MBSR can help you manage stress, chronic pain, and other health conditions when life feels overwhelming.
Mindfulness is the act of orienting yourself to the present moment with attention and awareness. It can include paying greater attention to your breath, environment, body, and accepting and releasing passing thoughts and emotions.
Practicing mindfulness means becoming more aware of your thoughts and emotions. Often from the perspective of a detached outsider or from a place of curiosity without judgment.
Mindfulness can ease:
- mind-wandering tendencies
- self-criticism and negative self-talk
- anxiety about the future
And according to 2019 research, mindfulness can also reduce fatigue, pain, and stress in those who live with chronic pain.
An effective evidence-based mindfulness treatment for stress management is mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). According to a 2017 review, MBSR was reported to significantly reduce depression relapse and improve chronic pain management.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a therapeutic program created in 1979 by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn to help alleviate stress for people with chronic pain conditions.
Over 200 medical centers are estimated to use MBSR globally as an alternative or supplementary treatment. It’s often used for a number of mental health and physical health conditions, including:
How it works
- weekly group sessions lasting around 2.5 hours
- 45-minute at-home daily guided audio mindfulness exercises
- a day-long mindfulness retreat
Background and history
According to Dr. Kabat-Zinn, MBSR originated from his desire to adapt Buddhist traditions and teachings — or dharma — into more mainstream clinical settings to help people find relief from suffering.
Although the program has Buddhist origins, MBSR is ultimately a secular program not affiliated with any religious belief system. This allows it to be accessible to anyone, regardless of their faith or spirituality.
The components of MBSR include:
- Mindfulness. MBSR allows individuals to practice mindfulness skills with meditative exercises that can promote greater awareness of breath, everyday activities, sensations in the body, and sights and sounds in your environment.
- Bodily awareness. To help enhance awareness of your body and tension you may be feeling, MBSR uses exercises, such as body scans to identify where you may be experiencing pain or holding stress in your body.
- Emotional awareness. MBSR can heighten awareness of emotions by encouraging sitting with and observing your emotions. This can also be done through exercises, such as sitting meditation and group discussion, which can help activate the prefrontal cortex and regulate our stress response.
- Yoga. Hatha yoga poses and other gentle movements are often used to relieve tension throughout the body and center the mind.
MBSR is often used for stress management. You can reduce stress by using meditation and mindfulness exercises of MBSR whenever you feel stressed or overwhelmed:
- First, start by bringing attention to your breath.
- Scan your body for tension.
- Start to notice details in your environment.
- Try sitting in meditation while you observe your thoughts. Accept any emotions that might arise.
- Regulatory pathway: regulates the “fight, flight, freeze, or fawn” stress response, including prefrontal cortex activity and connectivity
- Reactivity pathway: this includes the amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex activity and connectivity, which is the origin of the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn stress responses
Mindfulness programs like MBSR can increase activity in the regulatory pathway while decreasing activity in the reactivity pathway. So, mindfulness can help you control your stress response while enhancing your ability to regulate emotions.
MBSR also asks us to observe emotions through meditative exercises, such as loving-kindness meditations, rather than feed into negative or unhelpful narratives. This practice can decrease additional stress and increase self-compassion.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction can also be used to help manage chronic pain.
Although the level and severity of pain differ from person to person, greater mindfulness can affect how you might manage and perceive pain. It can also buffer against additional stress that might occur due to negative or unhelpful thinking patterns.
MBSR can be a supplemental way to help begin healing the body by relieving stress.
Stress can add to the perception of physical pain, which may cause muscles to tighten and spasm. Stress can also heighten other health issues and immune system dysfunction through dysregulation of the HPA axis, which mediates stress response.
Rather than attempting to avoid pain or invalidate it, MBSR can help you to observe your pain and use breathing and visualization exercises to relax the body. Gentle yoga poses and body scans may also relieve tension and promote bodily awareness.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction is a therapeutic intervention that can help manage stress and symptoms in many emotional and physical ailments, including chronic pain and depression.
You can use MBSR for:
- enhancing awareness of your body
- regulating emotions
- curbing stress responses, including “fight, flight, freeze, or fawn”
- reframing negative or unhelpful thought patterns
- easing physical tension
MBSR targets two stress resilience pathways in our bodies: the regulatory and reactivity pathways.
This approach may combine mindfulness exercises, such as:
- breathing exercises
- body scans
- sitting in meditation
- yoga poses
You can begin adopting the mindfulness practices of MBSR today by checking out guided meditation and yoga videos like:
- “20-Minute Guided Meditation” by the creator of MBSR, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn
- “MBSR Yoga” by Dr. Lynn Rossy
- “Guided Body Scan” by trauma specialist Timothy Gordon, MSW
You can also practice everyday mindfulness through activities including:
- Mindful attention: Noticing the sounds, scents, and colors in your environment daily.
- Yoga for tension: Practicing yoga while paying special attention to tension throughout your body.
- Breathing exercises: Try practicing deep breathing before going to sleep or in times of anxiety. According to 2017 research, deep breathing may help with attention, stress management, and emotional regulation.
- Meditation: Consider starting with smaller meditations each day and working your way up to a daily 40-minute practice. Past research indicates this amount of time may be most effective for changing the brain.
- Body scans: You can do body scans or use guided muscle relaxation meditations to help ease tension by contracting and releasing your muscles.
- Observing your thoughts: Start observing your thoughts during the day without judgment. Try visualizing them passing by like clouds in the sky or leaves in a river.