Anxiety disorders affect up to 40 million American adults – about 19 percent of the population – every day. These disorders cause symptoms such as restlessness, worry, dread and sleep problems that can interfere with a person’s daily life. The main treatments for anxiety are psychotherapy, medication or some combination of the two. However, these clinical interventions may not be your only option for combating anxiety.
Mindfulness is a well-known practice used to cope with feelings of anxiety. This form of meditation emphasizes being present, focusing on what’s happening at the moment and dismissing intrusive thoughts as they arise. This practice has been part of the wellness conversation since the 70s, but a new study shows it can be just as effective as prescription medication in easing anxiety over time.
“It’s likely you or someone you know has been impacted by anxiety at some point in their life,” said LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “For many, the idea of starting therapy or taking medication can be intimidating, but there are other options to help cope during times of anxiety and stress.”
In the first direct comparison of mindfulness and medication, scientists looked at 276 adults diagnosed with untreated anxiety disorders. Half of the participants were treated with a widely-prescribed drug used to treat anxiety and depression and half took an intensive eight-week mindfulness program (such as this program at Johns Hopkins). This program included weekly two-and-a-half hour mindfulness classes plus 45 minutes of daily at-home meditation. Both groups were evaluated at the end of two months, and both reported about a 20 percent decrease in the severity of their anxiety symptoms.
“The fact that we found them to be equal is amazing because now that opens up a whole new potential type of treatment,” said study author Elizabeth Hoge, director of the Anxiety Disorders Research Program at Georgetown University Medical Center. She explained the intent isn’t to replace existing effective treatments with mindfulness, but instead to provide another tool for those who are struggling with anxiety.
While medication can be helpful, Hodge explained that it’s not for everyone. For example, many users report unpleasant side effects like diarrhea, loss of sexual desire, nausea and, in extreme cases, suicidal thoughts. Practicing mindfulness can provide similar anxiety relief without the unpleasant side effects some patients experience. Mindfulness meditation is a low-risk option that can be used to complement medication and psychotherapy, or provide a starting point for those hesitant to start other treatments.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
Mindfulness-based stress reduction was developed in the 1970s and is based on Buddhist meditation principles. The primary goal is to get someone to focus on what’s happening now, rather than the past or future. Another component of this meditation is learning to identify and dismiss negative thoughts as they arise. For example, someone with anxiety might worry something bad is going to happen. This practice teaches the person to acknowledge this as just a thought – not a truth or something they need to act on – and let it go. When practiced over time, mindfulness can change the relationship people have with their own thoughts even when not meditating, which helps them better cope with day-to-day stress.
How to Practice Mindfulness
There’s no one way to practice mindfulness. It’s a principle that can be applied to several aspects of your daily life, such as mindful eating, drinking and even listening. However, the most popular exercises include:
- Five Senses Exercise. This grounding exercise can be performed anywhere when you begin to feel anxious or overwhelmed. First, take note of five things you can see. Then, notice four things that you can feel, such as the texture of your clothes. Next, take a moment to note three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. By the end of the exercise, you should feel more present.
- Body Scan. A body scan is a form of meditation where a facilitator runs through each part of the body, instructing you to take note of how each area feels in that moment. These exercises can range in time, depending on your needs at the moment. There are plenty of online resources and free guided meditations available, like this six-minute YouTube video.
Not a One-Size-Fits-All Solution
For someone who’s anxious and feeling overwhelmed, the idea of attending a weekly class and meditating for 45 minutes a day can be daunting and, frankly, unrealistic. More research is needed to evaluate the effectiveness of mindfulness when practiced less frequently. However, practicing mindfulness at any level can provide benefits with relatively low risk.
Mindfulness as a sole treatment isn’t recommended for those with severe anxiety and may work best for mildly anxious patients. These findings and future research will hopefully encourage clinicians and patients to consider mindfulness as part of an anxiety treatment plan. You should always consult with your healthcare provider to decide what’s best for you.