Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) may be as effective as anti-depressants in preventing the recurrence of depression, a new study suggests.
The increasingly popular practice of mindfulness is based on the idea of focussing your awareness on the present moment, then acknowledging and accepting your feelings.
For the purpose of the study, the researchers, from the Oxford Mindfulness Centre and the University of Plymouth, defined MBCT as "a group-based psychological treatment that helps people change the way they think and feel about their experiences and learn skills that reduce the likelihood of further episodes of depression."
They found that people with depression who received MBCT were 31% less likely to suffer a relapse during the next 60 weeks when compared to those who did not receive the therapy.
The study authors used anonymised individual patient data from nine randomised trials of MBCT to draw their conclusions.
Across the nine trials, they found that 38% of people who received MBCT had a depressive relapse within 60 weeks, in contrast to 49% of those who did not receive MBCT.
Taking the time to relapse into account, the researchers concluded that people who received MBCT were 31% less likely to relapse during the 60-week follow-up compared with those who did not receive MBCT.
People who experienced the most symptoms of depression when they entered treatment tended to show greater benefits from MBCT compared with other treatments.
The study found no evidence of adverse events associated with MBCT when delivered by well-trained teachers in a clinical context.
Four of the trials that contributed to the data analysis compared MBCT combined with continuation, tapering, or discontinuation of antidepressants to continued maintenance antidepressant treatment alone.
Data from these trials showed that those who received MBCT, and in many cases reduced or discontinued antidepressant medication, were 23% less likely to relapse to major depression than those who continued on antidepressants and did not receive MBCT.
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Reflecting on the findings, Richard Byng, professor of primary care at the University of Plymouth and one of the co-authors said: "While the evidence is from a relatively small number of trials, it is encouraging for patients and clinicians to have another option.
"There was insufficient data to examine which types of patient or context predict who would benefit most.
"This, along with varied individual study and wide combined study confidence intervals, means that clinicians need to be cautiously optimistic when tapering off antidepressant medication and treat each patient as an individual who may or may not benefit from both MBCT and other effective treatments."
Lead author, Willem Kuyken, professor of clinical psychology at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, added: "This new evidence for Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy, collated from individual patient data across nine randomised trials is very heartening.
"While MBCT is not a panacea, it does clearly offer those with a substantial history of depression a new approach to learning skills to stay well in the long-term.
"It offers people a safe and empowering treatment choice alongside other mainstay approaches such as cognitive-behavioural therapy and maintenance antidepressants."
Having said that, Kuyken acknowledged that more research is needed to get "recovery rates closer to 100% and to help prevent the first onset of depression, earlier in life".
"These are programmes of work we are pursuing at the University of Oxford and with our collaborators around the world," he said.
The study is published in full in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.