“Mindfulness” has become a bit of a buzz word in recent years. It’s not unlikely that you, or a friend or family member, may have tried out a meditation class, downloaded the app Headspace or Calm, or participated in a workplace-sponsored mindfulness training. So perhaps you already have a little bit of knowledge about mindfulness, which can be described as paying attention to one’s thoughts and feelings in a way that is kind, curious, and grounded in the present moment.
Even though all the hype around mindfulness can sometimes make it seem like it’s more of a trend than a treatment, there is evidence that practicing mindfulness can alleviate some physical and mental health problems. In particular, an eight-week course called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction has been shown to improve a variety of physical and mental health conditions, including anxiety. In this group class, students learn meditation techniques and principles for living mindfully, and they practice the things they have learned by meditating daily. Most teachers agree that regular practice lays the foundation for mindful living: By regularly bringing intentional awareness to one’s breath and feelings in one’s body, one can train their brain to be aware of thoughts and emotions, too. This can help one respond to all kinds of difficult feelings, physical and emotional, in a more useful way than reacting automatically or without awareness.
Since many of the benefits of mindfulness have been brought to light, I’ve been asked on multiple occasions by my patients with anxiety, “Should I try mindfulness to help my anxiety?” I have answered this question by replying that practicing mindfulness certainly could lead to an improvement in anxiety symptoms, since it can potentially break habitual thought processes and patterns that exacerbate anxiety. However, researchers don’t yet know if mindfulness training is as effective as other standard treatments for anxiety, such as medication or cognitive-behavioral therapy, which are considered to be the standard, first-line treatments. For this reason, mindfulness practice isn’t typically prescribed as a primary treatment for anxiety.
This lack of knowledge about how useful mindfulness compares to other anxiety treatments is why my research team at Georgetown University Medical Center, Massachusetts General Hospital, and New York University Langone Health is conducting a large-scale clinical trial comparing the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation (specifically, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) to “gold-standard” treatment of medication (specifically, the antidepressant drug Lexapro which has FDA approval for use in generalized anxiety disorder). My colleagues and I want to be able to answer the question, “Should I try mindfulness to help my anxiety?” with a clearer answer—we want to be able to tell our patients whether mindfulness meditation is or isn’t likely to help as much as gold-standard treatment.