We all deal with stress on a daily basis, whether we’re old or young, large or small, lofty thinkers or practical doers.
Even the most practiced meditator and the yogi who radiates peace experience this inevitable aspect of the human experience.
It’s inescapable, and it brings with it a host of uncomfortable and distracting symptoms. Stress isn’t just a feeling or a mental state; if you don’t address it, it seeps into every aspect of your life.
One way to cope with stress is through mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR, an eight-week course that teaches how to use mindfulness in daily life. It’s a proven way to help deal with the stressors of daily life. In this article, we’ll explore what MBSR is and what resources are available for people interested in participating in and administering MBSR courses.
Symptoms of Stress
According to WebMD, stress can produce the following symptoms:
- Low energy;
- Upset stomach, including diarrhea, constipation, and nausea;
- Aches, pains, and tense muscles;
- Chest pain and rapid heartbeat;
- Frequent colds and infections;
- Loss of sexual desire and/or ability.
Beyond these physical symptoms, stress can also have a big impact on your emotions and general mood.
Stress.org describes a few of the mental or emotional symptoms of mounting stress:
- Difficulty concentrating, racing thoughts;
- Trouble learning new information;
- Forgetfulness, disorganization, confusion;
- Difficulty in making decisions;
- Feeling overloaded or overwhelmed;
- Frequent crying spells or suicidal thoughts;
- Feelings of loneliness or worthlessness;
- Little interest in appearance, punctuality;
- Nervous habits, fidgeting, feet tapping;
- Increased frustration, irritability, edginess;
- Overreaction to petty annoyances.
Looking at these symptoms, it’s clear that stress can reach its hungry tentacles into every nook and cranny of your daily life.
This all seems rather negative, but don’t get too down yet.
The quote above, while humorous and simplistic, is actually onto something. Stress is inevitable in life, this we know. But we should remind ourselves that succumbing to the negative symptoms of stress is not inevitable.
When we treat stress as an opportunity instead of a threat, we can change our mindset and meet the challenge head-on, contributing to our own growth and development instead of throwing up our hands and waiting to be swallowed whole.
So, how do we turn our “stressed” into “desserts?” What can we do to turn times of struggle into opportunities for positive change?
MBSR has answers for us.
What Is MBSR? A Definition
Mindfulness-based stress reduction is a group program that was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1970s to treat patients struggling with life’s difficulties and physical and/or mental illness (Kabat-Zinn, 2013).
Although it was initially created to aid hospital patients, it has since been used effectively by a wide range of people from all walks of life.
In fact, according to the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts, more than 24,000 people have taken advantage of the MBSR program the center debuted in 1979 (Center for Mindfulness, 2017).
MBSR is a flexible and customizable approach to stress reduction. It’s composed of two main components: mindfulness meditation and yoga. Instead of following a script or acting out meticulously described steps, mindfulness is practiced in the manner that best suits the individual (Center for Mindfulness, 2017).
While MBSR is often different for every person in practice, it is based on the same set of principles. The following descriptions are pulled straight from the Center for Mindfulness website:
- Making the experience a challenge rather than a chore and thus turning the observing of one’s life mindfully into an adventure in living rather than one more thing one “has” to do for oneself to be healthy;
- An emphasis on the importance of individual effort and motivation and regular disciplined practice of the meditation in its various forms, whether one “feels” like practicing on a particular day or not;
- The immediate lifestyle change that is required to undertake formal mindfulness practice, since it requires a significant time commitment (in the clinic 45 minutes a day, six days a week minimally);
The importance of making each moment count by consciously bringing it into awareness during practice, thus stepping out of clock time into the present moment;
- An educational rather than a therapeutic orientation, which makes use of relatively large “classes” of participants in a time-limited course structure to provide a community of learning and practice, and a “critical mass” to help in cultivating ongoing motivation, support, and feelings of acceptance and belonging;
- A medically heterogeneous environment, in which people with a broad range of medical conditions participate in classes together without segregation by diagnosis or conditions and specializations of intervention. This approach has the virtue of focusing on what people have in common rather than what is special about their particular disease (what is “right” with them rather than what is “wrong” with them), which is left to the attention of other dimensions of the health care team and to specialized support groups for specific classes of patients, where that is appropriate (Center for Mindfulness, 2017).
When added to existing medical and/or psychological treatment, MBSR has shown to effectively enhance the results of treatment related to:
- Anxiety and panic attacks;
- Chronic illness;
- Eating disorders;
- Gastrointestinal distress;
- Heart disease;
- High blood pressure;
- Post-traumatic stress disorder;
- Skin disorders;
- Sleep problems;
- Work, family, and financial stress (Center for Mindfulness, 2017).
With such an impressive list of benefits, it’s hard to argue against giving MBSR a shot, especially since the program does not require an unreasonable amount of time, energy, or resources.
The following section goes into more detail about how MBSR was established and what it entails.
Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Work on MBSR
Jon Kabat-Zinn is considered the founding father of mindfulness-based stress reduction, as he created the practice in the 1970s.
He took a modern, scientific-based perspective to traditional Buddhist principles of mindfulness and meditation and developed a flexible approach to reducing stress.
MBSR was first put into practice at the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where Jon Kabat-Zinn was established as a professor of medicine.
At the time, the program Kabat-Zinn founded was called the Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program, which was later changed to mindfulness-based stress reduction (Center for Mindfulness, 2017).
With the name change came a shift in perspective, from emphasizing the Buddhist foundations to making the program more secular and inviting to people from all systems of belief (Wilson, 2014). Kabat-Zinn viewed mindfulness as a practice that every human has the capacity to engage in, and MBSR promotes this perspective by allowing for individualization (Center for Mindfulness, 2017).
Kabat-Zinn’s work with MBSR contributed to a movement of acceptance and awareness in an environment of seemingly unending stress, but his vision of mindfulness for all may be his enduring legacy.
There are virtually no barriers to the practice of mindfulness or yoga. If you have a mind, you can practice mindfulness, and if you have a body that is capable of movement, you can practice yoga.
So, without further ado, let’s jump in and explore MBSR!
The 8 Most Popular MBSR Exercises and Techniques
As expected, mindfulness is heavily featured in MBSR techniques. While it’s easy to think of mindfulness as a certain state of mind, there are actually several different ways to practice or engage in mindfulness, with varying areas of emphasis.
1. Focus Mindfulness
Practicing mindfulness with an emphasis on focus involves looking inward to observe what is happening in your mind.
It can be described as “eyes on the road” in that there is a singular focus on one experience.
To keep your focus, it can be helpful to use a particular stimulus (like breath) to keep yourself grounded in the moment (The Mindful Word, 2012).
2. Awareness Mindfulness
Unlike focusing, practicing awareness emphasizes the external instead of the internal. Awareness focuses on the mind but from an outside perspective. When trying mindfulness from an awareness angle, try to view your mental activity as if it belonged to someone else.
In general, awareness mindfulness can be described as looking at your thoughts and feelings from outside of your usual self-centered experience and observing your mind as a stream of consciousness without attaching judgment.
For an example of a simple awareness exercise, use the following guide:
3. Shifting from Focus to Awareness
For switching from focus mindfulness to awareness mindfulness, try these tips:
Watch the stream of consciousness, dispassionately
Pluck something from the stream and deliberately focus on it (e.g. a dream image, a memory, a painful feeling).
The Mindful Word outlines several popular mindfulness exercises, including:
1. The Breath
The exercise described above is one such exercise that facilitates mindfulness by focusing on the breath.
2. Body Scan
The exercise described above is one such exercise that facilitates mindfulness by focusing on the breath.
Lie with your back on the floor or a bed and close your eyes.
Move your awareness through your body, focusing on one area at a time.
Stop whenever you find an area that is unusually tight or sore and focus your breath on this area until it relaxes.
You can use a calm and healing visualization at this point as well (e.g., a ball of white light melting into the sore spot).
3. Object Meditation
Hold an object that is special or interesting to you. Focus all of your senses on it and note the information your senses feedback to you, including its shape, size, color, texture, smell, taste, or sounds it makes when manipulated.
Like the previous exercise, this exercise can be completed with all your senses while you focus on eating a particular food, like dark chocolate or a raisin.
Eat slowly, utilizing all five senses: smell, taste, touch, sight, and even sound.
5. Walking Meditation
Take a leisurely walk at a gentle but familiar pace. Observe how you walk and pay attention to the sensations in your body as you walk.
Notice how your shoulders feel (Tight? Loose? Strong?), the sensations in your feet as they meet the ground, the swing of your hips with each stride. Match your breathing to your footsteps.
6. Mindful Stretching
You can practice mindful stretching with any set of stretches that you like, but if you want a guided practice you can give yoga a try (more on that in the next section).
The Mindful Word also describes two awareness exercises. If you’d like to try an exercise in improving your awareness, try one of the following exercises.
1. Simply Watching
This exercise involves only you and your thoughts. Instead of focusing on your thoughts as they rise to the surface, let them pass by like clouds in the sky.
Refrain from attaching value judgments to your thoughts (e.g., “I’m terrible for thinking that,” or “What a kind thought! I am a good person.”).
If it helps, you can identify or even vocalize each thought, feeling, or sensation as they come up (i.e., “sore neck, pizza, best friend, anger, tingling, empty stomach, pizza again, grandma, I miss her”) (The Mindful Word, 2012).
2. Worry or Urge “Surfing”
Approach your thoughts and feelings like you’re surfing on a wave.
Turn your awareness to the warning signs of a negative feeling like worry, anxiety, or anger approaching.
Imagine the negative emotion coming at you like a wave that gets bigger and bigger as it approaches, crests as it reaches you, and falls as it moves away.
Imagine riding that wave as it passes, and let the negative emotion go with it. Make sure to celebrate your ability to let the emotion go, but acknowledge that more will come eventually and remember to “ride the wave” again when they do (The Mindful Word, 2012).
For more detailed explanations of each exercise, visit The Mindful Word website here.
Yoga and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
As noted earlier, yoga can be an excellent way to reduce stress and practice mindfulness.
Several studies have shown that practicing yoga can benefit people from all walks of life.
For example, a study of mental health professionals showed that practicing yoga significantly reduced work-related stress and enhanced their ability to adapt and react to stress (Lin, Huang, Shiu, & Yeh, 2015).
Yoga can also help school employees enhance their levels of calmness, comfort, and cheerfulness, as well as decrease their cognitive and body stress (Nosaka & Okamura, 2015).
Veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can also benefit from yoga. Yoga has proven effective for veterans in improving PTSD-related symptoms and quality of sleep (Staples, Hamilton, & Uddo, 2013).
Female veterans, in particular, showed a reduction of PTSD-related symptoms and substance abuse behavior when they participated in a 12-session yoga treatment (Reddy, Dick, Gerber, & Mitchell, 2014).
Even children can enjoy the benefits of yoga. One study found that a 10-week yoga class decreased cortisol, a stress-related hormone, in second-graders (Butzer et al., 2015). It also contributed to a decrease in behavior problems in second- and third-graders.
Another study showed that yoga can decrease academic-related stress in children (Venkataramana, Poomalil, & Shobhasree, 2008).
According to Kabat-Zinn, there are seven foundational attitudes that are integral to the practice of mindfulness for the purpose of stress reduction:
- Non-judgment: intentionally assume the mind frame of an impartial witness;
- Patience: a form of wisdom that allows us to give ourselves space and time to have our experiences;
- A beginner’s mind: a mindset that is willing to experience everything as if it is the first time;
- Trust: having trust in yourself and honoring your own knowledge and experience;
- Non-striving: an attitude that eschews the usual state of trying to get somewhere or accomplish something in particular, but encourages the practitioner to simply be;
- Acceptance: seeing things as they really are in each moment, rather than as you would like them to be or as the worst interpretation may present; in other words, taking things as they come;
- Letting go: intentionally releasing control and allowing ourselves to fully participate in our experience.
For more information on these foundational attitudes, see the PDF on the MBSR standards of practice attached here.