Scientists Say Mindfulness Can Work Just as Well as Anxiety Medication (If You Do It Right)


Whether about the future, the stress of the day-to-day, or something more unexplained, many people regularly experience anxiety. In fact, anxiety disorders affect up to 40 million adults in the U.S., about 19.1 percent of the population. Anxiety can be treated with psychotherapy, as well as medications like SSRIs if needed, but according to a new study, mindfulness meditation could work just as effectively. Read on to find out what researchers have to say about this healing practice.

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Therapy can help those with anxiety.
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While taking a long walk or doing some deep breathing can ease anxiety in the moment, psychotherapy is an effective treatment for anxiety in the long run. A therapist will help patients understand their individual triggers, and give them tools to manage their response to them.

"During the therapy process, the client and therapist will learn what triggers the client's anxiety," says Brent Metcalf, a licensed clinical social worker at Tri Star Counseling. "The client will hopefully be able to identify and cope with the triggers during the therapeutic process and learn coping skills to decrease the anxiety. If the anxiety is severe enough or bothers the client enough, medication can also be used to treat anxiety along with therapy."

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Medication is an option.
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If you are still experiencing extreme anxiety after therapy or want quicker relief, anxiety medication is an option. "Medication is great and I refer my clients for medication when it's needed," says Metcalf. "However, medication does not help individuals learn how to identify stressors or how to cope with them. It simply treats the symptoms."

Matthew Luciano, a clinical psychologist for Sierra Coast Psychotherapy finds that medication, while incredibly helpful, can also have its downsides.

"Medication can sometimes act quicker (several weeks) than therapy (a month or more)," he says. "It is effective at reducing the physical symptoms of anxiety, but requires people to use that medication for a long time (possibly forever) and there may be unpleasant side effects." 

What about mindfulness meditation?
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In a study of 276 adults with anxiety disorderspublished by JAMA Psychiatry in early November, half of the participants took a generic form of Lexapro, a common medication used to treat anxiety, while the other half embarked in "mindfulness-based stress reduction." The results were quite surprising: According to CNN, both groups experienced about a 20 percent reduction in their anxiety symptoms over the eight-week period.

It's important to note that the group doing mindfulness work wasn't just practicing once in a blue moon. The patients were asked to meditate on their own for around 40 minutes per day and had to participate in a two-and-a-half-hour mindfulness meditation class once a week. During the sessions they participated in a program based on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a Buddhist technique developed in 1979. This practice incorporates movements like stretches and posture poses and has evolved from solely treating stress to also treating pain, immune disorders, and diabetes.

The lead author of the study, Elizabeth Hoge, compared mindfulness to any skill that you practice. "People learn to have a different relationship with their thoughts. In the practice, we train people to just let go of the thoughts, be patient and gentle with the thoughts, just let them pass," she told CNN.

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Meditation is not a cure for everyone.
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Mediation is a powerful tool that can calm your mind and ease anxiety, but the amount of effort those in the study were required to put in is not very realistic for the average person.

"Telling people who are that overworked they should spend 45 minutes a day meditating is the 'Let them eat cake' of psychotherapy," Joseph Arpaia, an Oregon-based psychiatrist specializing in mindfulness and meditation wrote in response to the study. However, he believes there are less-time consuming breathing techniques that those suffering from anxiety can do to calm themselves.

Brent Turnipseed, the co-founder of Roots Behavioral Health thinks even meditation on a daily basis like in the study is not something that will be effective for individuals suffering from severe anxiety.

"In theory, meditation could replace medications for mild symptoms," he tells Best Life. "If symptoms are severe, no, mediation most likely will not be enough to bring sustained relief."

While this study does show positive results coming from the practice of meditation, it's important to note that everyone's brains are wired differently. For some individuals, a daily walk may do the trick, while others will need more support from medication or psychotherapy.