Mindfulness exercises may be as effective as anti-anxiety drugs, study finds

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Practice mindfulness for anxiety relief may be just as effective as medication, new research shows.

A recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry showed that people who received eight weeks of mindfulness-based interventions experienced a decrease in anxiety that matched those who were prescribed the anti-inflammatory drug escitalopram. common anxiety often prescribed under the brand name Lexapro.

A seven-point scale was used to assess anxiety in 208 participants, with a score of seven representing extreme anxiety and a score of one being normal. In the medication and mindfulness groups, the mean score after treatment went from a moderate level of anxiety to a mild level of anxiety.

Both groups entered the study with similar baseline scores (4.44 in the mindfulness group and 4.51 in the medication group.) At the end of the study, anxiety scores in both groups decreased to an average of 3.09 on the anxiety scale, a statistically similar score. change that showed the treatments were equally effective.

Mindfulness practices such as breathing exercises have long been used to treat anxiety, but this is the first study showing their effectiveness over standard treatments for anxiety disorders, the lead author said. study, Elizabeth Hoge, who is a psychiatrist and director of the anxiety disorders research program at Georgetown University.

She thinks the results help support the use of mindfulness as a viable intervention that may be better than traditional treatments for some people, such as those who aren’t comfortable seeing a psychiatrist or are experiencing effects. negative side effects of drugs.

“We can’t yet predict who will do better with what kind of treatment,” Hoge said. “But nothing says you can’t do both at the same time.”

Breathing, body scans and conscious movements

The mindfulness treatments used in the study included breath awareness exercises, which involve paying attention to your breath as you allow thoughts to rise, then pass through your mind before letting them go. Importantly, the practice isn’t about trying to change your breathing, Hoge said, but focusing on your breathing as a way to ground yourself if anxious thoughts arise.

Participants also performed exercises such as a body scan, which involves paying attention to different parts of the body, and mindful movements, which include stretching the body in different positions and feeling each movement.

Those who received the eight-week mindfulness intervention took a weekly 2.5-hour class with a mindfulness teacher, performed daily home exercises for 45 minutes, and attended a mindfulness retreat. one day five or six weeks after the start of the course.

When anxiety becomes a habit

The reason mindfulness can help with anxiety is because it can interrupt a negative feedback loop in the brain, said Jud Brewer, director of research and innovation at the Mindfulness Center of the Institute. Brown University and Chief Medical Officer of Sharecare, a digital health company. Brewer believes that anxiety is a habit driven by negative reinforcement in the brain.

When we have a situation or thought that triggers our anxiety, worrying about it can be rewarding for the brain, he said. “It can give people a sense of control even if they don’t have more control than if they didn’t care,” Brewer said.

Trying to stop worrying by using willpower doesn’t work, he says, because it doesn’t change how your brain works. But mindfulness can help train your brain in new habits because it helps you recognize that worry isn’t rewarding and offers an alternative sense of control that feels better than worry, Brewer said. . He helped develop an app for mindfulness training called Unwinding Anxiety and in a small randomized study, showed that using the app significantly reduced people’s anxiety.

How mindfulness can change the brain

Other studies have shown that practicing mindfulness can rewire the brain, leading to long-term changes in behavior and thinking, said Sara Lazar, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School.

In people who worry a lot, a part of the brain called the default mode network can become overactive, causing their mind to wander more often to negative or anxious thoughts, Lazar said. But research shows that meditation and mindfulness exercises can help turn off this part of the brain and make it less active by training people to refocus, she explained.

Mindfulness training has also been shown to reduce activity in the amygdala, a part of the brain that helps regulate fear, stress and other emotions, she said. And, his research suggests that these types of changes can be long-lasting.

“People who follow these programs, even if they quit, continue to report benefits months later,” Lazar said. “It’s like learning to ride a bike, even if you stop you can start again.”

Plagued by anxious thoughts

Julie Rose, 48, from Provo, Utah, decided to try mindfulness in 2018 when she realized that while medication was helping her manage her anxiety, she needed coping strategies additional. She had trouble concentrating on her job as a podcast host and had trouble sleeping. Her anxious thoughts “seized her,” she said, and trying to control them by ignoring them or redirecting her anxious energy didn’t help.

She signed up for eight weeks of mindfulness classes. At first, she didn’t feel like the breathing or body awareness exercises were working – she always had anxious thoughts and felt like she couldn’t quiet them.

Then, after a few weeks, she realized that although she couldn’t stop her anxious thoughts, with meditation she could recognize them in a way that they passed. easier and faster. On the days she meditated, she slept better and felt better overall, she said.

“I used to think it was stupid, but it really works,” she said. “It allows the anxiety to keep moving through me.”

How to Practice Mindfulness for Anxiety

The more mindfulness someone practices, the more they will benefit, but even doing a few short exercises a few times a week can reduce anxiety, said Katherine Cullen, a licensed psychotherapist at Juniper Therapeutic Services in New York. While many mindfulness studies involve a greater time investment of for eight weeks, Cullen often suggests his patients start small with a simple two-minute breathing exercise a few times a week.

She said mindfulness exercises can be uncomfortable at first because people aren’t used to dealing with their emotions or anxious thoughts.

“Think of it as an exercise. You might go for a walk after being inactive for a while and it might feel uncomfortable,” she said. “The key, like with exercise, is to be consistent about it.”

If anyone is interested in trying mindfulness exercises, she advised them not to change their medications without consulting their prescribing doctor or psychiatrist, and to seek out a certified mindfulness-based stress reduction practitioner or coach. conscience, which is an evidence-based method. form of mindfulness training. People can also try looking for centers affiliated with the Buddhist nonprofit Insight Meditation Society, many of which offer donation-based mindfulness classes.

“If you’re new to mindfulness and haven’t done it before, I strongly encourage you to do it with someone else,” Cullen said. “It’s really helpful to have someone there to actively guide you and answer any questions you may have.”

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