We are all living through an incredibly stressful time. Many of us are feeling increasing amounts of anxiety and stress. In fact, more than four in ten Americans report struggling with mental health issues during the coronavirus pandemic

The good news is that there is a way to help reduce the stress you may be feeling - Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). MBSR is a course developed by Jon Kabat Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979.

MBSR teaches a variety of formal mindfulness meditation practices such as body awareness, mindful movement and sitting meditation.  But equally important are the practices you learn to integrate into your daily routine. These “informal” practices are the ones that can anchor your attention right in the middle of a stressful situation -- and you don’t need special clothes or a yoga mat!

MBSR has been well researched and has been found to be helpful in reducing the experience of stress generally. It has also been shown to minimize the physiological and cognitive effects of stress such as insomnia, anxiety, and pain. It is widely used and well-regarded as a very effective adjunct to traditional medical care.

The principles of MBSR

The main principle of MBSR is embedded in the definition of “mindfulness” which is taught in all MBSR courses. Mindfulness is defined as “paying attention, on purpose in the present moment, non-judgmentally as if your life depended on it.” Paying attention in the present moment, on purpose may sound easy. But when you begin to practice, what you are likely to find is that while the instructions may sound pretty easy, the practice can be very challenging.  And that is the heart of the practice!  

The training

The training course is quite intensive. It requires a real and sustained commitment over eight weeks of classes. Participants meet for one two-and-a-half-hour class each week. Along with that is homework practice of 45 minutes to an hour a day of mindfulness meditation or mindful movement practices. In addition, there is an all-day Saturday or Sunday retreat. It sounds like a lot and it is. But it is a powerful opportunity to connect deeply with and strengthen your own capacity to transform not only your experience of stress but also to take charge of your health and direction of your life.

Who might benefit from MBSR?

This is a complex question. It is very important to understand that MBSR is not psychotherapy or a form of group therapy. While there are no absolute contraindications, this intensive training is not recommended for individuals who have:

•    an active and unstable mental health disorder

•    an active substance use disorder

•    experienced a recent trauma or traumatic loss

Of course, that doesn’t mean this practice may not be a benefit for those individuals at another point in time. It is advisable to connect with the instructor before the course begins to let them know what’s going on and make a decision together about what will work best for you.

Help during the COVID-19 pandemic  

The coronavirus pandemic represented an opportunity for those who practice mindfulness and those who teach mindfulness-based initiatives to help others through this difficult time. Many physicians and nurses who are certified mindfulness teachers offered their colleagues brief guided mindfulness sessions.

The goal of this intervention was to offer a space for health care providers and those in health care to connect with one another with the shared goal of collecting and calming the mind and heart in the midst of tremendous demand and stress.

As life goes on

We may hear a lot about the “new normal” during these days of the pandemic. The first thing is to recognize that there is no “state of normal.” Everything is changing. If we pause long enough, we can see this and choose how to respond to the circumstances with wisdom rather than with agitation and distress.

Mindfulness is powerfully transformative in this regard. It is not the stressor itself that causes distress, it is how we relate and react to it that is critical to a life of well-being. While a MBSR course may seem daunting, it’s worth the effort if you chose to take it on as a life practice.

For more tips on how to enhance your well-being, visit the Being section of our Lifespan Living health and wellness blog.

Dr. Ellen Flynn

Elizabeth Ellen Flynn, MD, MTS

Dr. Ellen Flynn is a psychiatrist in Women’s Behavioral Medicine at the Women’s Medicine Collaborative. She is also clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior and a clinical assistant professor of medicine at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. She is the director of the Resilience Project at the Embodied Neuroscience Lab and a faculty advisor to the Mindfulness Center at Brown.