Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: What it Is, How it Helps
Mindfulness is Buddhist practice adapted to mental health purposes. The essence of mindfulness practice is focusing on one thing in the moment–each breath you take, each step as you walk, the sights or sounds around you.
Elisha Goldstein, PhD writes about and teaches mindfulness, particularly an approach called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), captured in his recently published A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, co-authored with Bob Stahl. He talked to me via email about what Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is and how it helps:
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is a formal eight-week program with a daylong intensive that was created by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 and has now been adapted to a workbook format to support people in doing this work. This program is in over 250 hospitals around the country and many more around the world supporting people with stress, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, alleviating stress related to medical conditions and much more.
As the story goes, Jon told the doctors in the chronic pain unit to give him the patients that the medication was not working for. He thought that helping them work with these progressive set of mindfulness practices in a group format would help them develop the ability to see the pain more objectively and learn how to relate to it differently so they would suffer less from it.
Turns out he was right! Since 1979 there has been a tremendous amount of research coming out of Harvard, UCLA, Stanford, UW-Madison and many more high ranking institutions providing us the insight into how this approach is helpful and how it not only works, but how it actually can change our brains for the better.
To explain how this works, let me throw out one of my favorite quotes by psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl:
“Between stimulus and response there’s a space, in that space lies our power to choose our response, in our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
In other words, there’s a moment of choice before we react to stress and pain in life. However, for most of us, we’re unaware of this space “between stimulus and response” because we get caught in habitual patterns of reacting to life. Maybe a car cuts us off on the highway and we have a thought, “what is wrong with that guy,” while our heart begins to beat faster and our hands begin white knuckling the steering wheel. Anger boils within and feeds our thoughts about how he needs to be taught a lesson. We speed up next to him to stare him down letting him know that we know what he has done.
This is stressful and highly unpleasant situation fueled by the ongoing, and unconscious, interaction between our thoughts, feelings, emotions and behavior. I would argue there was no choice in this situation because the driver was unaware of this stress reaction, however there was a space or spaces in between the moment he was cut off and the reaction that ensued.
The MBSR program helps us become more aware of these habitual reactions and helps us relate to ourselves in a new way to interrupt this cycle and create more choice in life. Maybe upon reflection we realize that reacting to the guy who cut us off that way only increased our stress and didn’t make a difference to the other driver, maybe even just angering him more. So in the future we become more aware of this reaction by noticing our hands white knuckling the steering wheel or heart racing alerting us to the stress reaction occurring. In that moment we are present and are sitting in that space between stimulus and response. We then choose to take a few deep breaths, let our shoulders relax a bit, and even consider the unpleasant state the other driver must be in to be driving that way. Maybe we even wish him well, because if he was, he wouldn’t be driving that way.
In doing the work of this program, participants begin to realize that they can break through long held fears that have held them back from the living the lives they wanted to live.
MBSR is such a rich program and an enormous gift to the world. I am grateful to be a teacher of it and to have been a part of the creation of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook. May this go onto support your readers in changing their lives as it has mine and tens of thousands of other people around the world.
by Will Baum LCSW For Psychology Today