In today’s high stress, fast-paced world, many people deal with a high degree of stress just trying to keep up with the constant demands on their life. Unfortunately, the impact of ongoing stress is detrimental to our physical and mental health, leading to a variety of challenging – and even life-threatening – disorders and conditions. Even when proper treatment is received, recovery and healing are hindered if the stress isn’t managed and reduced. Mindfulness-based stress reduction is a program that has helped countless individuals around the world learn to effectively manage stress and live more fully than they ever imagined possible.
Mindfulness has been found to be one of the most effective ways to reduce stress and promote healing. In a nutshell, mindfulness involves being fully aware and present from one moment to the next, without judging your thoughts, feelings, or experience. If you’re like most people, however, mindfulness is a foreign concept. Rather than truly being present and enjoying the moment, you multi-task your way through each day instead. If you find it difficult to let go of the past or constantly worry about the future – rather than accepting that life is full of uncertainties – you’re also not living in the present. As a result, you’re probably not experiencing much joy or satisfaction.
Mindfulness is both a state of mind and a learned skill. Without it, you’re prone to reacting to stressful situations, undesirable emotions, and negative thoughts out of habit. You probably don’t even realize that that’s what you’re doing; nor are you likely aware that such a habit can be broken. Learning to become mindful typically requires practice and determination; it’s not something that you just wake up one day and decide to do.
As you hone your mindfulness skills and it becomes a way of life, you’ll discover that you’re much better equipped to handle life’s ups and downs. The constant internal chaos and chatter will be a thing of the past. You’ll be able to face each challenge that comes your way with newfound clarity and calmness, while experiencing a greater sense of control over your life.
How Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Works
Mindfulness-based stress reduction combines mindfulness meditation and yoga to help reduce stress and, by doing so, promote healing. The approach is beneficial for a vast array of chronic conditions and serious medical issues. The fundamentals of MBSR stem from Eastern mindfulness practices that have been used for centuries to induce a state of calmness and clarity.
The primary goals of MSBR are to help you become more self-aware, less reactive to stress, more compassionate towards yourself, and more resilient to the challenges life inevitably brings. Many people create unnecessary stress in their lives by becoming far too attached to specific desired outcomes, rather than accepting and allowing life to flow as it will. Stress is greatly reduced when they are able to accept the uncertain and transient nature of life.
Negative emotions, thoughts, and behaviors have a very detrimental impact on all aspects of your health – physical, mental, and spiritual. Since your mind plays a significant role in all stress-related disorders, the mindfulness practice of meditation is beneficial for bringing involuntary bodily processes (e.g. heart rate, blood pressure, and overall arousal) into balance and harmony. Yoga is a form of mindfulness movement. It helps undo the consequences of inactivity, which is a pervasive problem in today’s world. Yoga is also particularly beneficial for reducing pain. When done together, yoga and meditation help reconnect the body and mind while greatly enhancing self-awareness.
History of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
Mindfulness-based stress reduction was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, a molecular biologist and 1971 graduate of MIT. Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s interest in meditation and mindfulness was sparked by a lecture he attended on the subject while attending MIT. He began studying meditation and then went on to teach it at the Massachusetts-based Insight Meditation Society.
Dr. Kabat-Zinn founded the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society. Both are part of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where he currently holds the position of Professor Emeritus. His 8-week intensive MBSR program began at the Stress Reduction Clinic in 1979. Over the years, MBSR has become a widely used form of alternative medicine. In fact, numerous research grants have been provided by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) to study the beneficial effects of MBSR.
Today, MBSR programs – and modified versions of it – are offered all over the world in a variety of settings including hospitals, clinics, schools, treatment centers for veterans, and prisons.
Dr. Kabat-Zinn has authored several books on mindfulness during the course of his career. His most recent publication is the 2011 book Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment – and Your Life.
What to Expect in an MBSR Program
MBSR is typically structured as an intensive 8-week, classroom-style program. Typically, participants meet as a small group on a weekly basis. Sessions often last between 2 and 2.5 hours. They are usually taught by healthcare professionals who have undergone appropriate training and certification. Your MBSR teacher may be a psychologist, clinical social worker, physician, or nurse.
Sessions are geared towards developing and improving your mindfulness skills. You’ll learn and practice mindfulness meditation during class. You’ll also learn and practice gentle stretching and simple yoga postures in class, so be sure to wear appropriate clothing (i.e. loose and comfortable).
MBSR classes can vary in size, depending on where they are taught. However, according to the official website at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, a typical class usually has anywhere from 25 to 35 students. The relatively small class size enables instructors to provide personal support and tailored instruction to participants. Group discussion is encouraged, although students aren’t pressured to talk if they don’t feel comfortable. Instructors will also provide education regarding stress and its impact.
Most MBSR programs include daily homework assignments, as well as a workbook and audio CDs to use outside of class. Although the program itself is short-term, it will teach you how to take the things you’ve learned and incorporate them into your daily life. Practicing meditation on regular basis will enable you to reap the benefits of MBSR long after the program ends.
It should be noted that MBSR is not considered a type of group therapy. Rather, it’s considered a form of participatory medicine. Some may find it helpful to think of it as more of an educational program than a type of treatment per se.
Benefits of MBSR
There are many potential long-term benefits to be gained from a mindfulness-based stress reduction program. They include, but aren’t limited to, the following:
- Increased self-esteem
- Greater joy from life’s simple pleasures
- Improved quality of life
- More positive outlook (appreciating what’s right more than focusing on what’s wrong)
- Decrease in physical stress symptoms
- Reduction in chronic pain and overall pain levels
- Decreased need for and use of pain medication
- Decrease in doctor visits
- Increased ability to cope with stress calmly and effectively
- Increased ability to relax
- Improved frustration tolerance
- More energy
- Improved quality of sleep
- Stronger immune system
- Decrease in anxiety
- Less tension
- Decrease in negative feelings
- Decreased risk of depression relapse
- Improved mood
- Better physical health, including improvements in various medical problems (e.g. psoriasis, chronic fatigue, more stable blood glucose levels)
- Improved work performance and satisfaction
- Weight loss without dieting
Disorders, conditions, and problems that can benefit from MBSR
MBSR can be highly effective as an adjunct treatment for many different disorders, conditions, and other problems. It should be noted that it isn’t meant to be used a primary treatment or to replace the treatment for any disorder or condition. It can help:
- Anxiety disorders
- Panic attacks
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Mood disorders
- Eating disorders
- Work-related stress
- Family stress
- Financial stress
- Unresolved grief
- Smoking cessation
- Stress-related disorders
- Digestive problems
- High blood pressure
- Chronic back pain
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Chronic illness
- Hot flashes
- Skin conditions (e.g. psoriasis)
- Insomnia and other sleep problems
- Heart disease
- Chronic fatigue
- Excess weight
When is MBSR not appropriate?
It should be noted that MBSR is not appropriate for everyone. Following are several types of individuals for whom it would not be recommended:
Anyone who is:
- Actively abusing drugs or alcohol
- Less than one year clean and sober
- Actively psychotic or manic
- Experiencing suicidal thoughts (or have recently attempted suicide)
- Going through a major life transition (e.g. a divorce, relocation, career change)
- Dealing with a recent or unresolved trauma
- Experiencing serious mental health issues for which they haven’t been treated or have only recently started treatment
- Unable to handle a classroom setting due to social phobia
It’s important for those who enroll in an MBSR program are 1) able to participate and benefit from the course, 2) not going to be a distraction or hindrance to others in the program, and 3) have sufficient support and stability to benefit from the program. This certainly doesn’t mean that they can’t enroll in an MBSR program at some point in the future when they’re in a more stable place.
If you are currently in treatment with a therapist, physician, an addiction program, or other healthcare provider or treatment center, it’s recommended that you discuss your desire to enroll in an MBSR program with your provider or treatment team. Most MBSR instructors require a written referral or note of agreement (to participate) from your current provider.
Mindfulness Techniques and Exercises
Mindfulness-based stress reduction programs typically use several different guided mindfulness exercises, including:
- Body scan – This exercise involves lying on your back with your eyes closed. Slowly scan your body from head to toe and note any tension or pain. If you do find a painful or tight spot, stop scanning and breathe deeply and slowly until it relaxes, focusing on the spot. You can also visualize a bright, white beam of healing light targeting the spot.
- Seated meditation – This exercise involves sitting comfortably and quietly while focusing either on your breathing or a specific word or mantra. As thoughts come into your mind, allow them to pass without judgment and shift your focus back to your mantra or breathing.
- Object meditation – This meditation exercise involves focusing solely on a chosen object, such as a small candle, flower, or rock. Engaging all your senses, focus on every detail of the object (e.g. its shape, smell, colors, etc.)
- Walking meditation – Similar to seated meditation, your focus is on your breathing, movement, and physical sensations. Breathing in the same rhythm as your footsteps, strive to relax any feelings of tension.
- Yoga stretches and poses
- Urge surfing – This exercise enables you to handle unwanted thoughts and feelings such as cravings, worries, and anxiety By “surfing the urge” you first notice the warning signs. When it appears, picture it as a wave that rises and then falls. Allow yourself to “ride” the wave without giving into the craving, worry, or anxiety, and then allow it to pass. Celebrate the victory and accept the fact that it will appear again – and will pass again.
Finding an MBSR Program
Probably one of the best ways to find an MBSR program in your area is to search online. You can search for “mindfulness-based stress reduction [your city]” or “MBSR [your city]”. Those two approaches should produce multiple results, unless you live in a remote area or small town. You can also check with your physician or a local hospital regarding MBSR courses. Also, there are courses available online that you can do on your own. While still beneficial, you won’t get the powerful benefits of working with others in a group setting or having the personalized, face-to-face instruction of the person leading a class. The latter issues may seem trivial, but they aren’t. It’s always recommended that you participate in a class rather than do the course online if possible.
Once you do find a program, make sure the instructor is properly trained and certified to teach an MBSR course. Fees vary substantially from one program to the next, but typically range from $400 to $600 for the 8-week program. Don’t assume your health insurance will cover the cost without checking with them first. Many companies won’t cover this type of preventative medicine program. However, some companies will reimburse it under their wellness codes.
You don’t need to have a diagnosable medical condition or psychiatric disorder to gain significant benefits from mindfulness-based stress reduction. If there is a program offered in your area, and you have the time and resources to participate, it’s definitely worth considering. Truly living life in the present will change your life for the better in so many wonderful ways.