New Study Compares Meditation to Drug Therapy to Combat Anxiety

By Jim Van Huysse, HBI Executive Director

effectiveness of antidepressantS vs. mindfulness

On November 9. 2022, the Journal of American Medical Association Psychiatry (JAMA) published the first study to compare the effectiveness of meditation against standard drug therapy. The clinical trial tracked 208 adults with anxiety disorders from June 2018 through February 2020 in Boston, New York, and Washington. Participants in the 8-week trial were either treated with the antidepressant escitalopram or a mindfulness program. Those who received the mindfulness treatment took a 2.5-hour guided, in-person practice each week in addition to a 45-minute daily practice on their own.

Study results

At the beginning of the trial, study participants were given a seven-point baseline evaluation by a blinded clinician to measure their anxiety levels. The same evaluation was given at the end of the study, along with follow-ups at 12 and 24-weeks. The severity of the anxiety increased with the number of the scale, with “seven” indicating extreme anxiety.

The results across measurements were remarkably similar:

  • Pre-assessment levels averaged about 4.5 out of 7
  • 8-week assessment levels averaged 3 out of 7
  • 12 and 24-week assessments both dropped slightly below 3 out of 7

The study concluded that in this trial, mindfulness was as effective as standard drug therapy in reducing anxiety among patients. This varied from previous meditation studies, which only compared meditation against no intervention, education, or traditional behavioral therapies.

It is interesting to note that 10 patients – or 10% – of those receiving the drug therapy dropped out of the study due to severe side effects associated with taking escitalopram including nausea, fatigue and insomnia. Other side effects associated with the drug include diarrhea, shaking, sexual problems, flu-like symptoms, and stomach pain. No patients receiving the mindfulness treatment reported negative side effects.

Open Heart Meditation Group

increasED prevelence of anxiety and stress

Anxiety disorders can be incredibly debilitating. While it’s normal to experience moments of anxiety, prolonged experiences of anxiety that become debilitating – feel out of one’s ability to control or manage and are frequent – can be symptoms of any number of anxiety disorders, which panic attacks, generalized anxiety disorder, social phobia, among others. It is estimated that over 40% of women and 25% of men in the U.S. have experienced a form of anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. Stress and anxiety often go hand-in-hand, and both of these reactions have been exacerbated by the culmination of COVID-19 related concerns, the rising costs due to inflation, and global and political unrest.

Why mindfulness can be effective

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a technique developed in the 1970’s by Jon Kabat-Zinn to help reduce stress and mental health challenges. MBSR is typically taught as an eight-week program, as was the case for this study. MBSR can help individuals become aware of physical tension and to release it, generally by undergoing a “body scanning” technique. In this process, the individual focuses their attention on various parts of their body to detect and consciously release areas of holding. Mindfulness can also help people to become more aware of unproductive emotions and self-limiting thoughts and patterns. Mindfulness also supports individuals in being more present in the moment, rather than preoccupied with the past or worried about the future.

“Father” of MBSR, Jon Kabat-Zinn

Our Research on meditation supports these findings

Heart Based Institute has conducted a number of studies that also demonstrate the effectiveness of meditation on reducing stress and anxiety. In one such study, over 60 participants from Pfizer, Inc. reported dramatic improvement in their perceptions about stress and work after just one, 2-hour meditation introduction. When thinking about their work, post-assessments showed a 10x increase in “very relaxed” and a nearly 70% reduction in “very stressed” compared to pre-session self-reports:

Pfizer Self-Assessment Study
HBI / Pfizer Self-Assessment Study

In another study, our partner MAHEC (Mountain Area Health Education Center) measured the impact of our training on stress relief among medical professionals six months after completing our program. The impact of this heart based approach remained significant, with 90% reporting feeling calmer, 83% feeling less stressed, and 76% feeling less burned out:

HBI / MAHEC Longitudinal Study

Alternatives to mind-based approaches

While MBSR and other mind-based techniques can certainly be effective in reducing anxiety and stress, adding the spiritual heart to a practice can make a significant impact. By way of example, HBI partnered with a leading Big Ten medical school to compare the differences in brain function when one subject alternated between resting, mindfulness, and heart-based states. Brain function was shown to be more integrated among the eight brain regions when in the heart-based state.

MRI Study Resting/Mindfulness/Open Heart State

Aside from measuring the effectiveness of the heart, thousands of participants have reported feeling significant improvements while relying on the spiritual heart compared to other meditation practices including:

  • Calmer mind
  • Improved mood
  • Increased mental resilience
  • Reduced insomnia
  • Better interpersonal relationships

Two of these heart-centered approaches include the “Open Heart for Everyone” series and “Open Heart Mindfulness.” Open Heart for Everyone is a free, 5-week introductory series on the spiritual heart that helps participants to recognize and experience the differences between an overly dominant mind and the peace that can be achieved through the doorway of the heart. The Open Heart Mindfulness program consists of four sequential workshops that offer approachable exercises to open your heart and disengage from negative emotions and limiting patterns so participants can experience the happiness and benefits of both mindfulness and heartfulness at the same time.

Additionally, the Open Heart Meditation is a simple, yet profoundly effective guided recording can be enjoyed on YouTube.

Regardless of the practice, it’s important to recognize when you need help and to prioritize seeking it out. Whether through therapeutic services, loved ones, meditation or mind/body approaches, or other channels, it is vital to receive customized support that provides you with the most helpful and effective relief.