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Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)

  • What Is MBSR, and How Does It Help?

  • A unique program known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction challenges us to reduce the impact of stress in our lives – not by eliminating the things that stress us out, but by changing the way we think about them.

    In this fast-paced world, who hasn’t experienced the tension, sleeplessness and physical discomfort of stress? Left unrelieved, stress not only eats away at our happiness, but is destructive to our health in many ways.

    Signs of excessive stress include:

    • Depression
    • Fatigue
    • Frustration
    • Irritability
    • Poor concentration
    • Worry
    • Type A behavior
    • Over/under eating
    • Burn out/low productivity
    • Substance abuse

    What if we could reduce these impacts of stress – even if our outer circumstances didn’t change? That is the goal of a unique program that Sutter Health affiliates now offer throughout Northern California, called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). This structured program is 30 years old and – according to a study published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging in 2011 – has been shown to actually change the brains of participants. Among the findings was a reduced concentration of gray matter in the amygdala, a region of the brain associated with fear, anxiety and stress, and an increase in gray matter in areas aligned with coping skills.

  • What is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reductions (or MBSR)?

  • Denise Dempsey, who leads classes in MBSR for the Sutter Center for Integrative Health in Sacramento and Davis, describes MBSR as “meditative awareness” that helps participants “enter into a new relationship with chronic pain, anxiety, and depression.” So what does that mean?

    After training in MBSR, the individual learns how to better observe experiences, instead of being completely immersed in them. This impartial stance has been called the “witness state” – the ability to simply observe what you are thinking and feeling, at the time you are having those thoughts and feelings. You say to yourself “I am hungry,” and the observer is recording your physical sensation. You can then eat, or decide to wait a bit. In the same way, the observer can say “I am angry,” or “I am overwhelmed” and then decide how to act on that sensation. MBSR helps people to strengthen the witnessing part of themselves, providing a constant, always-present tool to use in situations of pain, anxiety or stress.

    “Our thoughts are a river, and most of time we are right in the water,” says Dempsey. “But we can make the conscious shift to standing on the bank, watching the river go by. We may go into the river, by choice. Or we may find we are in it, but we can consciously decide to get back on the bank. With practice, we have something solid to stand on as emotions and sensations swirl by.”

    She uses the example of a smoker who will feel the urge for a cigarette. “The initial impulse will pass quickly, if you can be mindful of it. You can be with the discomfort and wait for it to pass. Then you can be back on track to make a different choice.”

    Dempsey notes that she often observes the moment her students actually “get” this concept. “Through practice, they describe this experience for themselves. They didn’t necessarily get it out of a book or a particular lecture - but the practice of the class takes them to it.”

  • What’s involved in a MBSR class?

  • Each MBSR class consists of a time of spoken lecture and a meditation or movement practice, designed to still and focus the mind. The movement practice is not vigorous yoga and can be modified for anyone, even those who have an illness or chronic pain. Participants are asked to use a class CD for home practice of the techniques.

    Dempsey notes that many people will shy away from a meditation class, saying “I can’t quiet my mind! I can’t stop thinking.” She notes that mindfulness is learning how to work with thoughts, not getting rid of them. “You don’t have to shut them off or even feel relaxed during the practices. There is no pressure to have a certain experience.” She notes that mindfulness is designed to help you feel well regardless of what is going on, even if you are filled with anxiety or pain. “You can learn how to experience well being regardless of the situation. It’s not about having a quiet mind. It is a practice you can take into your busy life.”

    Most MBSR programs offer a free introductory session, so you can find out if the program sounds right for you.

    Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is a several-week program, with each week building on the last. Instructors assign homework activities designed to strengthen the practice and help it become a habit that can serve in any situation. Dempsey recommends that those who are interested in the technique plan to take a class when they can attend all sessions, to ensure the greatest success.

    “This is a non-drug way of treating stress, however like medications, it may take awhile for maximum benefit,” says Dempsey. “However, unlike medications, the technique will always be available to you.”

    While the class is a time commitment, Dempsey notes that many participants are so thankful for the practice that they keep returning to alumni groups that continue meeting after the initial training.

    Dempsey also notes that the program benefits anyone. Even those who don’t identify themselves as having extreme stress in their lives find that the practice of meditation and focus gives them greater joy and enthusiasm for life, and skills in dealing with issues that may arise.

  • What can I expect after learning MBSR?

  • Two decades of published research indicate that the majority of people who complete the MBSR course report:

    • An increased ability to relax
    • Greater energy and enthusiasm for life
    • An ability to cope more effectively with both short and long-term stressful situations
    • Major improvement in pain-related anxiety, depression, hostility, and the tendency to become preoccupied with painful sensations in both body and mind
    • Lasting decreases in difficult physical and psychological symptoms
    • Reductions in pain levels with an enhanced ability to cope with pain that may not go way