Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (often called MBSR) is a therapeutic program that uses mindfulness practices as a way to decrease stress.

The idea behind MBSR is that cultivating a more accepting, less judgmental perspective on your life can make it easier to manage stressful situations.

Though MBSR is rooted in the mindfulness practices of Buddhist religions, it is a secular practice. You don’t have to be religious to benefit from mindfulness.

MBSR is usually conducted as a form of group therapy, though it is also available in a self-directed workbook format.

What can Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction help with?

MBSR can be helpful for a number mental health concerns. It’s particularly helpful for conditions and symptoms related to life stress and worry, including:

MBSR can also be helpful for physical symptoms related to stress, such as chronic pain.

Keep in mind that you don’t need to have a particular mental health symptom or diagnosis to benefit from MBSR. It can be helpful for anyone who wants to learn new strategies for reducing stress.

Does Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction work?

There is extensive scientific evidence showing that MBSR and related mindfulness-based therapies are effective ways for many people to reduce their stress levels.

For example, a review of 39 different studies found that overall, MBSR and similar therapies were often shown to help participants decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression. Similarly, another study showed that MBSR can help people manage symptoms of social anxiety.

How does Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction work?

MBSR is based on mindfulness practices that come from the Buddhist tradition. The goal of these practices is to learn how to observe the world around you without immediately having an emotional reaction to it. In other words, mindfulness is about non-judgment; it’s a way of accepting things as they occur rather than judging them as good or bad.

Through the increased awareness and compassion that you develop through MBSR, you can learn to be more present in the moment and make calmer, wiser decisions. That is, stressful things will still happen to you, but MBSR gives you tools to separate yourself from external events and experience less negative emotions in reaction to them.

How frequently are Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction sessions held?

In its group therapy format, MBSR sessions happen once a week. Each session lasts for about two and a half hours. Usually, there is also one additional day-long session that happens about halfway through the treatment.

Working on mindfulness techniques outside of sessions is also very important in MBSR. During treatment, you’ll usually spend at least 45 minutes most days developing your own at-home meditation practice.

How long does Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction treatment last?

MBSR group treatment takes eight weeks in total to complete. If you use the workbook format of MBSR, your timeline may be different, but it will still take several weeks to become familiar with the mindfulness practices.

How are Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction sessions structured?

MBSR has a formal eight-week structure, with one session per week. It is almost always a group treatment model.

Additionally, MBSR includes an additional day-long retreat (about seven hours total) about halfway through the eight weeks.

It’s also important to note that a significant part of MBSR treatment happens outside of sessions. Working on your at-home meditation practice on a daily basis and applying mindfulness techniques to real-life situations is a key component of MBSR’s overall structure. The goal is to continue to use this ongoing practice as a way to reduce stress even after treatment ends, so really, the structure of MBSR continues long after you stop going to weekly sessions.

What happens in a typical Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) session?

MBSR is based on three core activities that you’ll practice in most sessions:

  1. Mindfulness meditation: Meditation in the tradition of Buddhist mindfulness practices is the foundation of MBSR. Your sessions will include direct instruction in meditation techniques, as well as time to practice and discuss your experience of meditation with the other members of your therapy group.
  2. Yoga: Part of MBSR involves reconnecting with your body and physical sensations through practicing yoga poses. This aspect of treatment is especially important if you’re using MBSR to deal with a physical condition such as chronic pain.
  3. Body scan techniques: Body scan is another way of becoming more sensitive to your lived experience in the moment. It involves systematically paying attention to each part of your body, usually while sitting or lying down. Often, body scan is taught and practiced more in the earlier sessions of MBSR than the later sessions.

Additionally, group discussion of all of these exercises and your experiences of them is a key part of MBSR. Most MBSR sessions will include a mix of instruction, discussion, and hands-on practice.

What should I look for in a therapist for Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction?

Therapists who lead MBSR groups may be social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, or another kind of mental health professional. No matter what kind of therapist you choose to work with, make sure that they meet the following criteria:

  • An advanced degree in a mental health field;
  • Licensure to practice in the state where you live;
  • If applicable, experience working with people who share your specific concerns (if you’re dealing with a certain mental health condition) or identity (if you feel that any aspect of your identity may be relevant to treatment).

It’s also important that your therapist has advanced training and previous experience using MBSR. The University of Massachusetts runs a prominent MBSR certification program, and many MBSR therapists have this certification. Certified MBSR practitioners are required to have extensive practice using MBSR, so it’s usually a good idea to look for a therapist who is certified.

New to therapy? Learn about how to find a therapist here.