Mindfulness exercises can, in some cases, be as effective as antidepressants in treating anxiety disorders, new research reveals.
The results highlight how mindfulness meditation could be a useful approach to treating these conditions.
The study contrasted a course of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) techniques with a course of escitalopram – a drug from the class of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) also known as of Lexapro, considered a reference antidepressant – over eight weeks.
Follow-up surveys were conducted up to 24 weeks after enrollment using an assessment called the Clinical Global Impression of Severity Scale (CGI-S), measured on a scale of 1 to 7 (7 being severe anxiety).
Those who tried mindfulness saw their score drop an average of 1.35 points, while those on escitalopram saw their score drop an average of 1.43 points. In terms of statistical significance, the two interventions are on the same level.
“Our study provides evidence for clinicians, insurers and healthcare systems to recommend, include and reimburse mindfulness-based stress reduction as an effective treatment for anxiety disorders,” says psychiatrist Elizabeth Hoge of the University from Georgetown to Washington, DC.
Two hundred and eight patients completed the treatment prescribed by the researchers. The mindfulness program involved two-and-a-half-hour in-person classes once a week, with a one-day retreat during the fifth or sixth week. In addition, there were 45 minutes of daily home exercise.
Antidepressants can be helpful in treating anxiety, but they don’t work for everyone. even SSRIs like escitalopram fall just below the standards used to assess medication adherence, with significant numbers of patients not refilling prescriptions. They can also be difficult to obtain and can cause side effects such as nausea.
“A big advantage of mindfulness meditation is that you don’t need to have a clinical degree to train someone to be a mindfulness facilitator,” says Hoge. “Also, sessions can be done outside of a medical setting, such as in a school or community center.”
It is believed that over 300 million people live with some form of anxiety disorder, making it the most common type of mental disorder today. The term includes conditions such as agoraphobia and can lead to an increased risk of suicide and disability.
And while mindfulness programs have already been shown to help with anxiety, they haven’t been directly compared to antidepressant medication until now. These results clearly indicate that MBSR techniques can reduce anxiety to a similar level and give individuals tools that they can continue to benefit from in the future.
However, the researchers point out that mindfulness requires more commitment and time than taking medication. It’s also unclear how effective app-based meditation exercises might be, without the in-person element.
“It is important to note that although mindfulness meditation works, not everyone is willing to invest the time and effort to complete all the necessary sessions and practice regularly at home, which enhances the effect. “says Hoge.
“In addition, virtual broadcasting via video conferencing is likely to be effective, as long as live components are retained, such as question-and-answer periods and panel discussions.”
The research has been published in JAMA Psychiatry.