If you haven’t checked out Sacred Heart’s Center for Healthy Living’s newest course, you’re missing out. In the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) program, you learn to reduce and/or manage stress, enjoy greater energy, decrease pain or manage it more effectively, and increase your ability to relax and put life in healthier perspective. The program is facilitated by Karen Alseth, BSN, MEd, and is the only course of its kind in the area.
Though it may sound pretty cutting-edge, MSBR has been around since the ‘70s.The program originated in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worchester, MA. Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, developed the program in response to the the needs of patients to manage stress, especially stress associated with chronic illness. A doctor of molecular biology, Kabat-Zinn worked with traditional physicians in the Medical Center and found they were often frustrated with their limited ability to help chronic illness patients manage their stress, recognizing that stress played a huge role in their patients’ lives and often complicated their conditions.
Kabat-Zinn, a long-time meditator and serious student of Zen meditation, felt led to try a meditation-based approach to treat stress. He developed a program that has since gained international acclaim and is now offered in medical centers around the US and in several other countries. Kabat-Zinn is known for bringing mindfulness into the mainstream of America through the MBSR course, related research, and several best-selling books.
The MSBR program was originally set up as an 8-week course with a weekly 2 ½ hour class plus a full day retreat, and that structure continues to this day. The classes involve learning about mindfulness and how it affects stress and daily living, breathing, homework, study, and self-awareness.
“Life is the curriculum for the class, and meditation is the teacher.” Karen Alseth tells participants. Daily meditation is highly encouraged – attendees of the class are in fact asked to commit to daily meditation. Facilitator Karen Alseth says positive results in the program are directly related to the consistency of meditation. For most people, meditation is the practice that best supports the development of greater mindfulness. Alseth explains, “While we meditate, we become still and we become aware of what our thoughts and feelings are. Realizing what you’ve been doing, allowing, or reacting to opens the mind to clarity and gives you a choice of what to do now.” Alseth says students discover to what extent these feelings and actions have actually been increasing negativity, stress, and pain in their lives. By slowing down and meditating every day, becoming more aware of how they react to the events in their lives, they are enabled to start managing life in a wiser/healthier way.
Breathing and sending enough oxygen to the part of the brain that calms us down is also key in the program. There is a two-part system in the brain; one that generates the stress response, and one that calms us and brings the body back into balance (immune system, nervous system, everything). Because the brain does not discern between life-threatening stress (e.g., that truck is about to hit me) and non-threatening stress (e.g., my teenage child won’t listen to me), many people are operating their lives in a chronic stress reaction mode, which, over time, can have serious negative effects on physical and emotional health.
Students spend time talking in small and large groups (voluntary discussions) about what they are experiencing as they meditate, what the meditation is teaching them, what comes up in their thoughts, feelings, and body sensations (the three main areas of awareness), and how mindfulness is spilling over into their daily life. Everyone receives a notebook as well as CDs with guided meditations to help them through their daily practice.
Students learn about the physiology of stress, the role of the brain and nervous system in stress, the role of breathing, mindful communication, mindful consumption, kindness to self, and nonjudgmental acceptance of reality and related topics.
There are also homework assignments about awareness (pleasant and stressful experiences) that help students become more aware.
A great deal of research-based findings revealing the effectiveness of mindfulness, breathing, and meditation’s effect on the brain are available today. Traditional medical research is continually being done to determine the results of MBSR as well as the actual physiological process of meditation in the brain. New, exciting research surrounding the plasticity of the brain, which means the mold-ability of the brain, is overturning the paradigm which held that everything in the brain is “set in concrete” at an early age. Alseth explains, “We now know that the brain continues to “learn” and develop new pathways, even into old age and that meditation is being seen in MRIs to have a positive affect on the brain. We can all develop different, healthier pathways.”
MBSR classes are ongoing, with the next session beginning Sept. 9, held at St. Bede’s Conference Center. To register or learn more about the courses, please contact the Center for Healthy Living at Sacred Heart Hospital at (715) 717-1600.