Written by: Joshua MacAran
Chronic stress has become the American Way. According to an American Psychological Association report in 2009, 69 percent of employees report that work is a significant source of stress and 41 percent say they typically feel tense or stressed out during the workday. A 2001 Bureau of Labor Statistics report cites that the median number of days away from work due to anxiety, stress, and other similar disorders was four times the median for all other nonfatal injury and illness cases. Houston, we have a problem. While a significant reduction in workload and/or increase in pay doesn’t seem likely to happen in the immediate future for most people, you can increase your happiness by taking care of yourself – eating right, sleeping well, and engaging in mindfulness based stress reduction.
MBSR is a multifaceted approach that incorporates hatha yoga, meditation, and body-scan (a guided awareness practice). Yoga addresses the prevalence of disuse atrophy that is at the root of so much chronic pain and illness, while awareness practices such as meditation and body-scan train the mind to focus. MBSR has been found to have a high rate of participation after the program is finished, even three years afterward, according to studies in the 80s and 90s. This is in part because each of the practices are unique and work well for different people and each person is free to continue with the practices that work best for them.
MBSR was pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1979. Today, MBSR is offered as an eight week intensive course for medical students and professionals in over 200 medical centers, hospitals, and clinics throughout the world. It is a useful tool for students and professionals dealing with the intensity and pace of the medical profession. Many of these professionals share it with patients to help them cope with the stresses of illness.
There have been several studies conducted to verify the efficacy of the MBSR program. Findings as recent as 2008 still come to the same conclusions as studies in the previous two decades; “MBSR studies with varied populations have found significant decreases in anxiety/depression, mood disturbance, somatic symptoms of stress, and present-moment pain. Other mindfulness studies have demonstrated improvements in quality of life, health-related quality of life, general health, sleep quality, immune function, and decreases in psychological distress and physical symptoms and conditions.” Each of the MBSR practices is at its core an awareness practice, and perhaps that is why they are so successful.
Awareness is a skill seldom taught by the public school system. We are a very forward focused society and we are taught to focus on the next assignment, the next promotion, the next weekend. Kabat-Zinn writes, “We are driven by the urgent, miss the important and then wind up a lot of the time being unhappy.” The greater truth about America is that most of our poor are fed, clothed, and housed. Each moment we are alive in the middle of our busy, stressful lives, we could instead be alive and begging on the street in Thailand or India. We could be in the middle of a civil war in Sierra Leone, or in a crowd of restless agitators in Tunisia. We are among the luckiest nations on earth, although we often don’t remember how lucky we are.
This is nothing new, so why all the fuss? Perhaps a better question is, why not more fuss? We have known for decades that there are effective, low cost solutions to the mental and physical health consequences of chronic stress. If you accept the presumption that our chronic stress isn’t going to end any time soon, why are we not teaching our children to take their health into their own hands at a very young age? Do your community a favor. Learn these techniques. Practice mindfulness based stress reduction. Then teach them to all the people asking you why you’re so happy!