Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a complementary therapy. It uses mindfulness techniques to help people cope with mental or physical health conditions.

The professor Jon Kabat-Zinn developed MBSR in the 1980s. It is a structured program involving group sessions and daily meditation over a set period of time.

MBSR encourages people to become more aware of the present by letting go of worry about the past or future. It can also teach people to observe their thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations in a non-judgemental way. This can reduce stress and may reduce other symptoms, such as chronic pain.

This article discusses MBSR, including its benefits and side effects. It also looks at ways to practice it and exercises to consider.

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Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is an 8-week program that teaches mindfulness techniques, such as yoga and meditation. It is a complementary therapy that doctors may recommend alongside other treatments.

In its original form, the program consisted of:

  • weekly group meditation classes with an instructor
  • daily guided meditation practice at home
  • a day-long mindfulness retreat during the sixth week

Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn initially developed MBSR for people with chronic pain. However today, instructors have adapted it for a wide range of purposes.

The overall goal of MBSR is to encourage people to focus their attention on the present moment. In particular, it involves focusing on the body, accepting it, and letting go of the urge to judge, analyze, or control.

Practicing acceptance can reduce stress, which has a wide range of health benefits. Short-term stress can help people when they are in danger. However, long-term or chronic stress is harmful to many aspects of health, from sleep to the immune system. MBSR aims to reduce the stress response, returning the body and mind to a calmer state.

MBSR can include a combination of exercises, such as:

  • Breathing: This may include various types of breathing techniques. For example, diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing, can help slow the heartbeat and lower blood pressure.
  • Meditation: There are many approaches to meditation. Body scan meditation often features in MBSR. This involves focusing attention on different parts of the body and relaxing each part. For people who find body scan meditations uncomfortable, there is also loving-kindness meditation, walking meditation, and more.
  • Yoga: Yoga is a mind and body practice that involves moving into different poses while coordinating the breath.
  • Group dialogue: This involves sharing experiences with an MBSR group. During this exercise, people discuss how they have integrated MBSR into their daily routine.

Many of the concepts behind MBSR come from Eastern traditions, such as Buddhism. However, MBSR primarily focuses on the non-spiritual aspects of techniques such as yoga and meditation.

MBSR can help to manage or improve the symptoms of various health conditions, including:


A 2019 review of studies suggests that MBSR reduced pain-related distress, pain intensity, and functional limitations in people with lower back pain. These benefits continued for at least 52 weeks.

Mindfulness may also help reduce catastrophizing about pain, which is when a person assumes the worst will happen.


A 2018 systematic review of previous research found that MBSR may help reduce stress and emotional exhaustion in employees. Emotional exhaustion is a component of burnout, which is a significant health concern among workers.

The review also noted significant improvements in sleep quality and self-compassion in study participants. However, the authors note that some of the studies they examined were not of high quality.

Anxiety and depression

Mindfulness can help people with anxiety or depression. It works by helping them remain in the present rather than worrying about the past or future. MBSR can also help with processing difficult feelings and experiences, leading to acceptance.

The benefits of MBSR may contribute to reducing the severity of anxiety and depression. An older 2015 trial found that MBSR was as effective as antidepressants for preventing depression from reoccurring. However, more research is necessary.

According to the National Health Service (NHS), MBSR rarely causes side effects. However, people may encounter unprocessed thoughts and feelings when practicing meditation or other mindfulness techniques.

Because mindfulness requires a person to slow down, emotions a person has not fully acknowledged can come to the surface. This can be difficult initially but may get easier over time. If it does not improve or if mindfulness feels too intense, a person may benefit from speaking with their instructor.

If a person experiences any other concerning symptoms, they should consider contacting a doctor. The doctor can make sure there are no underlying physical conditions causing these symptoms.

MBSR involves following a structured program led by an instructor. However, people can still try mindfulness techniques at home. Below is an example of a body scan meditation.

Body scan meditation

This exercise consists of paying attention to the sensations a person experiences in their body. To try it:

  1. Sit or lie in a comfortable position.
  2. Take several deep breaths in and out as the body starts to rest. A person can close their eyes if they wish.
  3. Beginning at the soles of the feet, draw attention to how they feel. Notice any sensations, whether pleasant or unpleasant, without judging them.
  4. Gradually, move from the feet to the ankles, then the legs, noticing how each part feels in turn. A person may wish to consciously tense and relax each muscle as they go.
  5. If attention wanders, try to notice it and gently bring it back to the body scan.
  6. Once a person has reached their head, they can notice how the whole body feels. They may stay in this meditative state for as long as they wish.
  7. When ready, open the eyes.

Other techniques people can try include:

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a complementary therapy. It can help people reduce stress levels, manage anxiety and depression, and cope with chronic pain. MSBR focuses on teaching mindfulness techniques that combine breathing exercises, meditation, and yoga or stretching.

Initially, MBSR may be difficult. Mindfulness in general can draw attention to symptoms or emotions a person finds unpleasant. However, over time, focusing on the present can become easier.

People who are interested in MBSR may be able to find an instructor near them. Alternatively, they can ask their doctor for a recommendation.