A new study found that mindfulness and meditation can help some cope with anxiety as well as medication can. As winter comes, it brings with it the stress of the holidays and worrying about the “tripledemic” of COVID, flu, and RSV. Especially at this time of year, many are wondering what the right approach is for treating their anxiety.

Amanda Baker, PhD, a psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry who also was the Massachusetts General Hospital co-site principal investigator for the study, explains that there is a difference between anxiety as a disorder and anxiety as situational stress, like what might occur around the holidays. Stress is a universal phenomenon that most people experience at one time or another. However, when the level of distress begins interfering in daily life, it can cross over into a clinical diagnosis.

"This new study found that Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) wasn’t inferior to medication in treating anxiety,” Dr. Baker says. “MBSR is an 8-week meditation course in which someone enrolls that provides a rigorous ‘dose’ of meditation practices.”

At a time when anxiety is high, and access to mental health providers may be low, Dr. Baker said she is hopeful this study, which shows that MBSR is a research-supported tool for managing anxiety, offers people a new option to try as they seek care for stress and anxiety. But how do you know whether medication or meditation is right for you?

This study revealed another resource for people to choose from when seeking to cope with anxiety. While medication or cognitive behavioral therapy may be right for some patients, others may now opt for a meditation regimen.

Amanda Baker, PhD
Department of Psychiatry, Mass General

Tips for deciding between medication vs. meditation:

  1. When to seek support: If you find it challenging to return to equilibrium after stressors are removed from your routine (like after the holidays), it may indicate you need another level of intervention to cope with your anxiety, such as therapy with a mental health professional, medication, or a meditation regimen.
  2. Meditation for maintaining equilibrium: There are several approaches to mindfulness to try during moments of stress and anxiety, including breathing exercises, mindful movement like yoga or stretching, and doing a body scan can lead to reduced feelings of stress.
  3. Deciding on the best approach: If you need support from a mental health practitioner to manage your anxiety, the findings from this study suggest that MBSR can now be in the mix of treatment options, along with therapy or medication.

Dr. Baker points out that no one strategy works for everyone, so it’s best to consult with your primary care physician or mental health practitioner to determine which treatment options are best for you.