In the study, mindfulness worked both for anxiety and as a medication

In the study, mindfulness worked both for anxiety and as a medication

In the first direct comparison, mindfulness meditation worked just as well as a standard medication for treating anxiety.

The study tested a widely used mindfulness program that included 2 1/2 hours of classes per week and 45 minutes of daily practice at home. Participants were randomly assigned to either the program or daily intake of a generic drug for depression and anxiety sold under the brand name Lexapro.

After two months, anxiety measured on a severity scale decreased by about 30% in both groups and continued to decrease over the following four months.

Study results, published Wednesday in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, are timely. In September, an influential US public health task force recommended routine anxiety screening for adults, and numerous reports suggest global anxiety rates have been falling recently linked to concerns about the pandemic, political and racial unrest, climate change and financial insecurity have risen.

Anxiety disorders include social anxiety, generalized anxiety, and panic attacks. Affected people are plagued by persistent and intrusive worries that affect their lives and relationships. In the US, 40% of US women and more than 1 in 4 men will be affected by anxiety disorders at some point in their lives, according to data cited in the US Preventive Services Task Force screening recommendations.

Mindfulness is a form of meditation that emphasizes just focusing on what’s happening in the moment and dismissing intrusive thoughts. Sessions often begin with breathing exercises. Next could be “body scans” – systematic thinking about each part of the body from head to toe. When anxious thoughts arise, participants learn to briefly acknowledge them and then dismiss them.

Instead of mulling over the troubling thought, “say, ‘I have this thought, let it go for now,'” said lead author Elizabeth Hoge, director of Georgetown University’s Anxiety Disorders Research Program. With practice, “when not meditating, it changes the relationship people have with their own thoughts.”

Previous studies have shown that mindfulness works better than no treatment, or at least as well as education or more formal behavioral therapy, in reducing anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions. But this is the first study testing it against a psychiatric drug, Hoge said, and the results could increase the likelihood that insurers will cover the cost, which can be $300 to $500 for an 8-week session.

The results were based on approximately 200 adults who completed the six-month study at medical centers in Washington, Boston and New York. The researchers used a psychiatric scale of 1 to 7, with the highest number reflecting severe anxiety. The average score was about 4.5 for the participants before starting treatment. It fell to about 3 at two months and then fell slightly in both groups at three months and six months. Hoge said the change is clinically meaningful and results in a noticeable improvement in symptoms.

Ten patients taking the drug stopped treatment because of troublesome side effects that may be related to treatment, including insomnia, nausea and fatigue. Because of this, there were no dropouts in the mindfulness group, although 13 patients reported increased anxiety.

dr Scott Krakower, a psychiatrist at Zucker Hillside Hospital in New York, said mindfulness treatments often work best in mildly anxious patients. He prescribes them along with medications for patients with more severe anxiety.

He noted that many people feel they don’t have time for mindfulness meditation, especially in-person sessions like those studied. Whether similar results would be found with online training or phone apps is unknown, said Krakower, who was not involved with the study.

Olga Cannistraro, a freelance writer in Keene, New Hampshire, took part in a previous mindfulness study led by Hoge and says she taught her to “intervene in my own state of mind.”

During a session, simply acknowledging that she felt tension somewhere in her body helped her calm down, she said.

Cannistraro, 52, has generalized anxiety disorder and has never taken any medication for it. She was a single mom who worked in sales during that earlier study — circumstances that made life particularly stressful, she said. She has since married, changed jobs, and feels less anxious, although she still uses mindfulness techniques.


Follow AP Medical Writer Lindsey Tanner at @LindseyTanner.


The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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