by Master Teacher Tracey Sondik, Psy.D.
The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at Copper Beech Institute is a powerful way to reduce stress and help people live their lives more fully. It is an 8-week course teaching the foundations of meditation that helps students understand the role of stress on the mind and body.
Prior to becoming an MBSR instructor, I enrolled in the 8-week course to see if this program could help reduce my stress. I was a thirty-eight-year-old mother of three young children who worked full-time. My stress level was almost always high. Most days, I found myself tired, irritable, and very self-critical. Yet by the end of the program, my stress level was significantly lower. I was more patient with my children. I had more energy and found that I could manage my long days with more ease. My sense of humor returned as well and I was able to laugh at things rather than get overwhelmed and dissolve in tears when something went wrong.
As a psychologist, I became extremely curious. What was it about this meditation program that helped to lower my stress level? How could practicing meditation each day for eight weeks change my life so significantly? Do others have a similar response to this program?
I began exploring these questions over the past decade, namely by offering the MBSR program to hundreds of people in all different settings including hospitals, yoga studios, corporations, and other integrative health clinics. What I discovered was that MBSR consistently had a positive impact on reducing stress and increasing happiness in three main ways, which I have listed below.
1. MBSR can reduce negative thinking
Most of us end up spending a large number of times in our heads worrying about the future or ruminating about the past. Mark Twain famously said, “I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.” Our thoughts can seem so real and they never seem to end: would I get bad news at the doctor’s office? What if my child gets sick? What if I get laid off at work? These thoughts are usually the same ones over and over again. I call it “my top ten greatest hits”.
MBSR can help break this cycle of what psychologists call “discursive thinking”, or the background noise of endless negativity we play in our head. It teaches us to simply recognize we are engaged in this habitual pattern, note “thinking” whenever we realize a thought has come up, and then gently and non-judgmentally return to the breath, bringing us back to a place of calm.
2. MBSR can reduce cognitive and emotional reactivity
MBSR can help reduce the emotional reactivity by teaching us how to recognize early signs of stress in the body and utilize practices — including breath awareness, emotion-focused problem-solving strategies, and mindful communication — to cope more effectively with difficult situations.
I have always had a somewhat fiery temperament. When I was a young child, my father described me as a “hot head” because I would yell and scream when I was upset, which of course made me scream even more. As an adult, I realized my anger outbursts were not because I was a “hot head” but reflected a feeling of overwhelm. Essentially, my nervous system was overwhelmed and my survival mechanisms of fight or flight were in over-drive. Many of my MBSR participants shared similar stories of being overwhelmed by anxiety (flight) or having significant problems with anger management (fight). Even mild stress can activate negative thinking and emotional distress for many of us, which can, in turn, significantly and negatively impact our day-to-day life.
During one of the first MBSR classes I taught, one participant stated he was in jeopardy of losing his job and his marriage due to his anger problems. He was desperate to find a way to better control his emotions. Week after week, he reported to the class how MBSR helped him to decrease his emotional reactivity and how he was able to work through challenges with his boss and co-workers without flying off the handle. By the end of the course, he happily shared that his boss had given him a positive review and he was feeling more relaxed and at ease around his co-workers. He told me privately at the end of the course that “MBSR saved my life”.
3. MBSR trains us to be more self-compassionate
When I took the MBSR course, my self-esteem was at a low point in my life. I worried I was not a good enough mom, wife, psychologist, etc. I judged myself constantly and had difficulty forgiving myself when I made mistakes.
One of the fundamental reasons why people have been practicing meditation for over 2,500 years is this very human predicament. We often create our own suffering by judging ourselves so harshly. Yoga sage Swami Kripalu wrote, “My beloved child, break your heart no longer. Each time you judge yourself, you break your own heart.” Mindfulness teaches us how to be in the present moment non-judgmentally. We learn to be more gentle toward ourselves, using practices including loving-kindness meditation, yoga, and interpersonal mindfulness. Research shows that mindfulness can thicken the neural tissue in parts of the brain directly related to our ability to have empathy. These changes in the brain strengthen our capacity to be compassionate toward ourselves and others.
It has been over 10 years since I took the MBSR course as a stressed-out mom who felt anxious and emotionally overwhelmed most of the time. Since that time, I have experienced much more joy and peace in the midst of a very busy life with three teenagers and a full-time job. I am so grateful to regularly witness the transformation of many other MBSR graduates who have been able to reduce their stress and rediscover their capacity to be happy. This helps me stay deeply connected to my meditation practice and to take things one breath at a time.