Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction
Theresa Jamieson
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The comprehensive program Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was developed by Jon Kabat–Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre (1990), and is based on traditional Buddhist meditation that includes mindful breath awareness, mindful yoga, body scan, sensory meditations, and loving kindness meditations.
Originally developed as a pain management strategy, recent research reveals it has therapeutic benefits to better manage many stress related physical and psychological symptoms of modern life. Based on acceptance and kindness for self, it encourages people to take better care of themselves, to be more responsible for their own healing and wellbeing (Karayolas, et al. 2008).

Meditation, the central component of MBSR, can be explained as concentration, contemplation, inner reflection, conscious awareness - bringing the mind back home to itself, and to be at peace with that (Goleman, 1988). The principal of meditation is simply to witness and observe, to be in the present moment, without thinking, without judging. What people place their attention on usually increases - paying attention to negative, worrying thoughts encourages more of the same, however, through mindfulness, problems caused through diminished awareness and unconsciousness can gradually be overcome (Dalai Lama, 2001). Siegel (2007) refers to the meditative state as living consciously in the present moment “with curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love (COAL)” (p.15).

Benefits of MBSR

One of the primary goals of MBSR is to discover ways to react less habitually to thoughts, feelings and physical sensations. This allows the mind to rest and for the physical body to be nourished, and ultimately for good health to be restored and maintained. Mindfulness reduces rumination and maladaptive self–critical cognitions (Biegel, Brown, & Shapiro, 2007), it improves coping ability and helps people move from detrimental self-destructive behaviours to those that support self-care and optimum health (Turner, 2008). Consequently, it is effective in preventing relapse into maladaptive behavious that were previously used to combat stress.

MBSR has been successfully used to help many physical health problems including arthritis, asthma, cancer, G.I Tract disorders, hypertension, heart disease, migraines, multiple sclerosis, and psoriasis. It has proven to be effective in the treatment of psychological problems such as anxiety, panic attacks, depression, post traumatic stress, sleep disorders, generalized stress (Shapiro, 2000; Davidson, 2003).

The MBSR program promotes equanimity, and a healthy relationship to oneself - an internal self-attunement with one’s thoughts and feelings (Siegel, 2009). This state of intrapersonal attunement increases empathy towards others and influences more fulfilling and enriched interpersonal communication (Turner, 2009). Because of this regular practice enhances attending and listening skills to build trust and rapport, and encourages a particular focus on the internal world of another so they “feel felt, understood, connected” (Germer, Siegel, & Fulton, 2013, p.65). For professionals in health care fields it supports the establishment of a therapeutic relationship (Bruce, Manber, Shapiro, & Constantino, 2010).

Neuroscience has found the brain is capable of neuroplasticity in adults as well as in children, and extensive research has revealed regular meditation results in positive changes in the structure of the brain by activating the pathways "that create resilience and wellbeing and that underlie empathy and compassion ... to help the brain achieve and maintain integration" (Siegel, 2009, p.xv).

Due to the many benefits MBSR programs offer, they are becoming more commonplace in professional and business organizations, while at Montana State University it is a compulsory requirement for students in health related courses to attend MBSR programs (Christopher, et al. 2010).

MBSR Practices

Breath Awareness

"The breath reminds us to tune in to our body and to encounter the rest of our experiences with mindfulness, in the moment ... Mindfulness of breathing is central to all aspects of meditation practice" (Kabat-Zinn, 1990, pp.56, 57).

The first component of MBSR is Breath Awareness. This enables greater awareness of your breathing and is one of the purest and most consistently used methods of meditation (Kabat–Zinn, 1994). Life is transient and much of the time it flashes by without our conscious attention, however, the breath is there in every moment of life, being a constant companion from the moment of our birth until the moment of our death (Dalai Lama, 2003). Nothing external is needed because the breath is always there, any moment, anywhere. Witnessing the natural breath quietly flowing in and out of the body is easy and uncomplicated, and will hold you profoundly in the present - calm and steady.

Breath awareness relaxes and replenishes the physical body, calms and balances the emotions, and nourishes the mind with clarity and wisdom (Dalai Lama, 2001). Traditionally, breath awareness is the foundation of all meditation techniques, where it leads the practitioner to more fully realise the nature of their thoughts and the atmosphere they create in their mind - it encourages deeper relaxation and more peace of mind from where meditation can naturally evolve. There are many variations on this practice including using specific yoga breathing techniques Pranayama, and mantra. 10 – 20 minutes.

Man On Beach

Body Scan

The body Scan is a deep relaxation technique, and in many ways similar to traditional yoga relaxation - Yoga Nidra. This involves moving the mind slowly through the whole body, consciously relaxing each part and releasing tension or discomfort with the out going breath. During the body scan the senses are gradually withdrawn, where a calm and peaceful place can be discovered within oneself. Softness is imagined to flow slowly through the body producing the relaxation response, and a disassociation with the body, as if floating, weightless, free (Kabat–Zinn, 1990). It is nourishing and replenishing and enables the body to rest, restore balance and heal (Chopra, 1994). 30 - 45 minutes.

Formal & Informal Meditation Practises


Mindfulness is learning how to tame the mind, to watch the constant flow of thoughts more passively, in a state of restful alertness - in essence mindfulness comes from simply observing thoughts (Dalai Lama, 2003). It is a gentle process of witnessing, in an unattached way as thoughts appear and disappear, in the same way as watching clouds move across the sky (Sogyal Rinpoche, 1994). This leads to contemplation and concentration on simply watching your thoughts, completely uninvolved and unaffected by their nature (Goleman, 1988). In time, thoughts begin to lose form and definition, where moments of stillness and inner peace become available (Sogyal Rinpoche, 1994).

When there is a gap between thoughts, simply observe that space and rest in that peacefulness. This enables you to concentrate on what you choose, not on what the mind randomly decides to be consumed by, and thereby encourages a more relaxed and peaceful mind state (Chopra, 1993).

Mediation with Candle

Breath awareness and the Candle meditation are formal Mindfulness practices.

When a thought arises, simply note that it has occurred, while at the same time remembering that it has come from nowhere, dwells nowhere, and goes nowhere, leaving no trace of its passage—just as a bird, in its course across the sky, leaves no mark of its flight. In this way, when thoughts arise, we can liberate them into the absolute expanse. When thoughts do not arise, we should rest in the open simplicity of the natural state.
Dilgo Khyentse, “The Wish Fulfilling Jewel,” (1994, p 85).


Mindfulness can be many things other than just sitting formally for meditation. Every moment of every day is an opportunity to be consciously here, in the present moment - in meditation with life. It is as simple as watching waves rolling in and away from the shore, listening to the sounds around you, being moved by the beauty of a reflection on water, seeing filtered sunlight on leaves, or watching the wind moving gently in the trees. It can be every day activities such as eating (Murphy, 2006) or walking (Nhat Hanh, 1975), driving, washing the dishes, or during conversation being aware of the use of words, the tone of voice, the way the body is held. These informal mindfulness practices encourage observation and appreciation of oneself and the world, to see beauty in the smallest things and to find the unexpected treasures that nature is always offering. Mindfulness can be everywhere and in every moment (Chopra, 1993).

The Sultana and the Walking meditations are informal mindfulness practices.

Mindful Yoga - "Yoga is mindfulness" (Kabat-Zinn, 1990, p.94).

Mindful yoga includes gentle stretching with breath awareness to increase flexibility, strength and tone. It is practiced with the same mind state and present moment awareness as the body scan and sitting meditations. Mindful yoga is approached with a 'beginners mind set' - without comparisons or judgments of oneself or previous practice, just with appreciation for how it is in the moment. It is always practiced without force or staining, and with acceptance of how the body is feeling, moment to moment. The result is relaxation and balance (Satyananda, 1966). Yoga is really meditation in movement and when yoga is practiced mindfully it encourages you to tune in to your body, “listening carefully to what your body is telling you and honouring its messages” (Kabat - Zinn, 1990, p. 97).

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