Mindfulness meditation matches antidepressants for anxiety disorders
In a first-of-its-kind study, researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center pitted mindfulness meditation against a common antidepressant in a clinical trial targeting patients with anxiety disorders. The findings reveal an eight-week mindfulness program was as effective at reducing measures of anxiety as drug treatment.
Mindfulness techniques have long been a crucial tool for therapists helping patients with a variety of mental health problems. One technique, known as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), was found to be as effective at managing depression as anti-depressants.
This new study looked at a different mindfulness technique, called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). Unlike MBCT, which is based around cognitive behavioral therapy methods and largely driven by a psychotherapist, MBSR is structured around a daily meditation practice.
The research recruited more than 200 participants with clinically diagnosed anxiety disorder. Half were randomized to an eight-week course of the antidepressant escitalopram, while the other half completed an eight-week MBSR program.
The MBSR program comprised weekly guided mediation classes, daily 45-minute home exercises, and one day-long class halfway through the course. At the end of the eight-week trial each participant's anxiety levels were assessed by a trained clinician who was unaware which intervention the patient had received.
Overall, both groups showed a decrease in anxiety measures of around 30% by the end of the eight-week intervention.
First author on the study Elizabeth Hoge said these findings should help clinicians and health care providers confidently offer MBSR as an effective alternative to drug treatments for anxiety disorders. However, Hoge noted there are pros and cons to MBSR treatment for anxiety.
On the negative side it does require significant time and effort from a patient to be effective. Unlike the simple act of taking a pill, MBSR requires completing an eight-week course and regular meditation practice to maintain efficacy.
This may mean it's only really a viable alternative for patients who, for whatever reason, cannot take antidepressants. On the other hand, Hoge indicated MBSR practice is much more accessible a treatment compared to clinician-managed drug therapies.
“A big advantage of mindfulness meditation is that it doesn’t require a clinical degree to train someone to become a mindfulness facilitator," said Hoge. "Additionally, sessions can be done outside of a medical setting, such as at a school or community center.”
The new study was published in JAMA Psychiatry.