MMindfulness meditation worked as well as standard medication for treating anxiety in the first direct comparison.
The study tested a widely used mindfulness program that includes 2.5 hours of lessons per week and 45 minutes of daily practice at home. Participants were randomly assigned to either the program or daily use of a generic drug sold under the brand name Lexapro for depression and anxiety.
After two months, anxiety measured on a severity scale decreased by around 30% in both groups and continued to decrease over the following four months.
The results of the study, published Wednesday in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, are appropriate. In September, an influential US health task force recommended routine screening for anxiety in adults, and numerous reports suggest that global anxiety rates have recently increased, due to concerns over the pandemic, political and racial unrest, climate change and financial uncertainty.
Anxiety disorders include social anxiety, generalized anxiety, and panic attacks. Affected people are troubled by persistent and intrusive worries that interfere with their lives and relationships. In the United States, anxiety disorders affect 40% of American women at some point in their lives and more than one in four men, according to data cited in the screening recommendations of the US Preventive Services Task Force.
Mindfulness is a form of meditation that emphasizes focusing only on what’s happening right now and dismissing intrusive thoughts. Sessions often begin with breathing exercises. Next come “body scans” – systematically thinking about every part of the body, from head to toe. When worried thoughts creep in, participants learn to recognize them briefly and then dismiss them.
Instead of ruminating on the troubling thought, “you say, ‘I have this thought, drop it for now,'” said lead author Elizabeth Hoge, director of the University’s Anxiety Disorders Research Program. of Georgetown. With practice, “it changes the relationship people have with their own thoughts when they’re not meditating.”
Read more: How to tell if your health issues are normal or a sign of something more
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 issues. But this is the first study to test it against a psychiatric drug, Hoge said, and the results could make insurers more likely to cover the costs, which can range from $300 to $500 for an 8-week session.
The results were based on about 200 adults who completed the six-month study at medical centers in Washington, Boston and New York. The researchers used a psychiatric scale from 1 to 7, with the higher number reflecting severe anxiety. The average score was around 4.5 for participants before starting treatment. It fell to about 3 after two months, then fell slightly in both groups at three months and six months. Hoge said the change was clinically significant, resulting in a noticeable improvement in symptoms.
Ten patients taking the drug dropped out due to bothersome side effects possibly related to the treatment, including insomnia, nausea and fatigue. There were no dropouts for this reason 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 for mildly anxious patients. He prescribes them medication for patients with more severe anxiety.
He noted that many people feel they don’t have time for mindfulness meditation, especially for in-person sessions like the ones studied. It’s unclear whether similar results would be found with online training or phone apps, said Krakower, who was not involved in the study.
Olga Cannistraro, a freelance writer in Keene, New Hampshire, participated in an earlier mindfulness study led by Hoge and says it taught her “to intervene in my own mindset.”
During a session, just recognizing that she felt tension anywhere in her body helped calm her down, she said.
Cannistraro, 52, suffers from generalized anxiety disorder and has never taken medication to treat it. She was a single mother working in sales during this earlier study — circumstances that made life particularly stressful, she said. She has since gotten married, changed jobs and feels less anxious while still using mindfulness techniques.
More election coverage from TIME