If someone told you taking an eight-week class could help reduce your felt stress levels, help you manage pain, relieve symptoms of depression, anxiety, and insomnia, increase your capacity for empathy and loving-kindness toward yourself and others, and make measurable changes in the parts of your brain associated with memory and sense of self, would you believe her? Well, that is exactly what research has indicated an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class can do. MBSR is an educational approach which uses training in mindfulness meditation as the core of a program to teach participants how to better care for themselves and live healthier lives.
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, the father of MBSR, mindulfness is the awareness that arises by paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. Furthermore, Kabat-Zinn stresses that mindfulness also means heartfulness, so that when we think of being mindful, we are non-judgmentally, and in a loving manner, paying attention in the present moment. Mindfulness is a way of being and it takes cultivation and practice to live mindfully. This is no easy task, but well worth the effort. A myriad of recent studies support its value for our health and well being:
• Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University have shown, using brain scanning technology, that eight weeks of MBSR training leads to thickening of regions in the brain associated with learning and memory, emotional regulation, the sense of self, and perspective taking. They also found that there was a thinning in the area of the brain responsible for reacting to perceived threats (the amygdala), and this was related to improvement on a perceived stress scale.
• According to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, thirty minutes of daily meditation may provide as much relief from anxiety and depression symptoms as antidepressants. Data was analyzed from 47 clinical trials with 3,515 people who had participated in an eight-week mindfulness meditation training. This study was published in JAMA Internal Medicine, online January 6, 2014.
• Preliminary studies completed by Nobel Prize winner, Elizabeth Blackburn and her colleagues, indicate a relationship between stress and telomere length, with stress shortening the length of telomeres. Telomeres function as protective caps on our DNA and chromosomes and they also shorten with the aging process. When telomeres get too short our cells start to malfunction. Small studies have indicated that meditation is one of the most effective interventions for slowing the erosion of telomeres and perhaps even lengthening them again.
• NIH funded research has reported that MBSR practices are linked to lower blood pressure and a stronger immune response.
• Researchers at the University of Wisconsin found stressed employees who participated in MBSR were handling emotions such as anxiety and frustration more effectively than control subjects who were waiting to take the MBSR program. The MBSR participants’ electrical activity in their brains actually shifted and this change was still apparent four months after the MBSR program ended.
• A study at UCLA and Carnegie Mellon University found that participating in an MBSR program reduced loneliness, a major risk factor for health problems, and also reduced the expression of genes related to inflammation as measured in immune cells studied in blood samples.
These are just a few of the many studies that point to the efficacy of MBSR. Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the first MBSR Clinic at the University of Massachusetts in 1979. Since then, more than 20,000 people have participated in the MBSR program there, and there are now over 720 mindfulness-based programs modeled on MBSR throughout the world. Stress is a normal and natural part of living. It is vital that we learn how to befriend it and maximize our potential for living a full and fulfilling life.
Marcia Kaufman, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
*Portions of this blog were taken from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book, Full Catastrophe Living.
*If you are interested in participating in our 8-week MBSR course, please contact Dr. Marcia Kaufman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 703-938-9090 ext. 8. Our next class will begin soon.