Real Talk About the Study Finding Meditation as Effective as Medication to Treat Anxiety

In the last 2 weeks, several contacts have reached out when they read news reports about a study which suggests meditation could be as effective to treat anxiety as medication. Due to my own life experience, I was not surprised when I read the report. Actually, my reaction was closer to relief. After all, I was also aware of the recent research suggesting that medication may not be as effective as once thought to treat depression.

I have used medication to treat depression in the past so I don’t suggest that other people shouldn’t. I have also used therapy several times in my life and benefited each time. The reason I felt relief when I read about the new study, though, is that more information may provide us with more options for treating mental health conditions.

Even so, I have to admit that I was also a little concerned about how the study might be spun or construed. With that in mind, here are a few things to consider when thinking or sharing news about the study.

1. The Good News

We have known for decades that regular meditation can have physical and mental health benefits, but it is not until much more recently that meditation has been embraced as a treatment for mental health conditions. The fact that researchers thought it worthwhile to consider the impacts of meditation practice v. medication shows how much of a mindset shift has occurred.

It is also good that researchers are exploring various treatment modalities because mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, are often contextual and individualized. My own life experience has shown me that mental health needs may require a menu of tools, instead of just one or two. The more we learn about how meditation can affect or promote mental health, the more we hopefully can discover about how it can be part of a mental health regimen.

Overall then, the new study signals continued growth of research into the impacts of mindfulness and greater acceptance of meditation by the medical and scientific community.

2. The Potential Downside

Despite the positive indications from the new study, I also had some concerns . The first one that sprang to mind was that, perhaps well-meaning, but uninformed people may tell others to “just meditate” to address their mental health needs. Over the years, I have heard many friends confide in me that a loved one told them this. I have also had friends or contacts beat themselves up about not being able to manage their mental health needs with meditation.

When I speak and write on the topic of mindfulness, I regularly warn people that they shouldn’t feel compelled to rush in with the practice. And I don’t instruct people to attempt meditation to avoid other mental health treatment options. Indeed, I attempted meditation when I was deeply depressed and it only resulted in me crying alone in a dark room feeling even more like a failure. Now, once I stabilized and learned gradually to tolerate the practice, meditation has helped me tame my long-standing anxiety and avoid depression.

So, while it may be accurate advice to tell a person with mental health needs that meditation can help, I don’t think it is good advice. Individuals struggling with anxiety or depression may hear it as an instruction to manage their situation on their own. Instead, the better route is to offer support or encourage someone struggling with mental health to reach out for help.

Moreover, before you share information about the study, you should be aware of what it really says. The study didn’t compare 5 minutes of meditation a day with medication. Instead, it compared an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (“MBSR”) course with medication.

I have taken the MBSR course and it includes weekly classes, a recommendation to meditate 45 minutes a day outside of class (a huge amount for new meditators), and a half-day retreat. In other words, it is an intense and immersive commitment that is at least as time-consuming as therapy. So, be careful when you talk about the study that you understand that context.

3. What I Hope Happens Next

As we know, scientific progress is continually unfolding. Thus, this new study clearly does not represent the final limits of what we can know about the impact of mindfulness practices on mental health. Given the limitations of the MBSR program, I hope researchers continue to study the impact of mindfulness practices at shorter intervals but over longer terms on mental health conditions. I didn’t start at anything even close to the amounts recommended in the MBSR program but experienced significant relief after a few weeks and more pronounced benefits after several months.

I hope researchers also continue to develop studies that show us how meditation may work with medication, or therapy, or exercise, or time in nature, etc. And, of course, I hope we see more studies showing the effects of various meditation practices. Again, MBSR primarily relies on body work and breath practice, but other practices such as loving-kindness can have profound impacts on how we relate to the world and thus our mental health.

In short, I see the new study as an overall positive sign, but care should be taken with how its findings are discussed. Having personally experienced how much meditation helped me manage my own anxiety, I am glad the study shows that meditation may be a promising treatment option. I hope further research will help us understand more to ensure that all people have an array of potential tools to meet their mental health needs.

If you want to learn more about what mindfulness and compassion can do for you in a gradual and approachable way, check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

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