An introduction to Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), stress has been classified as the health epidemic of the 21st century. With so many people globally struggling, mindfulness has become increasingly popular in managing stress.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is an 8-week stress reduction program that was developed by Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues based on traditional Buddhist practices of mindfulness and meditation. It includes a number of Mindfulness practices to help reduce stress. In this article, we look at some of the techniques from the program that could be utilised in managing stress.

What’s the difference between mindfulness and MBSR?

Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, with a non-judgmental awareness.”

So breaking this down, we are encouraged to anchor into the moment by

  • Focusing purely on the present moment (no thought of the future or past, really anchored in the now).
  • Purposefully choosing to give the moment your full attention.
  • Noticing (being aware) of your experience, not judging it.

MBSR is an 8-week mindfulness-based program that incorporates specific mindful practices including mindful meditation and mindful movement. Many of the specific practices that are included in the course are utilised by yoga and mindfulness practitioners without always being taught as the full program.

Can MBSR help treat depression and anxiety?

MBSR was developed originally as the Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program. Depression and anxiety will often stem from stress as well as increased stress in the body and mind. The program can help treat anxiety and depression at the root by bringing the participant back to their body and the moment, along with relaxing exercises that calm the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and activate the parasympathetic (rest and digest).

Related: What is stress? Symptoms, causes and prevention

Who can benefit from MBSR?

Today’s modern world, particularly right now in the midst of a global pandemic, is filled with stress. Although stress is an important biological function, prolonged stress where we feel constantly under threat and do not allow our bodies and minds time to return to a neutral feeling of safety can cause psychological issues with anxiety and depression along with physical manifestations.

MBSR is very accessible, there is no restriction on the ability to do these practices as mindfulness and meditation activities require only your mind and focus. Regardless of physical ability, if you can move your body a little then you can practice mindful movement or gentle yoga practices. It really is accessible for nearly everyone with no special equipment or big investments required.

Who shouldn’t practice MBSR?

Sometimes, where there is trauma and/or PTSD, Mindfulness is not always the most helpful approach. Being fully present with one’s thoughts, feelings and sensations, if those thoughts and feelings are really intense and traumatic, may be more harmful than good. This is particularly true of PTSD where the body and mind can feel as if they are back in that moment of the trauma, as real as if it were happening again in the moment. If you are concerned, consult with your healthcare provider before starting.

What can it help with?

MBSR can help with any symptoms of stress such as anxiety and also physical symptoms that may arise. It can be an excellent complementary therapy to any existing medical treatment and has been shown to support a range of symptoms including anxiety, depression, fatigue, headaches, blood pressure, insomnia – all of which can be related to an underlying issue of stress.

What are popular methods and techniques?

Over the 8-week course, various techniques are covered. Here are four examples:

  • Metta Meditation (Loving Kindness Meditation)
    This is a traditional Buddhist meditation where you cultivate the feeling of love for someone close to you, really focus on and experience it and use gentle repetition of phrases to send love to them, followed by sending the same loving feelings out to other groups, friends, acquaintances, the whole world and yourself.
  • Walking Meditation
    A walking meditation is a beautiful way of experiencing a meditative state without having to sit still which can be really tricky for some people, particularly if you are very agitated in your anxiety and can’t settle. You bring your full awareness to everything around you as you walk, particularly the sensations in your body, the sound of your footsteps on the earth, the way your muscles engage to lift the feet one by one.
  • Body Scan
    A process where you “scan” your body part by part, noticing any sensations in each body part. This really helps the student to connect with their physical body and notice the way things change, the sensations can be a useful guide to what’s going on for them and help guide what practices they may need on a particular day. For example, they may notice they are feeling a lot of tension in their neck so may then go on to consider why, what is causing tension and work on releasing it through neck stretches, relaxation practices etc.
  • Mindful Movement through Yoga
    Yoga is the ultimate mindful movement, synching movement with breath and really showing self-compassion as you honour how your body feels in a particular moment and adjust your movement accordingly, letting go of expectations you have or any judgements around “achieving” any particular shape or pose.

Related: How can meditation support our mental and physical health?

Further resources

Many Mindfulness Meditations can be found on meditation apps including Insight Timer.

Exercises can be found on The MBSR Website.

Recommended reading includes: