The study, led by researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center, is the first randomized clinical trial to compare the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation with the antidepressant escitalopram. The results were published in JAMA Psychiatry, a peer-reviewed journal.
The adult participants in the mindfulness group practiced 45-minute daily meditations using a few different techniques they learned at weekly classes. They also went on daylong weekend retreats.
The meditation techniques included breath awareness; body scanning, in which attention is directed to one body part at a time; and mindful movement, in which stretching and movements bring attention to the body.
Participants in the antidepressant group received 10mg of escitalopram daily the first week, and then took 20mg daily for the rest of the study if the pill was well tolerated. There were 102 patients in the mindfulness group and 106 in the antidepressant group. Escitalopram is sold under the brand names Lexapro and Cipralex, among others.
After monitoring the two groups for eight weeks, researchers found that people using mindfulness meditation saw their anxiety improve nearly as much as people who were taking the antidepressant.
Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, lead author on the study, said the findings support physicians recommending mindfulness meditation as an alternative to antidepressants for some patients. Many people worry that antidepressants will interfere with their daily lives and others start taking medications but stop.
Hoge, who is director of Georgetown University’s Anxiety Disorders Research Program, said the study also provides evidence for insurers to cover mindfulness meditation as a treatment for anxiety.
Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental illness, affecting about 301 million people around the world, according to a February study published in Lancet Psychiatry.