How to Use Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Mental Well-Being


For many, it’s almost become automatic to associate the issue of stress with the solution of mindfulness.

The pandemic has also played a role.

In April 2020, mental wellness app downloads neared 10 million, a 24.2 percent increase from that January, according to data from Sensor Tower Store Intelligence.

But it didn’t start with the pandemic.

2018 reportTrusted Source from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that the use of meditation among adults more than tripled in 2017, going from 4.1 percent in 2012 to 14.2 percent. Participation in yoga increased from 9.5 percent to 14.3 percent.

Though a buzzy term these days, mindfulness is hardly new. A specific type of mindfulness, known as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), has been around for more than 40 years.

The 8-week program is designed to help participants “harness inner resources and develop the ability to cope with stress, short and long-term,” says Tony Maciag, a program manager and senior instructional technologist at the birthplace of MBSR, UMass Memorial Health’s Center for Mindfulness.

So, what does the science have to say? Here’s the research and expert input on the history, benefits, and risk factors for MBSR.

What is mindfulness-based stress reduction?

MBSR is an 8-week program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD. It’s based on traditional Buddhist practices of mindfulness and meditation.

Kabat-Zinn is professor emeritus of medicine and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

He created the Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1979. This eventually became the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program.

The program is based on mindfulness practices and Buddhist teachings Kabat-Zinn studied with his teachers, one of whom was Seung Sahn, a Korean Zen master.

Kabat-Zinn incorporated mindful Hatha yoga into his work with patients and noticed repeated reductions in symptoms. He then created a model to replicate those results, and MBSR was born.

“​​He wanted to create a paradigm shift in the medical system,” says Elana Rosenbaum, MS, MSW, LICSW, who began working with Kabat-Zinn in 1984. “He got inspiration from Buddhism, but wanted to create a program that appealed to all people.”

Maciag agrees.

“Science has long known about the effects of stress on the body and mind, so examining the mitigation of those effects through the practice of present moment awareness and the mind-body connection made sense,” he says.

How it works

Participants practice at home daily for 45 minutes to an hour, using guided audio meditations. They meet once a week online or in-person with a teacher and classmates, complete weekly homework assignments, and participate in a full-day guided silent retreat during the course, typically between weeks six and seven.

“It invites them into informal practice, such as finding moments in their day to pause and bring awareness back to the present moment and coming off ‘autopilot,’ if even for a few moments,” Maciag says.

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