What is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)?

MBSR, or Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, is an eight-week mindfulness training program that was created by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. He initially created it for chronically ill patients who were not responding well to traditional treatments, but it is now used for a wide variety of reasons by hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. MBSR is supported by a wide body of research showing that it is effective at addressing chronic pain, anxiety, depression, and general stress reduction. MBSR demonstrably and repeatedly helped patients in those eight weeks and in some cases had proven effects up to four years later. 

It is a secular program and is one of the largest non-religiously based mindfulness meditation programs. Its roots do come from spiritual teachings, as do all mindfulness meditation programs, but it is largely based on proven medical and psychological research. Because of this, it is open to everyone and does not suggest any religion over another to its students.

What can Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction do for me?

The program can train your attention to help you cultivate self-awareness, which allows you to make more fully reasoned out and wise decisions in your day-to-day life. You are invited to incorporate mindfulness into your routine, which will also help you be more aware of the present and focus on it. These strategies help you avoid rumination, either on the past or the future. You can learn to respond to stress, rather than reacting to it. You can also change your habitual reactivity patterns. 

Kabat-Zinn also created the program to try to change people's focus from a narrative of the self where "I" and "me" are emphasized constantly. The question "Who am I?" is far more important than the answer. 

MBSR can not cure diseases. It is meant to be a complementary aid to traditional medical treatments or an aid to your life. It also should not be used in lieu of psychological treatment from professionals, only in tandem with it. It can be used for those suffering from chronic pain, often in oncology units. Before starting an MBSR course, please check with your doctor if you are hoping to use the program as a complement to their prescribed treatment. 

Research conducted in the decades since MBSR was created shows that the majority of people who complete the program later report significant benefits, including an increased ability to deal with both short and long-term stress, decreases in both physical and physiological symptoms, a strong sense of relaxation, reduction in pain, increased ability to deal with chronic pain, and a renewed excitement and energy to live.

What does an MBSR course look like?

Courses consist of weekly group meetings (these are 2.5 hour long classes), a one-day retreat with a seven-hour mindfulness practice, and daily homework (these generally last 45 minutes). The course is intense, but many believe it is worth the time commitment for the benefits to their health and wellbeing. 

Group discussions are an essential part of the program. MBSR is not meant to be done on its own without a certified instructor. There are certified programs in most U.S. states and in over 30 countries as well as online programs, so there are many options for those looking to try a session. 

During classes, students will develop mindful awareness and their resilience through practicing a variety of meditative and movement practices. These include body scans (a meditative exercise), sitting meditation, yoga and other forms of gentle mindful movement, and loving kindness meditation.

What should I look for when signing up for an MBSR course?

Make sure your instructor is certified. They may list the information for where they received their certification on their website or they may be listed in a database.  

Here are the standards of practice from Jon Kabat-Zinn and Saki Santorelli (PDF). While they do stress that a cookie-cutter MBSR course does not work due to its focus on the present moment, there are necessary aspects. 

  1. The experience should be a challenge, not a chore. It should be something the participants want to do for themselves, rather than being disheartening and something they have to do to be healthy. 
  2. An understanding of the importance of the individual's own effort and motivation, meaning that the practice session must be done daily even when it feels hard or unnecessary
  3. An understanding that this is a lifestyle change and that it will have to happen immediately. Adding 45 minutes of meditation to one's day six or seven times a week along with the live sessions is a commitment, but one the participant should be aware of going into the course.
  4. Fostering knowledge of the importance of the present moment during the practice. 
  5. This comes from an educational place rather than a therapeutic one, and the timed, but limited live sessions with group practice are important.
  6. A medically heterogeneous environment, which is to say that when being used for an explicitly medical purpose, participants should not be split into classes based on their diagnosis. This allows for a focus on what they all have in common, rather than what they are experiencing due to their disease, illness, or condition that makes them separate from other people.
  7. Pre- and post-program interviews are not necessary, but can often be helpful. This may be as simple as a survey you fill out before and after the course.
  8. The program must consist of: an orientation session (2.5 hours), eight weekly classes (2.5-3.5 hours each), an all-day silent retreat during the sixth week of the program (7.5 hours), "formal" mindfulness meditation methods, "informal" mindfulness meditation methods, daily home assignments, individual and group dialogue about the home assignments, and an exit assessment strategy and individual self-assessment during the week eight course.
  9. All course teachers must meet the MBSR standards of readiness and competency.
  10. As the group format is essential to MBSR, class size should not exceed the instructor's ability to listen to and aid each student when necessary, or become so large that the group aspects of the program are no longer useful.

Look at the organization providing your MBSR course. Several universities, including Brown, have begun to offer MBSR classes and to train teachers. Taking a program from a reputable university, or from someone who has been trained by them, is a good way to know if you will be taking a true MBSR program. Additionally, there are other well-regarded organizations that offer MBSR courses. If you are not sure if the organization you are looking at is reputable, look up their reviews online or compare their website to the MBSR standards of practice to ensure the course will contain all of the necessary components to be considered an MBSR course. 

Where can I find MBSR 8-week programs?

There are courses offered throughout the U.S. and in many other countries. Some are taught by individuals who are not qualified and that do not follow the official standards or course format.  Make sure to look into the qualifications of instructors and course format to ensure you experience the MBSR course as it was intended.  Here are ones we recommend, including our course.  

Where can I find qualified MBSR instructors?

How can I become a certified MBSR program teacher?

MBSR teachers go through a rigorous training process. There are reputable teacher training programs throughout the US, or you can find a program online.

Additional MBSR Resources:

Free Online Course:

Articles: 

Books: 

  • Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness

    by Jon Kabat-Zinn
    From Goodreads (4.2 stars): Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, is perhaps the best-known proponent of using meditation to help patients deal with illness. This book is also a terrific introduction for anyone who has considered meditating but was afraid it would be too difficult or would include religious practices they found foreign.
  • MBSR Every Day: Daily Practices from the Heart of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
    by Bob Stahl and Elisha Goldstein:
    From Goodreads (4.1 stars): In the tradition of their highly successful A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Elisha Goldstein and Bob Stahl present a unique, accessible collection of daily practices to help readers stay grounded in the here and now.
  • A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook
    by Bob Stahl and Elisha Goldstein:
    From Goodreads (4.1 stars): The ultimate practical guide to MBSR—with more than 115,000 copies sold—is now available in a fully revised and updated second edition.
  • The Mindful Way through Depression
    by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel V. Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn
    From Goodreads (4.06 stars): The Mindful Way through Depression draws on the collective wisdom of four internationally renowned cognitive therapy and mindfulness experts, including best-selling author Jon Kabat-Zinn, to help you break the mental habits that can lead to despair.
  • Mindfulness for Beginners
    by Jon Kabat-Zinn
    From Goodreads (3.8 stars): What if you could profoundly change your life just by becoming more mindful of your breathing? According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, you can. What if paying attention on purpose (and nonjudgmentally) could improve your health? Again, according to Dr. Kabat-Zinn--it can.

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