Recent research has been done to help answer the question, ‘does meditation help anxiety?’. A recent randomized clinical trial – one of the most respected methodologies for testing – discovered that over an 8-week period, patients with diagnosed anxiety disorders received as much of a benefit and reduction in symptoms through mindfulness-based mental health treatment as they did through a first-line antidepressant, escitalopram (Lexapro). But there are important caveats and details to beware of with this critical piece of news.
Patients in this controlled study were treated with certain types of meditation-based treatments. Mindfulness-based interventions, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction, were tested against commonly prescribed pharmacology for various anxiety disorders.
But these treatments were still part of a regimented plan rather than nondescript meditation practices. Patients were given directions to follow their treatment plan, which in the case of mindfulness therapy included weekly sessions at a local clinic and daily mindfulness “homework” alongside a day-long retreat.
Is Meditation as Effective as Antidepressants?
At this point, multiple independent studies and data analyses are pointing to the idea that meditation-based treatments, such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, are just as effective as modern-day antidepressants (SSRIs) in the treatment of anxiety disorders.
Does that mean you should stop taking your medication and immediately switch to daily meditation? Not necessarily. Mindfulness-based treatments for anxiety can be quite involved and require an in-depth and personalized treatment plan for long-term efficacy.
While the study did find that mindfulness-based treatments are effective, its author also noted that more people stopped continuing their mindfulness therapy program than those who stopped taking medicine. At the end of the day, taking a pill is more manageable than spending at least 45 minutes a day continuing to practice mindfulness for weeks, months, and sometimes years.
Mindfulness therapies can be effective long-term if support and commitment are also present. But people should not discount other treatments, including medication or cognitive-behavioral therapy.
How Does Meditation Work?
Meditation is often misunderstood as a purely spiritual endeavor.
Yes, meditation has deep roots in spiritual and religious practice. It is core to the religion of Buddhism and may be reflected in some way in the prayers of some Abrahamic religions and subcultures. Yoga, which encompasses a variety of spiritual and physical rituals within Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and adjacent cultures, can be traced to the Vedic period, meaning it may be well over 2,500 years old.
Monks worldwide, from religions of all kinds, practice meditation to separate themselves from the material, whether for personal enlightenment or to gain insight into more profound truths.
But in a psychiatric sense, meditation is a technique that, first and foremost, concerns itself with mindfulness techniques, breath control, exercise, and relaxation.
When doctors and therapists recommend meditation and meditation-adjacent treatments to patients, the goal isn’t so much enlightenment as it is the physical and mental health benefits of engaging in the active practice of mindfulness or a deliberate focus on an ongoing constant, such as rhythmic breathing, a chanted affirmation, a repetitive movement, or a simple exercise.
Why does mindfulness work to help calm nerves? Part of it is because focusing on a thing at a time – especially our breathing – allows us to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Whereas the sympathetic nervous system activates the body’s fight-or-flight response, our parasympathetic nervous system helps us calm down. Stress management techniques rely on breathing and individual focus to bring the mind away from an agitated state, which is often the case with anxiety conditions.
Meditation and mindfulness are interchangeable for the purposes of mental health and anxiety treatment.
Can You Practice Mindfulness on Your Own?
Mindfulness-based treatments usually involve a professional level of care through the guided expertise of a therapist, counselor, or another mental health practitioner.
Self-help books and online guides can help you practice mindfulness at home. However, it is still advised to consider working with a professional at least once a week for a few weeks out of the year to help individualize your treatment, find alternatives to popular concepts and techniques that might work better for you, and help make progress with your condition in the face of mental plateaus, roadblocks, or especially stressful times.
If you feel too anxious to visit a local clinic or treatment facility, consider teletherapy a practical alternative.
Applying Mindfulness in Your Day to Day
Once you have gotten the hang of mindfulness and meditation-based therapies, you can learn to apply daily mindfulness techniques that work for you. Some people learn to incorporate mindfulness in their chores, such as cleaning or laundry. Others find opportunities to incorporate meditative work into their hobbies, such as quilting or gardening. You don’t need to sit in a room with your eyes closed to practice meditation!
Meditation can play an active role in treating anxiety disorders – and this study is far from the first to indicate this. In fact, multiple controlled studies and data analysis studies have found that mindfulness-based treatments are especially effective for people with anxiety disorders.
But a common thread unites them all – while more research is being done to investigate the efficacy of meditation and other non-pharmacological approaches in treating common mental health disorders such as mood and anxiety disorders, the quality of existing studies differs significantly, and results are limited. Many authors of such studies ultimately find that “no conclusions can be drawn” yet.
If you have a history of anxiety or struggle with an anxiety disorder, don’t continue to ask yourself, ‘does meditation help anxiety?’. Meditation-based treatments may be something you and your doctor should explore together. Specialized clinics and outpatient facilities can help individuals seeking to start practicing mindfulness at home through dedicated treatment protocols, one-on-one sessions, and group therapy.
However, you shouldn’t stop taking your medication if it works. Modern antidepressants present a significant leap forward in the safety and efficacy of psycho pharmacy, with high efficacy and a low risk of side effects. If you wish to wean off your antidepressants, talk to your psychiatrist first. A sudden drop in usage can negatively affect the mind and body – taking time to wean off them may be much safer. Learn more about the meditation treatment and mindfulness based cognitive therapy modalities that Amend Treatment offers to help treat anxiety today.