A Study Found That Mindfulness Meditation Works Just as Well as Medication for Anxiety—But Don’t Throw Out Your Meds Just Yet

Photo: Stocksy/Elenka Kharichka
Anxiety is just a part of life—now more than ever, it seems. Case in point: More than two in five women in the U.S. will be affected by an anxiety disorder in their lifetimes, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. To work through anxiety, many people find that medication, therapy, self-care practices, or a combination of these can help manage symptoms in their day-to-day lives. But for the first time, scientists have found that practicing mindfulness meditation for anxiety may be just as effective at reducing symptoms as a commonly prescribed antidepressant.

The catch? It could require a big time commitment, which may not work for everyone. With that in mind, we talked with a psychiatrist to understand the benefits and limitations of mindfulness meditation for anxiety—and why medication is still an important tool.

What did the study say about how mindfulness meditation can help with anxiety?

The study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, compared patients who took an eight-week mindfulness meditation program to patients who took the anxiety-drug Escitalopram, the generic name for the widely-prescribed Lexapro. The study found that both methods worked equally well—after eight weeks both groups showed about a 30 percent reduction in their overall symptoms.

The study consisted of 276 adults diagnosed with untreated anxiety disorders and split them into two randomized groups. One group received a standard 10 to 20 mg daily dose of Escitalopram, while the other group was assigned to weekly 2.5-hour mindfulness classes that used an approach called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), plus a one-day-long weekend class and 45-minute daily home practices.

Participants in the meditation group learned several mindfulness techniques like body scanning, where attention is focused on one part of the body at a time, along with mindful movement and awareness of breath.

“Practicing mindfulness meditation has a long history of being an effective way to reduce stress levels,” says Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO, a family therapist, psychiatrist, and chief medical officer a LifeStance Health. “And many people use it as a tool for their overall mental health.”

What is important to know about the limitations of the study?

If 2.5-hour meditation classes, plus daily home-based practice, and a day-long weekend class sounds like a big time commitment, you’re right, and that’s one of the problems with applying the study findings to people with anxiety as a whole. Many folks simply can’t spend that amount of time practicing mindful meditation—whether you work in shifts, have two jobs, or are the primary caretaker for your kids or aging parents—it’s not realistic for everyone. On top of that, researchers only looked at females with higher education levels and full-time jobs—not exactly a diverse group, so it’s unclear whether the findings would apply to people with different backgrounds.

In addition, researchers only compared MBSR to one type of medication for anxiety disorders, which could mean that meditation could be more or less effective when compared to other types of medications for anxiety.

One other thing to keep in mind? Some people living with an anxiety disorder might find medication provides more relief than meditation no matter what. Dr. Patel-Dunn says this is perfectly healthy and normal. “Medication is an evidence-based treatment and has shown to be effective at treating generalized anxiety disorder,” she says. “Again, this is one tool in a psychiatric clinician’s toolkit and may be effectively used in combination with other therapies.”

“It’s really a matter of tailoring the approach to fit your unique needs.”—Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO, a psychiatrist at Lifestance Health

How can you incorporate mindfulness meditation into your everyday life?

If you are interested in giving mindfulness meditation a try, you probably don’t have to enlist in an eight-week program to see modest results. (Note: it's always best to talk with your doctor before stopping any medications.) “One of the benefits of meditation is that it is very accessible,” said Dr. Patel-Dunn. “While there are a number of apps that offer guided meditations, if you find additional guidance is helpful, you don’t need anything to practice meditation.”

Still fuzzy on what mindfulness meditation actually is? Here’s a refresher: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction has been around for over 40 years and is based on the principles of meditation established in Buddhist vipassana meditation. It focuses on the deep interconnection between the mind and body and being fully in the moment and present. Its guiding principle is noticing when your mind wanders and not passing judgment on yourself if you do trail off.

How much time you commit to meditation is really up to you and your schedule, says Dr. Patel-Dunn. “If you don’t have hours to dedicate to meditation every day, that is okay. You can still see benefits by spending five to ten minutes engaged in a mindfulness activity.”

She says that this could look like spending five minutes in nature while disconnecting from your devices, or engaging in activities like drawing or journaling. Or you could incorporate meditation or a mindfulness activity as part of a regular routine to help it become a habit, like practicing right before you wake up or before you go to bed.

“There is no one right way to practice,” she says. “It’s really a matter of tailoring the approach to fit your unique needs.”

No matter what therapies you use, they’re not going to be a quick fix

Having an anxiety disorder is challenging, and it takes work to stay on top of your mental health. That’s why it’s good to have reasonable expectations when it comes to treatments, says Dr. Patel-Dunn. Like, don’t expect to see your symptoms completely disappear with the use of medication or meditation, she says, but what you can expect is for them to lessen your everyday stress.

If your current anxiety-reducing methods don’t seem to be making a dent in your worries, it might be time to reach out to a trusted mental health professional, says Dr. Patel-Dunn. “They can be a valuable resource and are trained to help develop a personalized treatment plan.”

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