Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction as Powerful as Lexapro
2022 JAMA Studies the Impact of Mindfulness on Anxiety
Updated on: February 2023
Written by: Ramona Reid
Reviewed by: Nancy Leahy, RN, APNP
Mindfulness vs Lexapro
In this randomized clinical trial conducted by JAMA of 276 adults with anxiety disorders, mindfulness-based stress reduction had comparable effectiveness to a first-line medication for patients with anxiety disorders.
Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction
Mindfulness-based stress reduction is a specific practice that utilizes a combination of mindfulness meditation, body awareness, yoga and exploring one’s patterns of behavior, thinking, feeling and action, and generally recommends a daily 45 minute commitment.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is the body’s response to feelings of unease, stress, and uncertainty. Some symptoms of anxiety include elevated heart rate, rapid breathing, and other sympathetic nervous system responses. It’s estimated that 31% of adults will experience anxiety at some point in their lifetime.
What Is Mindfulness?
It seems like we can’t open a magazine, or turn on our computer or television without seeing or hearing the word “mindfulness.” It has become a catchphrase for the holistic health movement, but what does it mean?
One recent study suggests that mindfulness-based stress reduction may be as effective as curbing anxiety as the prescription medication Lexapro. A group of 276 adults with untreated anxiety disorders were separated into two groups. One group was given 10-20 mgs of escitalopram (the generic version of Lexapro), while the other group was enrolled in an eight week mindfulness-based stress reduction program. Surprisingly, both groups experienced a roughly 20% reduction in anxiety-related symptoms over the course of treatment.
So what is this powerful practice? Mindfulness-based stress reduction is defined by Oxford Languages as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.” In a practical sense, it is a focus on one’s internal experience as a way to strengthen the muscle of self-awareness. One application of a mindfulness practice is to help mitigate the symptoms of anxiety—the body’s response to stress, fear and worry—through practicing presence.
What Does Presence Mean?
The practice of presence and paying attention can be done in most environments, and doesn’t cost money or require fancy gear. One easy way to start a mindfulness practice is to simply pause and notice what you are experiencing. It is our human tendency to immediately react to our experience, and it takes intention and some discipline to disobey this tendency, and instead to just observe.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is the body’s response to feelings of unease, stress, and uncertainty. Some symptoms of anxiety include elevated heart rate, rapid breathing, and other sympathetic nervous system responses. Mindfulness has been proven to be an effective tool to manage and allow a respite from these symptoms in many cases. A 2022 clinical trial was published in JAMA Psychiatry in which 276 adults with anxiety disorders were treated for 8 weeks with either mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) techniques or escitalopram, commonly prescribed as Lexapro.
Meditation for Anxiety
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, a meditation therapy incorporating mindfulness and yoga to manage stress, was first developed in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist, yogi and meditator, and founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. In the 2022 clinical trial, mindfulness-based stress reduction was found to be a well-tolerated treatment with comparable effectiveness to first-line medications for patients with anxiety disorders. These clinical findings are an important step in validating a natural approach for some patients with anxiety disorders, as well as opening the door for mindfulness to become a more widespread tool to proactively tend to our mental and emotional health.
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How to Practice Mindfulness
Starting a Mindfulness Practice
Since mindfulness techniques have such a range of benefits, you might find yourself interested in beginning a regular practice. Mindfulness-based stress reduction is a specific practice that utilizes a combination of mindfulness meditation, body awareness, yoga and exploring one’s patterns of behavior, thinking, feeling and action, and generally recommends a daily 45 minute commitment.
However, shorter mindfulness practices are also beneficial. When starting any new practice, it can be helpful to start small. Carving out a short amount of time each day is often more sustainable than trying to commit to an hour a day practice right out of the gate.
You might start by observing your environment, listening to and receiving the soundscape around you. You can listen for the sounds in your home that usually go unnoticed, either the drone of the refrigerator or heater, or maybe the wind through the cracked window. You might notice your tendency to label what you are experiencing, and instead practice listening without labels. You can also observe your other sensory experiences, either visual or tactile. You can close your eyes and bring your attention inward, and notice what thoughts take form, or what physical sensations you are experiencing. It is common to unconsciously want to act on these observations and sensations, and instead it can be more helpful to allow them to simply be, without intervention.
This practice creates a more attuned relationship to your thoughts, your feelings, and the experience of being more fully in your body. An added benefit of paying attention and being in the moment is that when we are able to be more present with ourselves, we are also able to be more present with other important people in our lives like our family members and friends. This increase in awareness and presence can definitely play a large role in improving our quality of life.
Theories of Emotion
Another helpful addition to a meditation practice is to cultivate an elevated emotion; to create the feeling of love, gratitude, or joy in our hearts. This practice of heart-cohesion meditation has been described by Dr. Joe Dispenza as a method to influence the brain through creating an emotion. Heart-cohesion meditation has also proven to be an effective method in influencing our brain patterns. Scientists at the HeartMath Institute have demonstrated that “sustaining positive emotions not only benefits the entire body, but also profoundly affects how we perceive, think, feel and perform.”
When our brain perceives an emotion like love or gratitude, it produces and releases feel-good hormones into our body that are compatible with these cultivated emotions. These hormones help to lower the body’s stress levels and stimulate systems for rest and cellular repair. Simply put, this practice of mindfulness while intentionally experiencing an elevated positive emotion can help our bodies to heal.
Accessibility of even the concept of mindfulness has been limited to specific communities until fairly recently, and it is important that we continue to spread awareness of these easily accessible healing practices. While some people believe that access to 45 minutes a day of Mindfulness-based stress reduction practices, as cited in the study, is out of the question for many people with busy work and family obligations, it is arguably more important to find time when we feel that we have the least of it to spare. Fortunately, mindfulness is one practice where a little can go a long way.
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