Jeff Greeson, PhD

headshot of jeffery greeson

Home Institution: Rowan University

Field: Psychology

Current Positions:

My Driving Question

How can mindfulness as a self-care practice reduce the risk of disease and promote health?

Fellow Project 

Dr. Greeson is conducting research to understand how mindfulness, as a self-care practice, can reduce the risk of disease and promote integrative health. A small handful of recent clinical studies have shown that mindfulness meditation can modify gene expression in immune cells, opening the door to a new field of scientific inquiry that Dr. Greeson calls “mindfulomics.” This new field, however, is complicated by the fact that mindfulness is at once a state, a trait, and a skill one can develop through contemplative practice like meditation or yoga. Therefore, to advance our understanding of the impact of mindfulness at the level of gene expression, Dr. Greeson is examining the following research questions:

  1. What pattern of genes are engaged (i.e. genomic signature) in state mindfulness, when induced through meditation practice (e.g., mindful breathing) versus acute mental stress and quiet rest?
  2. What pattern of genes correlates to trait mindfulness, when quantified as ‘high’ vs. ‘low’ scores on a standardized questionnaire?
  3. What combination of genes are engaged in a successful treatment response to Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and does this genetic pattern correlate to health outcomes, such as psychological well-being, quality of life, spirituality, sleep quality, and objective health measures like BP?

 Mindfulness-based interventions that modulate the gene expression linked to the body’s inflammatory response, may offer a holistic, non-pharmacologic approach to targeting biological pathways implicated in a number of chronic, stress-related medical conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis, among others. Collaboration between basic scientists, clinical investigators, mindfulness teachers, and the community will allow Dr. Greeson to pioneer a new field of “mindfulomics.” This research will provide important insights into the potential power of a mindfulness, as a self-care practice, to reduce inflammation and the subsequent risks for chronic disease.

Biography 

Dr. Greeson is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Rowan University in New Jersey, where he directs the Mindfulness, Stress & Health Lab and is Co-Director of Research for the Center for Humanism at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University. He received his BA in Psychology from Swarthmore College, a Masters in Biomedical Chemistry from Thomas Jefferson University, and his PhD in Clinical Psychology from the University of Miami. He completed his clinical internship and postdoctoral fellowship at Duke University Medical Center, and was on the faculty at Duke from 2006-2014, before joining the University of Pennsylvania in 2014, and then Rowan University in 2016.

Dr. Greeson’s primary research interests include the effects of stress on mental and physical health, and how effectively reducing stress can improve health and prevent disease. His interdisciplinary work in psychology and health integrates psychophysiology, psychoneuroimmunology, and “omics” (genomics & metabolomics) to study the mechanisms by which reducing stress can decrease susceptibility to stress-related disorders and disease progression (e.g., depression, insomnia, hypertension, HIV/AIDS). Dr. Greeson also has a long-standing interest in neuroscience, and has collaborated on multiple brain imaging studies to examine the neural basis of stress and depression vulnerability, and how mindfulness may induce therapeutic change through neuroplasticity. His translational research program has been funded by several NIH Institutes and Centers, including the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the National Heart, Lung & Blood Institute (NHLBI), and the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).

After completing a prestigious NIH “Pathway to Independence [PI]” award (K99/R00), Dr. Greeson was selected as a Fellow of the Nova Institute for Health in 2015. With over 50 peer-reviewed publications and more than 100 invited presentations, Dr. Greeson is nationally and internationally recognized for his research in the area of health psychology and integrative health. Given the emerging interest in mindfulness in psychology and medicine, Dr. Greeson is a highly sought after research mentor among students from multiple universities. He established the Mindfulness, Stress & Health Lab in part to serve as a training ground for undergraduate, graduate, and medical students, as well as postdoctoral trainees. As a licensed psychologist who specializes in Health Psychology, Dr. Greeson provides psychotherapy to patients who present with co-occurring mental and medical conditions, many of which are stress-related and amenable to mindfulness training.

Dr. Greeson is an active professional member of the American Psychological Association, the American Psychosomatic Society, and the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies.

Education and Training
  • PhD, Clinical Psychology, University of Miami
  • MS, Biomedical Chemistry, Thomas Jefferson University
  • BA, Psychology, Swarthmore College
Selected Honors
  • Elsevier Top 5 Highly Cited article for 2014-2015 (“A Narrative Review of Yoga and Mindfulness for Addiction“), 2016
  • Taylor & Francis Most Downloaded article for 2014 (“Randomized Trial of Koru”), 2015
  • NIH Center for Scientific Review Early Career Reviewer, 2013
  • Mind & Life Summer Research Institute (MLSRI) Senior Investigator, 2012
  • SAGE Most Downloaded article for 2009-2010 (“Mindfulness Research Update”), 2011
  • Distinguished Fellow, NIH/OBSSR Summer Institute on Behavioral RCTs, 2010
  • George Fellow in Mind-Body Medicine, George Family Foundation, 2007-2008
  • Scholar Award, American Psychosomatic Society, 2003 & 2006
  • Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral NRSA, NHLBI Institutional Training Grant, 2002-2005
  • Citation Award, Society of Behavioral Medicine, 2001
Selected Publications

Developing safety, persistence, trust

Healing is facilitated through safety, persistence, and trust.

  • Persistence: “People did not simply progress through this sequence and experience healing. The healing journey was a recursive, back and forth process. They found helpers, used the skills/resources that those helpers provided, found other helpers that provided more resources and used those skills and resources. As this process continued, people experienced a gradual amelioration of their suffering. Although many despaired at times, all demonstrated the quality of persistence—they refused to give up.”
  • Safety & Trust: “To connect to helpers, it was essential for people to feel safe in those relationships and able to trust that the person would be a helper and not a barrier to healing. Persons whose wounds included a violation of trust were especially careful about testing the safety of new relationships.”

Acquiring Resources

Resources support us as we heal. They include reframing, responsibility, and positivity. “Making connections enabled participants to acquire and refine resources and skills that were essential in their healing journey. People also brought their own personal strengths to the journey.”

  • Reframing: “A particularly important skill was the ability to reframe—that is to look at suffering through a different lens.” This does NOT mean minimizing trauma or pain, but rather it often means the opposite: understanding what happened was wrong, unfair, or uncontrollable and that we are not to blame for it.
    • “I think I kept trying to convince him I was crazy. And he kept saying, ‘No, you’re not crazy.’ […] You wouldn’t necessarily say a Vietnam Vet was crazy. You’d say they are responding like you’d expect to extraordinary circumstances.”
    • “I’m not the only one who have [sic] this problem. A lots, millions of people, you know. […] They don’t have nothing to do with that. I guess I have to live.”
  • Responsibility: While we don’t have control over what happened to us, we are the only ones who can help ourselves heal. “A third essential resource that people acquired or refined was the ability to take an appropriate amount of responsibility for their healing journeys. They participated actively in the process of healing. Once again, some participants already had developed this skill, and some acquired or refined it from their helpers.”
    “You need a lot of energy and a lot of work … it takes a lot of work. It doesn’t just happen. It’s not like a magic wand.” This patient understood that they had to actively participate in the healing process.
  • Positivity: “Another resource that people acquired or refined during their healing journey was choose to be positive—that is to have some optimism about their situation.” People have varying predispositions to positivity. In the study, positivity was important in helping people heal. This doesn’t mean a toxic positivity, but rather simply finding some good in life and feeling hopeful about our situations.

Helping Relationships

“Connection to others was an essential part of all the healing journeys.” Humans are social creatures, and even the most introverted of us need close relationships. Friends and family add meaning and value to life and help support us, in good times and bad. When we experience relational trauma, relationships can feel scary, but reestablishing safety and trust in relationships is where the healing happens. (To be clear, we do not mean reestablishing safety and trust with abusers, but rather finding other healing relationships.) “When safety and trust had been established, people were able to connect with helpers. The nature of the behaviours of helpers that fostered healing ranged from small acts of kindness to unconditional love.”

  • “Moving from being wounded, through suffering to healing, is possible. It is facilitated by developing safe, trusting relationships and by positive reframing that moves through the weight of responsibility to the ability to respond.”
  • “Relationships with health professionals were among these but were not necessarily any more important to the healing journey than other kinds of helpers, which included family members, friends, spirituality and their God, pets, support groups, administrators, case workers and supervisors.”

Healing

Healing probably means different things to different people, but one definition that emerged from the study is: “The re-establishment of a sense of integrity and wholeness.” Healing was an emergent property that resulted from each individuals’ complex healing journey, a result of bridged connections between resources and relationships. Healing, in this sense, does not mean cured—none of the study participants were cured of their ailments—”but all developed a sense of integrity and wholeness despite ongoing pain or other symptoms.” In varying degrees, “they were able to transcend their suffering and in some sense to flourish.” When we begin to heal, we find increased capacity for hope, renewed motivation to help others, and are more able to accept ourselves as we are.

Suffering

Suffering is the ongoing pain from wounding. There is debate about whether or not one actually needs to experience suffering on the path to healing.

Wounding

Wounding happens when we experience physical or emotional harm. It can stem from chronic illness or by physical or psychological trauma for which we do not have the tools to cope, or a combination of those factors. “The degree and quality of suffering experienced by each individual is framed by contextual factors that include personal characteristics, timing of their initial or ongoing wounding in the developmental life cycle and prior and current relationships.”