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Mindfulness as Effective as Anti-depressants in Preventing Relapse, Study Shows

Mindfulness as Effective as Anti-depressants in Preventing Relapse, Study Shows

Alternative medicine is often a euphemism for things that have no basis in evidence. Well, mindfulness cannot be classified as alternative, based on studies like this.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is as effective as pharmaceutical therapy in preventing the relapse or recurrence of depression, a new study published in The Lancet has found.

You may have seen the headlines already in newspapers, such as the UK’s Guardian (here) and The Telegraph (here).

This is a big claim: that practicing mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is as effective as taking anti-depressants (in this particular setting). 

The first question is, should we believe it? Well, for those of a scientific background that are interested in the quality of the evidence, it’s worth noting that the study behind this conclusion was a randomized head-to-head clinical trial, involving more than 400 patients. This means the investigators took a group of people who had experienced 3 or more bouts of depression and were currently receiving anti-depressant treatment and then randomly assigned them to continue with that treatment, or to receive MBCT instead.  This kind of trial heads the hierarchy of study designs in terms of the robustness of its technique. So yes, we should give some credence to the results.

What exactly is MBCT?

MBCT is based on the mindfulness for stress reduction 8-week course that is the most popular and common form of mindfulness. Its eight weeks of group sessions and home-practice exercises are designed to enable participants to learn to become more aware of their bodily sensations, thoughts and feelings through observation. Through increased awareness, participants learn to change the nature of their relationship with their own thoughts, cultivating a sense of acceptance.

Although the study investigators were hoping to confirm an hypothesis that MBCT was superior to maintenance anti-depressant use in preventing the relapse of depression, it is still startling that group meditation classes are even as effective as taking drugs. It is perhaps only startling because in western medicine we are taught to believe in the primacy of pharmaceutical therapy over all other forms of treatment.

Mindfulness is an approach that gives participants a greater sense of perspective over what goes on inside their own minds.  A mindfulness practitioner is just a facilitator, in effect, enabling the participant to treat themselves through the regular practice of various exercises.  That such a technique can match the most effective pharmaceuticals available, in preventing the recurrence of depression, tells us something about the power of our own minds, once we are shown how to harness them.

It also says something that the dangers of living life in autopilot. The cost of non-awareness of how our minds work can be stress and depression. Mindfulness is not simply an effective clinical tool, it is a series of vital life lessons that we should be aware of long before depression veers into the picture. A common response from people who successfully complete a mindfulness course is “Why didn’t I know this already?”

So, why don’t we? Western society is externally focused – as in the goal society teaches us is to seek happiness through success and the accumulation of material goods. Happiness is to be found by doing and consuming stuff, we are told. What this ignores is the importance of the inner world – our minds. Our feelings are the result of how our minds interpret the external world. To focus on the latter to the exclusion of the former is neither a recipe for success nor happiness.  Mindfulness is a tool that enables us to address this imbalance.

For The Clearmind Company's summary of the evidence supporting mindfulness - which is growing but not yet complete - see here.

The actual study can be found in The Lancet here

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Thursday, 21 June 2018
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