A new study provides solid evidence that meditation is as effective as daily medication for those suffering from anxiety disorders.
And meditation comes without the risk of side effects.
There are various meditation techniques. This specific study added to the growing library of research supporting the many mental health benefits of mindfulness in particular.
Mindfulness can be thought of as training your attention to achieve a calmer mental state.
Mindfulness has proven studied benefits for:
Reducing pain, fatigue and stress for those suffering from chronic pain
Helping those overcome addictions to smoking and other addictive disorders
Reduction of anxiety, depression, and stress
With anxiety disorders carrying a lifetime risk of 40% for women and more than 25% for men in the United States, there are a lot of people who may be interested in starting a daily meditation practice but are often left overwhelmed when it comes to how to do so. The good news is that there's no "right" or "wrong" way to meditate.
Mindfulness and anti-anxiety drug square off in new study
In this study, 208 participants diagnosed with an anxiety disorder were randomized to receive either a daily dose of escitalopram (also known as Lexapro) or a mindfulness stress reduction course that included guided and self-practice.
After eight weeks, participants in both groups reported a 30% decline in their anxiety levels as measured using a Global Impression of Severity scale. The levels continued to decline through completion of the 24-week study.
This study was notable because it was the first to compare meditation to medication. Approximately 80% of the participants in the escitalopram group experienced one or more side effects, which included insomnia, nausea, decreased sex drive and headaches. Some participants in the mindfulness group experienced increased anxiety during the course of the study.
Study data comes on the heels of Task Force recommendation for routine anxiety screenings
The timelines of this study is key. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force in September called for routine anxiety screening for all adults. There are five major types of anxiety disorders:
generalized anxiety disorder
post-traumatic stress disorder
The expert panel recognized that all forms have an underlining characteristic of excessive fear or worry. And the panel agreed that there is a significant under detection of anxiety and that screening could better connect silent sufferers with proven treatments. It's estimated that approximately 7 million adults in the U.S. have generalized anxiety disorder; but only half of them receive treatment.
With this new study, clinicians can now point toward the evidence-based benefits of meditation when discussing options with their patients.
How to kick-start your meditation practice
First and foremost, remember that there's no right way to meditate.
In the beginning, though, be consistent about when you meditate. Try to find a 10-minute window during the day when you can sit quietly without distraction. That could be first thing in the morning or as part of your evening wind-down regimen.
Find a quiet room at home or in the office and set a timer for 10 minutes. You'd be surprised how hard it is to sit quietly for 10 minutes. Start with this target and then increase the duration as you progress in your practice.
There's near-constant competition for our attention these days. So you may find that sitting quietly without your phone is a bit unnerving. You may become aware that your mind is racing from one thought to the next. A good beginner meditation tactic is to focus on breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. In fact, this is the basis of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, the technique used in the aforementioned study. I find it helpful to count the breaths. When your mind wanders, re-focus it back onto counting the breaths.
If you find it too difficult to focus on breathing alone, consider guided meditation. There are a plethora of options these days, notably from Headspace and Calm.
Please seek professional help if your anxiety becomes debilitating enough that it affects your daily life, relationships, and your job or if you have thoughts of hurting yourself or others. And remember, there's a new national mental health hotline number, 988, that you can call and be connected with a mental health counselor.