Mindfulness Is as Effective as Medication in Treating Some Anxiety Disorders

February 23, 2023 By Renee Grutzik, amn8sb@virginia.edu Renee Grutzik, amn8sb@virginia.edu

New research published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry shows that daily mindfulness practices can be as effective in treating mild anxiety as taking anti-anxiety medications.

The study recruited subjects at three different hospitals in Massachusetts, New York, and Washington, D.C. The participants were divided into two groups. Participants in one group received daily doses of escitalopram, commonly known as Lexapro, while the second group participated in an eight-week mindfulness intervention.

Study subjects in the mindfulness intervention pool reported feeling a decrease in their anxiety symptoms that was statistically similar to the group that received the anti-anxiety medication.

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Portrait of Sam Green

Sam Green, an associate professor of nursing, turned to mindfulness as an alternative to anti-anxiety medication, and has never looked back. Now, Green teaches UVA students the importance of implementing mindfulness into their daily lives. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

The results of the experiment come as no surprise to University of Virginia nursing professor Sam Green.

In 1994, before becoming an associate professor of nursing at UVA, Green was a researcher in the University’s cell biology department. Green turned to his doctor to relieve the stress he felt in his taxing work environment.

“The first thing [my doctor] said to me was, ‘Do you want me to write you a prescription?’” he recalled. Puzzled by his provider’s immediate suggestion of medication, Green turned to mindfulness for stress reduction, where he found tremendous relief.

In 2005, Green started teaching mindfulness-based stress reduction classes at the University’s Mindfulness Center, a branch of the School of Medicine. He followed that up with a one-credit mindfulness course a few years later, which is now offered in the School of Nursing.

The response to these classes has been extraordinary, with some students describing the course as “life-changing” and a class that “should be required for all students.”

For the study, more than 200 participants assessed their anxiety on a seven-point scale. The higher the number, the higher the anxiety. In both groups – the medicated group and the mindful group – scores dropped from an average of moderate anxiety to mild anxiety. That showed, according to researchers, mindfulness was just as good as medicine in many cases.

Mindfulness Renewal

If you’d like to renew a personal practice of mindfulness, this four-week course is designed to support your intention to begin again or to deepen your current practice. The class meets Mondays, March 6-27, 4-6 p.m. live online via Zoom.

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A free all-day silent retreat for current and past students of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness for Healthcare Providers on Saturday, March 11 from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. on Zoom.

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Leslie Hubbard also believes that.

Hubbard is the program director of student engagement at UVA’s Contemplative Science Center, which hosts a variety of programs designed to better students’ lives, including yoga classes, meditation groups and more. She also knows firsthand how stress-reducing exercises can temper a student’s anxiety.

Portrait of Leslie Hubbard

For over seven years, Leslie Hubbard of UVA’s Contemplative Science Center has been coordinating and curating wellness programs for students to practice meditation, yoga, and mindfulness. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

As a professional dancer during high school and college, “I was performing and auditioning, and I had a lot of anxiety about it,” she said. “I started doing mindfulness practices to help me be a better dancer … and I found it helped tremendously for me to be more present in what I was doing.”

At UVA, Hubbard has been coordinating, designing and teaching programs for student engagement for more than seven years. One of Hubbard’s outreach projects included instructing a course in the College of Arts & Sciences called “The Art and Science of Human Flourishing.”

Although participants in the recent mindfulness study took a class, Hubbard said you don’t need in-person instruction to benefit. There are two types of mindfulness exercises, Hubbard said. Formal practices are scheduled mindfulness exercises, typically performed with an instructor, while applied practices can be implemented throughout a day.

“For example, for me, applied practices can be done when I’m driving or walking around,” she said. “If I set an intention that I want to use it as my mindfulness practice, I tell myself to be fully present when I go from point A to point B.”

The Contemplative Sciences Center, which soon will be housed in the new Contemplative Commons building being constructed in part with a $40 million gift from Paul and Sonia Jones, offers a virtual course called Mindfulness Meetup. It’s a weekly program to teach students how to implement mindfulness into their daily lives, and maybe eschew anxiety medicine.

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Hubbard said UVA’s Student Flourishing app is a great starting point for anyone seeking resources to try mindfulness.

The Contemplative Sciences Center “launched the Flourish app for first-year students in orientation last summer,” she said. “There are meditations and modules on there that are very easily accessible.”

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Today, the Flourish app is free for UVA students and faculty and features 10 prerecorded mindfulness classes instructed by Green.

“Sessions on the app are really easy to follow along and include modules to learn the basics of meditation and mindfulness,” Hubbard said.

The University of Virginia has several resources available for students to learn about mindfulness and how it can benefit their lives. For students and community members interested in participating in an organized mindfulness intervention, check out the resources from UVA’s Mindfulness Center.

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