“Mindfulness” meditation that helps people become more aware of their thoughts and feelings in the present moment was as effective as a commonly used “gold standard” antidepressant to treat patients with anxiety disorders, researchers said Wednesday. Photo by Pexels/Pixabay

Nov. 9 (UPI) — A type of meditation that helps people become more aware of their thoughts and feelings in the present moment is as effective as a “gold standard” antidepressant to treat patients with anxiety disorders, researchers said Wednesday.

Findings from the study, led by Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., were published in JAMA Psychiatry.

The scientists said a guided mindfulness-based stress reduction program worked as well as the drug escitalopram, sold under brand names including Lexapro and Cipralex.

Instructors taught several techniques involved in mindfulness meditation, including breath awareness, directing attention to one body part at a time and observing how it feels, and using stretching and movements designed to bring awareness to the body.

Nationwide, the use of meditation increased more than threefold, from 4.1% in 2012 to 14.2% in 2017, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In October, the United States Preventive Services Task Force for the first time recommended screening for anxiety disorders in children over age 8 and adolescents, the researchers noted.

They said they anticipate that evidence from their study, plus the influential panel’s screening recommendation, will prompt broader coverage of mindfulness-based therapy as an effective treatment for anxiety disorders.

“Our study provides evidence for clinicians, insurers, and healthcare systems to recommend, include and provide reimbursement for mindfulness-based stress reduction as an effective treatment for anxiety disorders because mindfulness meditation currently is reimbursed by very few providers,” Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, the study’s first author, said in a news release.

Hoge, who is director of Georgetown’s Anxiety Disorders Research Program and an associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown, noted several advantages to mindfulness meditation.

It doesn’t require a clinical degree to train mindfulness facilitators, and sessions can be done outside of a medical setting, such as at a school or community center, she said.

“Generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and agoraphobia are anxiety disorders associated with considerable distress, impairment in functioning and increased risk for suicide,” the research paper’s introduction said.

Currently prescribed drugs for the disorders can be very effective, but many patients may have trouble getting them, may not respond to them or may find side effects, such as nausea and drowsiness, a barrier to consistent treatment, the release said.

While standardized mindfulness-based interventions, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction, can decrease anxiety, the researchers said that prior to their study the interventions had not been compared to effective, first-line anti-anxiety drugs.

The investigators recruited 276 patients, averaging 33 years old, most of them women, from three hospitals in Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C. Patients were randomly assigned to a mindfulness-based stress reduction program or escitalopram.

Meditation was offered weekly for eight weeks via 2 1/2-hour, in-person classes, a day-long weekend retreat and 45-minute daily home practice exercises.

The study participants’ anxiety symptoms were evaluated when they enrolled, again after eight weeks of intervention, then at 12 weeks and 24 weeks after enrollment. The clinical evaluators did not know whether the patients had received the drug or therapy.

The researchers said they used a standardized tool to measure the severity of people’s anxiety symptoms, which dropped about 30% for both groups.

Hoge conceded that while mindfulness meditation works, “not everyone is willing to invest the time and effort to successfully complete all of the necessary sessions and do regular home practice which enhances the effect.”

She added that the researchers do not know how phone apps that offer guided meditation compare with in-person, weekly group classes.