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Got Depression or Anxiety? Mindfulness Groups Could Be Just What the Doctor Ordered

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Got Depression or Anxiety? Mindfulness Groups Could Be Just What the Doctor Ordered

There’s a new mental health manager in town.

Learning to be mindful with the help of a group might be as effective in treating depression and anxiety as learning to reprogram your mind one-on-one with a shrink.

In fact, according to Swedish researchers from the Center for Primary Healthcare Research in Malmö, being part of a group that practices mindfulness is just as useful as one-on-one cognitive behavioral therapy for stress-related conditions. Typically, one-on-one Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the gold standard in psychotherapy, but mindfulness is making a name for itself when it comes to easing stress.

Wondering if it’s right for you? Read on.

Mindfulness versus CBT

Mindfulness and CBT are two different methods to lessening stress-related conditions. They can be practiced individually and in groups.

Virginia Frazier, Psy.D, the director of the Center for Behavioral Health at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky, said that mindfulness therapy teaches people to become aware of the present moment in a non-judgmental, compassionate way. On the other hand, CBT teaches people about how their perceptions impact their thoughts, feelings and behaviors, and how to manage their problems by changing the way they “think and behave,” according the National Health Service of the UK. Basically, CBT can focus more on behavioral changes. But mindfulness focuses on embracing things as they are.

The concept and practice of mindfulness should be used at least to some degree within CBT, depending upon the issue or issues addressed, said Shoshana Bennett, Ph.D., a California-based psychologist. She noted that mindfulness therapy is often used in combination with CBT as part of a treatment known as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT).

The Swedish study just focused on mindfulness group therapy in comparison to individual CBT. “Our new research shows that mindfulness group therapy has the equivalent effect as individual CBT for a wide range of psychiatric symptoms that are common among this patient group,” said Jan Sundquist, M.D., Ph.D., author of the recent study in European Psychiatry. His eight-week study took place in 2012 at 16 primary care centers in Sweden and involved 215 people aged 20 to 64. Some had individual CBT and others were put in mindfulness groups. Both groups reported equal improvements.

The Swedish researchers said that the high cost of traditional individual CBT, which is often not covered or requires people to meet a deductible before receiving a discount, creates an obstacle. The researchers contended that ongoing mindfulness group therapy can be a viable alternative that will also free up other resources in the health care spectrum, at least to treat some forms of depression and anxiety.

“Group therapy is often less expensive than individual therapy but it isn’t always covered by insurance,” said Dr. Bennett. But finding a good behavioral therapist who takes insurance isn’t so easy either. Dr. Frazier agrees that mindfulness group therapy is often more cost-effective than one-on-one mindfulness therapy or CBT. She also said she’s heard of scenarios in which mindfulness group therapy is covered by insurance.

With mental health a top concern in the U.S.—and a push to integrate mental health treatment into primary care settings—effective therapy at a more affordable rate could catch on quickly.

More Advantages of Group Care

“For certain types of problems, group therapy may actually be preferable to individual therapy because it allows for patterns that occur in your daily life to recur more naturally, and the therapist present can help facilitate the process or resolution,” Dr. Frazier said.

Dr. Bennett agrees. “Group therapy of any kind can have therapeutic value in and of itself, since participants feel camaraderie and support from the other members,” she noted.

It just may be hard to distinguish exactly what “worked” about the mindfulness groups studied by the Swedish researchers: the group, the mindfulness training or a combination of both, Dr. Bennett added.

But the science says it all: group CBT has been found, for the most part, to be just as effective as individual CBT.

Solo or Solidarity?

Dr. Bennett noted that most therapists in the U.S. are trained to be private counselors. The “group” setting may be a newer trend, or solely associated with support groups. An individual may not consider or know about group therapy options. They immediately turn to a private psychotherapist for treatment, but sometimes the therapist refers them to group care if he or she believes the person will benefit from connecting with others.

Bottom line: if you need help, it may be worthwhile to ask if you would benefit from group therapy. Should a group approach be right for you, ask if a mindfulness or CBT group would be best. If the therapist thinks mindfulness will help, you could be looking at less stress in the near future. Best of all, it could save you a few bucks, as well.


Kristen Fischer is a writer living at the Jersey Shore.

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