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.

Like this post? Subscribe to the blog here or follow us on social media:

Is Compassion for Others Different from Self-Compassion?

I spent a lot of time this summer thinking and writing about compassion. For much of the summer, I was writing my forthcoming book on mindfulness and compassion for lawyers (more details on that to follow). I also completed the Compassion Educator Certification course with the Compassion Education Alliance. In the midst of all this writing and learning, I realized a gray area existed in my understanding of the subject.

Most of the time, teachers instruct self-compassion separately from compassion for others. But as I wrote about it and thought about it more I realized something unexpected: they weren’t separate at all. This was kind of surprising to me, so I asked my teacher and the founder of the Compassion Education Alliance, Aly Waibel (full bio below), to clarify. Her answer was so good that I asked her for an interview so I could share it with you here.

Q. Self-compassion is fortunately getting more attention lately, but is it any different from compassion for everyone else? If so, can you explain how? 

AW: Compassion is the awareness of another’s suffering coupled with a willingness to take action to relieve it. Compassion is relational and so always includes self and other, by definition. The suffering we’re aware of may be in ourselves or another, and the compassionate response or the desire to relieve the suffering is similar, regardless of who is suffering. 

Self-compassion is a new term, and was originated by Kristin Neff as an antidote to self-esteem, which is based on social comparison. The self component of compassion is important to develop as many of us are inclined or conditioned to offer compassion to others and we can forget about ourselves. We can forget that we are just as deserving of compassion as others, or forget to include ourselves in the circle of compassion.

Most of us have a negative critical voice in the head that is constantly narrating our experience with judgments, criticisms and preferences. This voice in the head can be like a bully or cruel tyrant. Self-compassion is a way to bring awareness to this negative self-talk in order to shift it toward more kindness. It helps connect us to our core values and strengths so we are more resourceful and available to others.

Q. So, why are we hearing about all these studies that say self-compassion is good for us? Why would we want to build self-compassion at all? Shouldn’t we just focus on building compassion overall?

AW: There are three RCT studies on the Mindful Self-Compassion training program and over 4000 published studies on self-compassion in other forms. This growing body of research suggests that self-compassion is a primary factor in predicting resilience, decreasing stress, and increasing wellbeing.

The benefits of recognizing our common humanity and offering ourselves the kindness we’d offer a friend are many. However, it’s one component of the bigger process we call compassion. Compassion is relational and our concepts of self and other arise simultaneously. Any time we practice compassion for another, we are the primary beneficiary, and when we practice compassion for ourselves, others in our lives benefit. 

Q. Are you saying that self-compassion and compassion for others aren’t in opposition to each other? Do they actually work together/help each other? 

AW: They must go together, like two wheels of a bike. We can’t have one without the other. If we go too far into compassion for others we run the risk of becoming codependent and if we go too far into self-focused compassion we run the risk of becoming narcissistic or indulging in unhealthy self regard at the expense of others. 

It’s all about balance. When I’m attending to my own needs, for example, I’m less of a burden on my loved ones. When I practice self-inquiry to question the thoughts I’m believing that cause my own stress, I feel more freedom and peace. And then I’m more aware and available to others who may need support or help. When I’m overly self-focused, I miss opportunities to help others. When I’m overly other-focused I run the risk of becoming burned out and then, again, less helpful to others. Most of us have experienced going through a really difficult time or life event and how offering compassion to someone else in the midst of that can feel really good. In other words, shifting focus away from me and my suffering to be there for you can support us both. 

So the caution around self-compassion, for me, is that it may sound like it’s separate from compassion for others, or compassion in itself. Compassion is one process – it flows through individuals and helps each one who is involved — the giver and the receiver. Eventually, the distinction between the giver and the receiver of compassion becomes much less relevant. So regardless of where the suffering originates (in me or in you) the response to it is the same — an awareness of it and a willingness to relieve it, to reduce overall suffering in the system or in the world. 

Q. Wait, if there is no dividing line between compassion for self and compassion for others, how do I protect myself and set appropriate boundaries?  

AW: My experience is that with compassion practice, boundaries naturally arise. I don’t need to calculate, plan or think about boundaries as much. The ‘yes’ and the ‘no’ are more natural and intuitive and flow more naturally. There’s less obligation to say ‘yes’ and less guilt when ‘no’ is the answer.

Q. If compassion is a natural response for most humans, why do we need to do practices to cultivate it? What’s the best way to get started?  

AW: It’s sort of like working out. If we’re fortunate enough to have healthy bodies, we can work out and build our muscles to become stronger, or not. The body is innate and what we choose to do with it, or how we train it, is a choice. Compassion is like a muscle we’re born with that we can build with practices (meditation and visualization practices), so when we’re confronted with suffering in and around us, the compassionate response and capacity to relieve the suffering will be more likely to arise. Similar to how athletes will visualize their race or the game before going out to the field, remembering or imagining moments of compassion in a visualization or meditation can have a similar effect on our performance out on the field of daily life.

One of the best places to start practicing compassion is with mindfulness. Mindfulness is being with what is in the moment without judgment. You share great resources for getting started with mindfulness on your blog! 

Most of us are very caught up in thinking – thinking about the past, planning for the future, judging others or circumstances, comparing ourselves to others, etc. We can get so caught up in and distracted by our thinking that we miss the present moment. And compassion requires our presence. 


Aly Waibel has taught mindfulness and compassion courses and workshops since 2012 and she is a Senior Certified Teacher of the Compassion Cultivation Training course developed at Stanford University. Aly received her PhD in Teaching, Learning and Sociocultural Studies at the University of Arizona College of Education in 2015 and has served in nonprofit leadership roles since 2015. She is currently the Associate Executive Director of Professional Training and Operations at the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion. In 2021, Aly founded the nonprofit organization Compassion Education Alliance (CEA), a global collective that offers courses and support to compassion practitioners, educators and social change agents. She works closely with her fiancé, James Wood, author of Ten Paths to Freedom: Awakening Made Simple.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

Like this post? Subscribe to the blog here or follow us on social media: