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Medication or Mindfulness for Anxiety and Depression?

articles Apr 22, 2023
anxiety, depression, medication, mindfulness

Recent studies suggest that mindfulness can be just as effective as medication and with fewer side effects. We explore the science of mindfulness and its role in helping alleviate anxiety and depression.

Anxiety and depression are two of the most common mental health conditions affecting millions worldwide. Anxiety is characterized by persistent worry, fear, and unease, while depression is a mood condition that causes persistent sadness, loss of interest in activities, and a sense of hopelessness. Both conditions can interfere with a person's daily life and negatively impact their well-being.

Treating anxiety and depression traditionally involves standard options like one-on-one cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and medication. However, recent news headlines suggest that for some, “practicing mindfulness treats anxiety as well as medication” and that “mindfulness is better than CBT for treating depression.” This emerging information signals a potential shift in treatment options for these conditions.

The Science of Mindfulness

When considering mindfulness for treating anxiety and depression, it’s important to note that not all mindfulness offerings are alike. Several studies have validated specific programs, primarily the eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) programs, as effective treatment options. 

While mindfulness may not be a fit for everyone, research conducted on thousands of people participating in MBSR and MBCT has found that these programs effectively reduce stress, anxiety, and the relapse of depression.

A recent study involving 276 patients with anxiety found that an MBSR course was just as effective in reducing anxiety symptoms as a popular anti-anxiety medication, Lexapro. The MBSR course, which involves daily meditation practices like body scans, seated mindfulness and mindful movement meditations, is designed to help individuals learn to pay attention to the present moment and accept whatever sensations, thoughts, and feelings arise without judgment. 

During the study, both groups reported similar reductions in anxiety symptoms after eight weeks, but the MBSR group experienced fewer problematic side effects than the Lexapro group. This suggests that MBSR may be a good alternative for those who suffer from anxiety but don't want to risk the side effects of prescription medication.. The study's lead author believes that meditation helps anxious people feel more distant from their experiences without clinging to them, making it a helpful tool for coping.

Is it a choice between medication and mindfulness?

While research supporting mindfulness as an effective treatment option for anxiety and depression emerges, there can be confusion about whether or not medication is needed and questions about whether or not one should be on medication while practicing mindfulness. 

At a recent Mindful Society Global Institute learning event, clinical psychologist and mindfulness researcher Dr. Zindel Segal, co-developer of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, spoke to the evidence supporting mindfulness and that medication and mindfulness is not an either-or situation. 

For those interested in exploring if mindfulness is supportive for them; therapists delivering MBCT programs advise participants to follow their healthcare provider's recommendations, including prescribed medications, as it can be supportive in managing anxiety and depression throughout the process.

The analogy of using a crutch as you learn to walk again after surgery or an accident can help illustrate the relationship medication can play for someone moving through a mindfulness-based program for anxiety and depression. Just as a crutch can help support one's weight as one recovers, medication can support challenging mind and mood states as one develops their innate capacity to manage anxiety and depression through mindfulness training.

 Michael Apollo MHSc RP is the founder of the Mindful Society Global Institute. Prior to founding MSGI in 2014, he was the Program Director of Mindfulness at the University of Toronto. He is an educator, licensed mental health clinician and certified facilitator in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy.


GBD 2019 Mental Disorder Collaborators. (2022, February). Global, regional, and national burden of 12 mental disorders in 204 countries and territories, 1990–2019: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2019. The Lancet Psychiatry, 9(2), 137-150.

Hoge EA et al. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction vs Escitalopram for the Treatment of Adults With Anxiety Disorders: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Psychiatry. 2023;80(1):13–21.

Strauss C et al. Clinical Effectiveness and Cost-Effectiveness of Supported Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Self-help Compared With Supported Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Self-help for Adults Experiencing Depression: The Low-Intensity Guided Help Through Mindfulness (LIGHTMind) Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Psychiatry. Published online March 22, 2023.


The content in our blogs is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your health provider with any questions you may have regarding your mental health.

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