The concept of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was developed by Dr. Jon Kabal-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1979. This method is used as a complement to traditional medicine for relieving stress from a multitude of maladies. By putting the mind/body continuum at rest so to speak not only are certain illnesses made better but self-esteem is improved.
MABSR brings together meditation, body awareness and yoga either separately or in combination to create awareness of self. Mindfulness practice is ideal for cultivating greater awareness of the unity of mind and body, as well as of the ways the unconscious thoughts, feelings and behaviors can undermine emotional, physical and spiritual health. Although having roots in Buddhism the methodology is secular.
Part of the stress reduction is due to meditation’s effect on the autonomic physiological processes such as lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and smooth muscle relaxation as in for example the GI tract. Sympathetic overload causes tachycardia, flight or fright or dry mouth is reduced. I notice, for example that when stressed I get a dry mouth that I cannot chew toast (as in the day of a track meet during high school), rapid heartbeat and diarrhea. All sympathetic overload involves release of inappropriate amounts of epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine from the adrenal glands. Levels of these hormones are elevated during acute or chronic stress and can be reduced by MBCT.
The related Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is a form of MBST that addresses abnormalities in cognitive function that accompany depression, anxiety, and insomnia among others. The two combined help you recognize depressive moods that create negative thought patterns. Cognitive function is found in the grey matter of the brain and is responsible for regulation of:
- information processing
These are the so-called higher intellectual functions.
Mindfulness is meant to keep you in the moment rather than the past or future. The current technique of acquiring mindfulness typically involves a trained instructor moderating a group of ten to twenty students in eight weekly two hour sessions, one six hour session and subsequently practicing the techniques 45 minutes a day.
The Three Techniques for Mindfulness
The three formal techniques are: meditation, body scanning and simple yoga postures. Body scanning is the first prolonged formal mindfulness technique taught during the first four weeks. It entails quietly lying on one’s back and focusing one’s attention on various regions of the body, starting with the toes and moving up slowly to the top of the head. Dr. Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as “moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness.”
The goal is to focus on the present as thought to heighten sensitivity to the environment and your reactions to it and consequently enhancing self-management and coping. The ultimate goal is to abolish ruminating on the past or worrying about the future which are maladaptive cognitive processes.
Mindfulness has been tested on a variety of health problems: anxiety disorder mood disorders, substance abuse, eating disorders, chronic pain, ADHD, insomnia and coping with medical conditions such as cancer, heart disease and such conditions as fibromyalgia. Learning such techniques can reduce the need for analgesics; for example, from a herniated disc and its attendant sciatic pain. Mindfulness does prevent or cure these conditions. It is not, for example, meant to replace medications for hypertension. However, mindfulness techniques can improve both mental and physical well-being.
Another way of looking at mindfulness is to be aware of moment-to-moment experience rather than being in a state of automatic pilot. Automatic pilot causes lack of awareness of environment. Automatic pilot blocks awareness of smell, touch, taste, sight and tactility (our five senses).