A new study suggests that an 8-week mindfulness meditation program works just as well for treating anxiety as a common antidepressant.

A new study suggests that an 8-week mindfulness meditation program works just as well for treating anxiety as a common antidepressant.

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A new study suggests that an 8-week mindfulness meditation program works just as well for treating anxiety as a common antidepressant. Westend61/Getty Images
  • Practicing mindfulness meditation can help relieve stress and anxious feelings.
  • Now, a new study suggests that an 8-week mindfulness program works just as well for treating anxiety as a common antidepressant.
  • The benefits of the program, known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), are backed by research.
  • Although mindfulness is not a panacea, it can be an accessible practice to help promote feelings of calm.

It is natural to be worried on occasion, especially in the face of stressful events. With anxiety disordersthis worry becomes persistent and can affect one or more aspects of a person’s daily life.

More than 2 in 5 women and more than 1 in 4 men in the United States will be affected by an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives, according to data cited by the US Preventive Services Task Force.

As such, the task force recently recommended that doctors screen for anxiety and depression in all children and adolescents 8 years and older in October. Just prior to this announcement, the task force proposed screening for anxiety in adults under 65, but this recommendation has yet to be finalized.

Many coping strategies are available for those living with anxiety disorders, including medication, psychotherapy and, in some cases, mindfulness meditation, which is widely touted for its health benefits.

Now, a new study suggests that an 8-week mindfulness meditation program may be just as effective as a commonly prescribed antidepressant in reducing anxiety symptoms.

The research, recently published in the journal JAMA Psychiatryis the first randomized clinical trial (RCT) comparing the effectiveness of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) with the antidepressant escitalopram for the treatment of anxiety disorders.

For the study, the researchers recruited more than 270 people with a diagnosed anxiety disorder. These diagnoses included:

Participants were randomly assigned to either the MBSR program or the daily use of escitalopram (brand name Lexapro).

The MBSR program is an 8-week course that includes weekly 2.5-hour classes, a one-day weekend course, and daily 45-minute homeworkouts.

Participants learned several mindfulness techniques, including body scanning, in which attention is directed to one part of the body at a time, mindful movement, where attention is directed to the body during stretches and movements, and awareness of the breath.

After 8 weeks, both groups saw about a 30% drop in their anxiety symptoms. Symptoms decreased slightly more in both groups at 3 months and 6 months.

The most common side effects in the antidepressant group included insomnia, nausea, fatigue, and headache. The only adverse effect in the MBSR group was increased anxiety, which occurred in 13 people.

About three-quarters of participants completed at least six of nine MBSR sessions or 6 weeks of antidepressant use. However, after 6 months, only about a quarter were still practicing regular mindfulness meditation, while about half were still taking escitalopram.

One limitation of the study is that most of the participants were women with a higher level of education, so the results may not apply to other groups.

Additionally, the researchers compared MBSR to only one type of medication for anxiety disorders.

Regardless, study author Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, director of the anxiety disorders research program and associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, told Healthline that other antidepressants have similar efficacy to escitalopram.

This could mean that MBSR may also work as well as other antidepressant medications.

Hoge said the study results suggest that, overall, MBSR might be a reasonable first step for some people with anxiety, even before taking medication.

“If someone is diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and they are very reluctant to take medication, they could definitely start with [MBSR] program,” Hoge said.

Mindfulness, however, may not work for everyone. Hoge added that some people in the MBSR group didn’t find the program helpful and asked to take escitalopram instead.

“It seems there are different types of people who do well with different types of treatments,” she said. “The next step is to figure out who these people are so we can try to predict which treatment might work for which people.”

Moe Gelbart, PhD, director of behavioral health at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in Torrance, Calif., told Healthline that mindfulness-based practices should work for many people, provided they are willing to devote the time needed for regular practice.

But he noted that doing meditation every day is a bit harder than popping a pill, which may deter some people from sticking with mindfulness practices.

For others, however, a DIY approach may work best.

“Mindfulness-based practices allow the person to take control of their own well-being, rather than relying on someone else — like a doctor — to take care of them,” Gelbart said.

Still, Gelbert noted that people should contact their doctor if their anxiety symptoms don’t improve or worsen.

“If a person has very severe anxiety and doesn’t control some of their physical symptoms with mindfulness-based exercises alone, medication can be a good addition to their treatment,” he said.

People who are concerned about their anxiety symptoms or the impact they are having on their lives should talk to their doctor about treatment options.

Mindfulness involves paying attention to the present and noticing when your mind wanders – without judgment and with an open heart.

MBSR is a structured 8-week program developed in the 1970s by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, based on mindfulness meditation, body awareness, and yoga techniques.

During MBSR training, people learn a number of tools to help them focus on the present, such as bringing attention to the breath, feelings or thoughts, or the body.

These techniques are used in other mindfulness, yoga, and meditation programs, as well as mindfulness applications and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT).

A key aspect of the MBSR program is that it is highly structured, with lots of hands-on experience. During weekly sessions, people learn and practice these mindfulness techniques. They are also encouraged to practice alone at home.

Research has shown that mindfulness-based interventions can reduce symptoms of depression and anxietyimprove physical health, reduce pain and stress related to chronic pain and stimulate the immune system.

Hoge said mindfulness practices could work for anxiety disorders by helping people experience their anxious or worrying thoughts in a different way.

“Mindfulness allows people to have some space between themselves and their thoughts, so the thought doesn’t overwhelm them,” Hoge said.

“It’s different from other types of meditation, where the focus can be on relaxation. In mindfulness meditation, the focus is more on seeing things as they really are, which which is not necessarily relaxing.

Hoge recommends those interested in trying MBSR take a class with a qualified teacher for best results. As with the program itself, the training to become an MBSR instructor is also very structured.

“When people are in a class together, they’re more likely to do the practice because they have a lot of support around them,” she said.

Ideally, that would be in person, she said, but a live online class with other students would likely be just as effective.

However, not everyone has access to an MBSR program, either in person or online. But there are some basic mindfulness tips that can help calm anxious feelings that can be practiced independently at home.

  • Schedule time. Practicing mindfulness regularly will help you reap the benefits of mindfulness sooner. Start with 5 to 10 minutes a day.
  • Avoid distractions. Choose a quiet place free from distractions. Be sure to turn off your phone.
  • Observe the present moment. The purpose of mindfulness is to bring your attention to what is happening in the moment without judgment.
  • Choose an object to focus on. It can be as simple as the breath, the sensations in the body, or your thoughts.
  • Try conscious action. Some people are more likely to practice mindfulness while walking, washing dishes, or doing some other simple action. With these, focus your attention on the action, such as noticing the sensation of the earth beneath your feet as you walk.
  • Keep coming back. If your mind wanders – and it inevitably will – gently bring your attention back to the present moment.
  • Be kind to yourself. Don’t worry if you’re having trouble staying present. Mindfulness, like other skills, gets stronger the more you practice.

A new study builds on a growing body of evidence supporting mindfulness meditation for anxiety relief.

Research suggests that mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) may be as effective at treating anxiety as a commonly prescribed antidepressant.

Still, mindfulness is not a silver bullet and may not work for everyone.

Some people living with anxiety disorders may experience greater relief from their symptoms with medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of the two.

If you want to learn more about the benefits of mindfulness meditation, ask your doctor or mental health professional if it’s the right option for you.

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