8-week mindfulness program ‘as effective’ as antidepressant for treating anxiety

A first-of-its-kind study shows that mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is “as effective” as the antidepressant escitalopram for reducing anxiety symptoms. Milles Studio/Stocksy


Anxiety disorders impact millions of people worldwide.
Treatments for anxiety disorders include medications and psychotherapy. Although effective, these options may not always be accessible or appropriate for some people.
Preliminary evidence suggests that mindfulness may reduce anxiety symptoms. Yet, no study has examined how its effectiveness compares to antidepressant medications used to treat anxiety disorders.
Now, a first-of-its-kind study has found that mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is “as effective” as the antidepressant escitalopram for reducing anxiety symptoms.
The researchers suggest their findings provide evidence that MBSR is a well-tolerated and effective treatment for anxiety disorders.
Anxiety is a natural emotion triggered by fear or worries about perceived danger. However, when anxiety is severe and interferes with daily functioning, it may meet the diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder.

Data suggest that anxiety disorders impacted around 301 millionTrusted Source people worldwide in 2019.

Treatments for anxiety include medicationsTrusted Source and psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Although they are effective, some people may not be comfortable with or lack access to these options — leaving certain individuals living with anxiety searching for alternatives.

According to a 2021 review of research, preliminary evidence suggests that mindfulness — specifically mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) — may positively impact anxiety and depression.

Still, it is unclear whether mindfulness-based therapies are as effective as medication for treating anxiety.

Now, a new randomized clinical trial (RCT) from Georgetown University Medical Center found that an 8-week guided MBSR program was just as effective for reducing anxiety as escitalopram (brand name Lexapro) — a common antidepressant medication.

“This is the first study to compare MBSR with a medication for the treatment of anxiety disorders,” study author Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, director of the Anxiety Disorders Research Program and associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington, DC, told Medical News Today.

The study was published on November 9 in the journal JAMA PsychiatryTrusted Source.

Comparing MBSR and escitalopram (Lexapro)
Scientists from the Georgetown University Medical Center recruited 276 participants between June 2018 and February 2020 to conduct the randomized clinical trial.

The participants were 18 to 75 years old, averaging 33 years of age. Prior to the start of the study, they were diagnosed with one of the following anxiety disorders:

generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
social anxiety disorder (SASD)
panic disorder
The research team used a validated assessment scale to measure the participant’s anxiety symptoms at recruitment and divided them into two groups. One group took escitalopram, and the other participated in the MBSR program.

“MBSR is the most widely studied mindfulness intervention and has been standardized and thoroughly tested with good results,” Dr. Hoge explained.

“MBSR instructors teach mindfulness in a group-based, face-to-face class, using a variety of guided meditation exercises such as breath awareness, body scan, and gentle movement meditation, and also contains group discussions and question-and-answer periods. MBSR consists of weekly 2.5-hour long classes, a ‘day-long retreat’ weekend class during the 5th or 6th week, and 45-minute daily home practice exercises. The home practice is guided meditation with audio recordings.”

– Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, lead author of the study

When the 8-week trial ended, 102 participants completed the MBSR program, and 106 took the medication as directed.

After the research team reevaluated the participant’s anxiety symptoms, they found that both groups experienced an approximate 30% reduction in the severity of their symptoms.

Considering their findings, the study authors suggest that MBSR is a well-tolerated treatment option with similar effectiveness to a commonly used medication for anxiety disorders.

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