Bruce Banner is notoriously bad at controlling his emotions. It’s sort of his business, but in 2008 The Incredible Hulk, he makes a real effort to control his feelings. We see him withdrawing from his old life and taking up meditation and yoga. As a result, he hasn’t had a Hulk-shaped explosion in five months. There are a lot of things in the Marvel Universe that strain gullibility, but this is not one of them.
For centuries, cultures around the world have understood the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. Now the scientific literature is accumulating in support of the practice. In July this year, scientists used mindfulness training to reduce physical pain in human patients and new research suggests it may be just as effective in managing mental pain. This is according to a study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatrywho used mindfulness as an alternative treatment for anxiety disorders.
The researchers recruited 430 study participants, including 276 adults with diagnosed anxiety disorders, 208 of whom completed the study. Participants received blinded assessments at the start of the study, eight weeks later at the end of the active part of the study, and then follow-up assessments at 12 and 24 weeks. The idea was to assess whether, and to what extent, practicing mindfulness reduced symptoms of anxiety and how this compared to conventional drug treatments.
The participants were divided into two groups, roughly one by one. One group received escitalopram, commonly known as Lexapro, dosed flexibly between 10 and 20 milligrams depending on the person. The second group took a mindfulness-based stress reduction course that included two and a half hour classes once a week and 45 minutes of daily practice at home. During these sessions, participants learn to pay attention to their bodies and focus on what is happening now, not what might happen in the future. When intrusive thoughts emerge, they are trained to recognize them briefly and then put them aside. It is believed to help train a person to separate from their emotional state and take control of their feelings.
Both groups received the full suite of assessments, which assessed anxiety levels using the Clinical Global Impression of Severity scale. At the baseline assessment, before any intervention, the mindfulness group had a CGI-S score of 4.44 while the drug group had a score of 4.51. For reference, a score of one indicates not at all sick, while a score of seven indicates extreme illness. Both groups oscillated around four and a half years, between “moderately ill” and “definitely ill”. This was normal, the groups were randomly selected and should have had more or less the same scores before the intervention. The question was whether mindfulness would resist drug treatment to reduce anxiety levels.
After eight weeks, participants received their second assessment and scores were increased relative to baseline for both groups. The mindfulness group saw an average reduction in score of 1.35 while the CGI-S score for the drug group fell by an average of 1.43. This left the mindfulness and drug groups with scores of 3.09 and 3.08 respectively, on average, just above “mildly sick” on the CGI-S scale. In short, they found mindfulness to be comparatively effective as first-line drug therapies for treating anxiety.
Additionally, of the patients who started treatment, 10 of the drug group dropped out due to adverse effects, while none of the fully conscious patients did. This is the first direct comparison between mindfulness and drugs and supports the case for mindfulness and meditation as alternative or additional therapies for anxiety disorders.
Full disclosure: Some of the mindfulness patients reported an increase in their anxiety, despite the overall decrease. Like most treatments for mental illness, your mileage may vary. It should also be noted that not everyone has access or bandwidth to hours-long mental health interventions each week. At this time, there is no data indicating whether these findings will extend to telehealth or app-based mindfulness. Of course, there’s a way to find out, at least anecdotally. Spend some time with yourself today and see if mindfulness might be right for you.
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