Anxiety is the most common mental health problem in the United States. Approximately 34% of the population is affected by an anxiety disorder during their lifetime. An estimated 19% of American adults age 18 and older have had an anxiety disorder in the past year.
Anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), phobias (such as agoraphobia), and post-traumatic stress disorder ( PTSD). Generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by excessive worry that is difficult to control, along with physical symptoms such as restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, and trouble sleeping. Although approximately 6.8 million adults in the United States are affected by GAD, less than half (43%) receive some form of treatment.
Considerable research has shown that meditation and other mindfulness practices can be extremely effective in helping reduce anxiety, but what wasn’t known was how they compare to standard treatment using medication. … so far.
The results of the first scientific study directly comparing meditation/mindfulness – specifically mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) – to anti-anxiety medications have just been published in JAMA Psychiatry. This research found that the two decidedly different methods work equally well in terms of reducing symptoms.
This randomized clinical trial followed 276 patients diagnosed with GAD, half of whom received a commonly prescribed antidepressant drug for anxiety – escitalopram (brand name Lexapro) and the other half participated in a drug reduction program. mindfulness-based stress. After eight weeks, participants in both groups reported a 30% drop in their level of anxiety, measured using a standardized assessment instrument. Their anxiety levels continued to decrease until the end of the 24-week study.
These findings are particularly timely as last September an influential US health task force recommended routine screening for anxiety in adults, and multiple reports suggest that global anxiety rates have recently increased. , due to concerns over the pandemic, political and racial unrest, climate change, inflation and other financial uncertainties.
Side effects were significantly more common among those receiving medication; almost 80% of participants experienced at least one side effect, such as trouble sleeping, nausea, headache, decreased sex drive and increased anxiety. In comparison, the mindfulness group reported only one side effect: increased anxiety in about 15% of participants.
However, taking a pill is convenient and easy, requiring virtually no time and only the need to remember to take it. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is a structured eight-week program that includes guided practice and self-practice and requires a significant initial time commitment: participants took two-and-a-half-hour group classes twice per week for eight weeks and were asked to meditate at home for 45 minutes each day throughout the study period.
Anxiety usually stems more from our thoughts than from actual experiences
The human mind produces a continuous cascade of thoughts, the majority of which have nothing to do with our current situation. These thoughts grab our attention and carry it away like a leaf on a stiff wind. In this field of ceaseless mental activity, our thoughts combine in the form of stories that our minds tell us – compelling and seductive stories, and so we tend to believe them.
Because our thinking determines our perception of reality, to an impressive extent, how we think determines our reality, or at the very least influences it in some significant way. For the most part, anxiety doesn’t come so much from our experiences – it comes from how we think about our experiences; the stories our thoughts create about our experiences. Many of these stories are compelling tales that take us back in time or propel us into the future, on to-do lists, assumptions, and all sorts of concerns about the future, including things that might or ( in all likelihood) may not arrive later today, tomorrow, in two weeks, in six months or in years.
As a rule, anxiety is generated by a feeling of “threat”. It doesn’t matter if the threat is real or imagined: thanks to the mind-body connection, thinking about potential threats activates the fight or flight response in the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system and increases anxiety. Mindfulness practice makes thought-generated stories that fuel anxiety less powerful. It does this by helping us discern the difference between the reality of our experiences (what is actually happening) and the stories our mind tells us about that reality (what we tell ourselves about what is happening). – stories that frequently contribute, if not create, anxiety.
Through mindfulness practices, you can develop greater awareness of the present moment, as well as the ability to direct and hold your attention where you want it. Since most of the time, this here and now moment is essentially safe, training the mind to bring attention to the present moment can also help reduce anxiety significantly.
Mindfulness Increases Our Ability to Handle Anxiety
Naturally, we want to get rid of uncomfortable feelings, including anxiety. But paradoxically, the stronger our desire not to feel a particular feeling, the more intensely we are likely to feel it. As a result, most attempts to avoid anxiety end up increasing and prolonging it. A central goal of mindfulness practice is to learn to accept the full range of our emotional experiences, whether positive or painful.
Instead of trying to get rid of anxiety, the goal is to increase the ability to bear it – by observing it, being present with it, allowing it, coexisting with it, and ultimately doing the peace with her. Moving towards accepting difficult and uncomfortable emotions rather than fighting against them creates a fascinating form of freedom: the thoughts and emotions they fuel arise and we can simply become aware of them and move through them, which makes us helps overcome them.
This new research empirically demonstrates that there are alternatives to treating anxiety that do not involve medication, with their range of side effects, that can be just as effective. The practice of mindfulness is not about learning to control our thoughts and emotions; it’s about learning and applying awareness and skills so they don’t control us.
Copyright 2022 Dan Mager
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