

Anne Grete Hersoug, Morten Wærsted & Bjørn Lau (2018): Nondirective meditation used in stress management, Nordic Psychology, 70(4), 290-303;  DOI: 10.1080/19012276.2018.1443278