How to Try Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction—Without a Fancy Meditation Retreat

Research has found this natural, stress-relieving mindfulness program as effective as some antidepressants—and you can reap the benefits at home.

<p>Joan Corominas/Getty Images</p>

Joan Corominas/Getty Images

There are plenty of stress-busters out there: bubble baths, movie marathons, venting. But have you ever noticed that sometimes, these tension-taming activities tend to be only short-term fixes for stress? An hour later, you might be right back to feeling stressed again, with that work deadline, big life decision, or argument with your partner looming in your mind.

What if there was an approach that could keep you stress-free all the time? Well, all the time might be a stretch, even for the Dalai Lama himself, but what if you could, at the very least, decrease the constant stress in your life, and learn how to better handle new stressors as they come?

As it turns out, there is such an approach: Called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), it’s an intensive mindfulness program that, since its development, has found its way as an effective tool into many hospitals and meditation centers across the country. You can even find weeks-long, designated MBSR retreats, consisting of hours-a-day meditation sessions.


While mindfulness-based stress reduction is certainly proven by many studies to be effective at reducing stress (and providing other benefits), it is undeniably a commitment—the full program is eight-weeks long, with weekly sessions lasting two and a half hours.

While most of us don’t have the time, money, or patience (yet!) to drop everything and meditate, there are many smaller, more realistic ways to bring MBSR practices and principles into your everyday life, which can help you start making subtle mindset shifts, and equip you with the mental tools to handle life’s inevitable stressful moments and feelings.

To learn more about MBSR, and how to reap some of the mindfulness benefits without the intensive program or a pricey meditation retreat—you’re in the right place.

What Is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction?

You’re likely familiar with the term “mindfulness,” but what exactly is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction? Often called “MBSR,” Lisa Thomas Prince, MPH, CYT, manager of the UW Health Mindfulness Program in Madison, Wis., defines it as “a training program with mindfulness at its core.”

“With concepts and meditation practices of mindfulness as a foundation, MBSR promotes healthy strategies that have been shown to reduce the negative impacts of stress, enhance overall wellbeing, and improve resilience for the ups and downs of life,” Thomas Prince says.

Drawing on centuries-old Buddhist teachings and practices, Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979, where he developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program with the aim of alleviating pain and reducing stress for those with physical and chronic illnesses. This practical approach to mindfulness is now used not only for pain and symptom management, but for mental health care and symptom management, including PTSD, chronic stress, depression, and anxiety management.

“While it started as a pain management aid, in the nearly 50 years since MBSR was originally introduced, it has been found to improve and promote overall general health and well-being including reducing stress, depression, grief, anxiety, and addiction,” says Kim Getgen, CEO of a company called InnovationForce and MBSR certified leader.

Today, MBSR is frequently found across the U.S. and around the globe, with a standardized curriculum and global community of trained instructors, Thomas Prince says. In a group setting, the program teaches participants how to have healthy responses to stressors by regularly practicing mindfulness. Sessions can focus on yoga, gentle body movement, breathing exercises, and meditation.

MBSR employs formal mindfulness techniques, including “body scan, sitting meditation, and Hatha yoga” and also encourages participants “to practice mindfulness informally by bringing attention to emotions, thoughts, and appraisals that occur while engaged in everyday activities,” according to a 2014 system review in the Sage Journal of Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine. The aim is to help participants learn to train their attention, observe their emotions and thoughts (without analysis or criticism), rebalance the nervous system, and ultimately, “foster emotional well-being and reduc[e] psychological distress among nonclinical healthy individuals and persons with chronic psychological disorders,” per the review.

“Several basic principles lie at the core of MBSR,” Thomas Prince says. “An essential skill is present moment awareness, meaning we develop the ability to rest our attention in the very moment that is happening now. Through repeated practice, we break the habit of falling into ‘auto-pilot’ mode, moving through our lives based on old habits, or imagined expectations, or fears of the future.”

Rooted in Buddhist meditative traditions, Getgen says that the program has been “westernized” to make the teachings more accessible to the general public and those who may be unfamiliar with these ancient teachings.


Does MBSR Work for Stress and Anxiety?

In a word: yes. It’s not a magic quick-fix or cure-all, but there is robust and growing research to prove that MBSR, which requires patience and practice, is an effective way to manage and reduce states of stress. Thomas Prince notes that since its start, MBSR has been one of the most scientifically researched mindfulness-based interventions, studied in a wide variety of populations and health conditions.

“Based on the research, some of the conditions for which people have the most pronounced benefit from MBSR training include chronic pain, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), cancer-related symptoms of fatigue/anxiety/depression, general stress, high blood pressure, and irritable bowel syndrome,” she says.

Thomas Prince calls out one noteworthy recent study, published in JAMA Psychiatry in November 2022, in which researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center studied the effects of MBSR for patients with untreated anxiety disorders and found the program to elicit reductions in anxiety symptoms at a level about equal to a commonly prescribed antidepressant drug, escitalopram (known also by its brand name, Lexapro).

She does add that although these findings are very exciting, it doesn’t mean MBSR can be a replacement for medication in all cases. “Does MBSR training work like a pill that I might take to decrease my blood pressure? Not exactly,” she cautions. “Taking an eight-week MBSR class is not a quick fix nor a guarantee that our stresses will disappear. However, through MBSR, participants become familiar with mindfulness meditation, and through mindfulness become familiar with their relationship with their health, their stressors, their mind, and their lived experiences.”

Thomas Prince is also careful to say that not all people will experience the same benefits from mindfulness training: namely, those with a history of trauma. In some instances, mindfulness can cause certain individuals to flashback and relive painful experiences. “If under the care of a medical provider, it’s advisable to consult with that provider before beginning an MBSR program,” she says.

Can You Practice MBSR on Your Own?

While the full array of skills are taught through the formal eight-week program, you’ll be glad to know that several of its practices can be carried out on your own time. Getgen says that MBSR was designed to be accessible to anyone, especially those who want to practice at home. In fact, Getgen completed her MBSR leadership course during the pandemic in an online format.

“Because the classes are based on meditations, some very gentle yoga practices, reading, and journaling, I have found them all to be conducive to the ‘at-home’ environment,” Getgen says.

Thomas Prince also says that since a multi-day meditation retreat does require some stamina, it can be wise to begin experimenting with these practices at home, preferably on a daily basis (a very little bit everyday is likely to be more effective than an hour every three weeks).


Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Exercises and Tips

Do a Body Scan

This form of meditation is exactly what it sounds like, and it’s a tentpole of MBSR. It involves focusing on mentally scanning your body slowly and thoughtfully for anything you might feel, good or bad, physical or emotional. Notice where you feel out of sorts, tension, pain. You’ll tune into your body deeply and relax those areas as you go along.

Getgen says that, ideally, a full body scan is 45-minutes long. If you’re intimidated by that length of time, you can start small—set a timer or find a guided body scan for five or 10 minutes—and build from there. She adds that body scans can be done lying down on a bed, on a couch, or on a yoga mat. She aims to do body scans in the middle of her day in order to gain “more energy, peace, and compassion to tackle the afternoon.”

Want to get started with body scanning? YouTube has great guided videos, or find a meditation app with body scan exercises that work for you.

Take an Intentional Pause

“One step that’s relatively easy to incorporate into the fullness of life is to learn to pause,” Thomas Prince says. “Just like the pause button we use when listening to music or watching a show, we can pause in the midst of whatever we’re doing and take note, even for a brief few seconds, of more of what’s happening in and around us.”

During this intentional pause, Thomas Prince recommends tuning into your senses, bringing curiosity to anything you see or to the sounds of your environment, and feeling your feet on the ground or your hands touching something or someone. It’s so simple, but it’s such a powerful way to ground yourself in the present moment, in your body, and in your immediate surroundings.

“A pause can offer us a chance to take a breath and reset in some way for the next thing in our day,” she says.


Make Everyday Tasks Mindful Moments

You don’t always need to set aside dedicated time in your day for formal mindfulness practice, especially when you’re just starting out or have a jam-packed schedule. If a 20-minute meditation session just isn’t in the cards, make mindfulness an element of your other daily routines and activities instead. Thomas Prince recommends bringing curiosity, intentionality, and mindful awareness to ordinary tasks like washing the dishes, brushing your teeth, or eating a meal to that activity.

Here’s how: “Using the senses as a base, we can feel the water and soap suds on our hands, or taste the flavor of toothpaste, or a bite of food on our tongue,” she says. “These experiences keep our mind attuned to the present moment, even if for just a few short moments.”


Set Reminders and Cues

If you’re not a mindfulness devotee yet, it can be downright difficult to remember to be mindful. Thomas Prince suggests visual or audio reminders to take a moment for mindful awareness. She especially likes to use small, brightly-colored, circular stickers, placing them in key locations where they’ll be seen in the course of daily activities.

“I’ve put reminders like this on my bathroom mirror, the steering wheel of a car, or on the backside of a phone,” she says, prompting her to feel her feet connected to the ground or fully inhale and exhale. If you prefer an audio reminder, Thomas Prince recommends setting a soft alarm tone on your phone one or more times a day to prompt a moment of pause.

Take a Virtual Class

Some MBSR programs have gone virtual, especially since the pandemic. If you’re willing to commit to the timeframe of the program, but you’d rather complete it in the comfort of your home, this option is ideal for you. Getgen says that these online classes are still quite valuable and worthwhile, and you’ll learn the same skills as the in-person participants.

Forget About Perfection

Even the most seasoned students of mindfulness meditation will tell you: mindfulness is hard. If you’re just starting out at home, you may feel like you’re not any good at it, but Thomas Prince reassures that mindfulness doesn’t center on perfection—far from it.

“[Mindfulness] might seem pretty straightforward, but it can be quite challenging, and that’s very much OK,” she says. “The practices of MBSR are called ‘practices’ for a reason—they’re not meant to be perfected. Rather, the benefits of the training come through having patience and a willingness to start fresh with each practice—and sometimes with each breath.”


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