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Life can be a lot. Between COVID-19, stressful jobs, and social obligations, well, you know. There’s some heightened anxiety happening. If so, you’re not alone. According to the World Health Organization, cases of anxiety and depression increased 25 percent in the first year of the pandemic. Even with many adults and adolescents dealing with anxious thoughts and feelings, there aren’t enough therapists to provide mental health support. Plus, even for those who can find a licensed professional with availability, sessions can be expensive—and aren’t often covered by insurance. New research finds Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) may be able to help fill this gap.
How researchers conducted the study
MBSR is an eight-week intervention program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn to combat stress, anxiety and depression. The course combines mindfulness meditation with gentle yoga and movement. Some of these practices include hatha yoga, seated meditation and a walking meditation.
While MBSR doesn’t replace the value of therapy, a recent study sheds new light on the program’s influence. Led by Elizabeth Hoge, MD, director of the Anxiety Disorders Research Program and associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University, researchers found MBSR was just as effective as the drug escitalopram in reducing symptoms of anxiety. (Escitalopram, an antidepressant used to treat anxiety, is more commonly known by its brand name Lexapro.)
The study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, recruited 276 people between June 2018 to February 2020 to participate. Researchers divided the participants into two groups: a MBSR one and a escitalopram one.
Participants in the MBSR group completed eight weeks of mindfulness training, which consisted of weekly 150-minute classes, one day-long retreat, and daily 45-minute homework exercises. The other group was placed on a standard dosage of escitalopram (between 10 and 20 milligrams). Researchers assessed members of both groups at three points: 8, 12, and 24 weeks after starting the study. The evaluators did not know whether a participant was taking the drug or part of the MBSR cohort.
Comparing mindfulness and Lexapro
Evaluators used the Clinical Global Impression of Severity scale to measure the outcomes of the two participant groups. This scale rates participants on the severity of their symptoms from one to seven, with seven representing the highest level of anxiety. At the conclusion of the study, the MBSR group’s mean score fell by 1.35 points compared to the anxiety levels of participants at the start of the study. The escitalopram cohort posted similar results, with its mean score falling by 1.43 points.
“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,” Hoge said in a statement.
How MBSR can be effective in treating anxiety
When it comes to MBSR, it’s not just about anxiety. In 2018, a study published in the Journal of Osteopathic Association found MBSR decreases symptoms of chronic pain and depression. Rather than providing a direct treatment for any of these conditions—from anxiety to pain—MBSR serves as a toolkit, Colleen Gallagher, a qualified MBSR teacher previously told Yoga Journal.
A MBSR course touches on different aspects of mind-body practices, from yoga to cognitive awareness to mind training, allowing participants to develop a way to respond to stressors in the present moment, Gallagher said. As a result, this type of long-term program provides the necessary training to deal with symptoms of anxiety.
The potential drawbacks of MBSR
While MBSR can be a helpful tool for many, the main hindrance to those interested may lie in the time commitment. As evident in this study, MBSR eight-week course requires participants to commit to weekly two-and-half-hour meetings, as well as daily homework assignment lasting 45 minutes. For those who are short on time, this type of weekly schedule may not be feasible. However, for those who can make the commitment, they may see life-changing results.