We have written extensively in this blog and in our books about the strong scientific evidence that supports cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as one of the most effective treatments for both anxiety and depression. CBT is so well studied and validated that frankly, we can’t imagine why it shouldn’t be the foundation of most treatment plans.

At the same time, we’ve regularly recommended mindfulness techniques such as meditation, yoga, and mindful acceptance to our clients (and we practice what we preach). Mindfulness oversimplified involves focusing on and accepting the present moment. Throughout the years we’ve attended numerous continuing education classes to learn more about mindfulness techniques. Mindfulness is a part of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBST). Wow, that’s a bunch of initials.

There have been many studies that show the effectiveness of various cognitive behavioral therapies plus mindfulness in reducing symptoms involved with chronic pain patients, in decreasing relapse for people with depression, managing stress, and helping those with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). The problem with those studies is that since cognitive behavioral techniques are used in addition to mindfulness, it’s hard to tell what is really helping—the original CBT or the mindfulness. However, a recent article, “The Effect of Mindfulness-Based Therapy on Anxiety and Depression: A Meta-Analytic Review,” looks specifically at the effects of mindfulness on treating anxiety and depression in people who have high levels of anxiety and depression (Hofman, Sawyer, Witt, & Oh 2010).

The authors of this study are cautiously optimistic. They conclude that mindfulness is indeed “a promising intervention.” Good. We figured that the experiences of practitioners over the last 5,000 years or so would also support this conclusion. Yet, the question still lingers. What part of the treatment is actually helping people—mindfulness and CBT both involve changing the way we think and changing what we do.

Unfortunately, the authors of this meta-analytic study could not find a body of studies comparing the effectiveness of CBT versus mindfulness strategies alone. Therefore, all we know at this time is that mindfulness techniques appear to work effectively in ameliorating symptoms of anxiety or depression. What we don’t know is whether or not mindfulness is more or less effective than CBT or if the combination results in an enhanced outcome.

As usual, science proceeds slowly. Hopefully we’ll have some more answers sooner than another 5,000 years. In the meantime, breathe…