Ease Pain with Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)| Everyday Health

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a popular mind-body intervention associated with a variety of health and wellness benefits, including helping people cope with chronic pain.

Mindfulness is an ancient practice rooted in Buddhist and Hindu teachings.

It’s based on the principles of attention, awareness, and being present, and is meant to calm the mind and evoke a sense of relaxation, among other goals.

In the Western world, the emergence of mindfulness is often attributed to Jon Kabat-Zinn, who studied mindfulness under a number of Buddhist teachers. In the late 1970s, Kabat-Zinn developed a program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction while working as a professor at the University of Massachusetts. He created the secular program to help people living with chronic pain.

Today, mindfulness has been adopted into mainstream science and medicine, and it is used as a way to cope with stress, mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, and chronic health issues, including pain.

How It Works

Mindfulness-based stress reduction is an eight-week stress reduction program focused on intensive mindfulness training. It’s now used in hundreds of hospitals, clinics, and medical centers around the world.

The course uses various practices of mindfulness, including body scan, gentle yoga, and sitting meditations. Its aim is to help practitioners get in touch with their present thoughts, sensations, and emotions, so they can gain better insight into their own behavior patterns, particularly when it comes to how they react in stressful situations. A main goal of MBSR is to help people learn that while they cannot always control what is happening around them, they can decide how to respond to it.

Chronic Pain Symptom Relief

As mentioned above, MBSR is a program that was originally developed to help people with chronic pain.

Kabat-Zinn published a study in 1985 that included 90 people with chronic pain who took the course. According to this research, the participants experienced significant reductions in their pain symptoms, mood disturbances, and negative body image. Most of these effects were still seen at a 15-month follow up.

Further research into the effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction on chronic pain has continued over the past few decades. Studies have shown that the intervention may decrease pain sensitivity

and reduce the experience and unpleasantness of pain.

RELATED: 8 Great Pain Relievers You Aren’t Using

Other research suggests that mindfulness-based stress reduction actually changes how the brain responds to pain. MRI scans have shown that participants who completed the program experienced structural changes in areas of the brain involved with pain sensitivity.

Specifically, mindfulness-based stress reduction has been found to reduce lower back pain,


and rheumatoid arthritis.

Other Health Benefits

Research has found that MBSR can help with a number of other health conditions:

  • Heart issues, such as coronary heart disease, by reducing blood pressure, stress, and symptoms of anxiety and depression

  • Gastrointestinal issues, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

    and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)), by keeping practitioners in the present moment, reducing rumination about their symptoms, and easing psychological distress

  • Skin conditions, such as psoriasis, by reducing stress, a common trigger for symptoms

  • Diabetes, by helping those living with the condition manage stress and psychosocial issues that come with the lifestyle changes necessary to manage diabetes

  • Menopause, by reducing psychological symptoms of depression and anxiety

  • Multiple sclerosis, by improving perceived stress and anxiety

  • Quality of life in people with cancer, by reducing anxiety, fear, and fatigue

General Health and Wellness Benefits

Research has found that MBSR has numerous benefits for overall health and emotional well-being. For example, studies show that people who practice MBSR are better able to focus on the present moment and less likely to worry and ruminate (repeatedly think about negative thoughts or experiences).

Other research suggests that participating in meditation programs like mindfulness-based stress reduction improves memory, cognitive flexibility, and self-awareness.

And studies have shown that mindfulness-based stress reduction leads to reduced psychological stress.

MBSR can also help with symptoms of depression and anxiety. One study found significant reduction in depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation in veterans following a mindfulness-based stress reduction program.

The intervention has also been shown to improve sleep quality and mental health in people with insomnia.

In athletes, MBSR has been found to improve well-being, sleep quality, and athletic performance.

How to Get Started

A great way to get started with mindfulness-based stress reduction is to work with a mindfulness instructor. To find a credible teacher, go to your local medical centers and check with the integrative medicine or psychology departments. Many offer both in-person and online courses.

What to Expect From a Live MBSR Course

Undertaking an MBSR program is a serious commitment. A mindfulness-based stress reduction program consists of weekly sessions for classes with about 15 to 30 people over the course of eight weeks. Each session is about 2.5 to 3 hours long. There is also a full-day session after the sixth class focused on mindfulness in a retreat setting.

Group participation is usually required, and class attendance may be mandatory.

During the program, each session begins with a mindfulness exercise and also includes presentations from the instructor and discussions with the group. Topics include working through difficult emotions, mindful communication, and how perception impacts our relationship to stressful events.

Participants also receive home assignments to work on outside of class.

Fees: Is MBSR Expensive? Will Health Insurance Cover it?

The cost of a mindfulness-based stress reduction program is individually set by the hospital, clinic, or institution running the course.

Fees are typically not covered by health insurance. Generally, the price ranges from $300 to $650 for the full program, which includes class materials and the cost of the retreat.

Examples of costs of a live mindfulness-based stress reduction program at major institutions in the United States include:

You can also find remote live MBSR courses online:

Recorded options (not live) are also available:

  • MBSR Online Course About $300 at Sounds True. Similar to the live course, this online program of downloadable content is divided into eight weekly sessions, plus an all-day self-guided retreat. Different weeks focus on different practices; in week 5, for example, participants learn to apply mindfulness when experiencing pain or other physical sensations.

There are no shortcuts when it comes to cultivating mindfulness, but if the cost of MBSR is putting you off, check out the following trial tools and bite-size samples to learn more about using mindfulness in your life. Unlike the standard eight-week in-person class, these may not be live, interactive experiences.

Under $50

  • Weekly Podcast at the Hammer Each week, the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC) at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) holds a free, 30-minute guided meditation session at the Hammer Museum, which is then archived as a podcast. You can find them for free on MARC’s website or download the UCLA Mindful App. One podcast that is particularly relevant for people with rheumatoid arthritis and is available for download is on working with physical pain.
  • Books Public libraries carry classic mindfulness books, e-books, and audiobooks. See Resources We Love for titles to put on your to-read list. 
  • Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: The MBSR Program for Enhancing Health and Vitality Written by Linda Lehrhaupt and Petra Meibert, both European experts on MBSR, this book is based on the eight-week course, providing guidance through many of the steps that course participants experience and allowing readers to do the exercises on their own.
  • Two-Session Course Kabat-Zinn has released a two-session course called Mindfulness Meditation for Pain Relief: Guided Practices for Reclaiming Your Body and Your Life. The first session offers an overview on cultivating mindfulness in relationship to chronic pain. In session two, he leads listeners in guided meditations drawn from his MBSR method. (around $11 for an audio download on Sounds True)
  • On-Demand Sessions Copper Beech Institute offers on-demand Introduction to Meditation sessions ($25) and a Seven-Day Mindfulness Challenge ($50)

$125 to $200

  • MAPs for Daily Living This is the live online version of the six-week MAPs (Mindful Awareness Practices) program offered by MARC. Classes meet once a week for two hours, and the program costs $200. A recorded webinar option allows you to go at your own pace, with eight weeks of access to the course materials, for $125.

Considerations and Risks

Especially when starting out with MBSR, some people may experience strong emotions of sadness, fear, or anger as a result of consciously paying attention to these feelings for the first time. Individuals with a history of trauma, abuse, substance use disorders, or suicidality may be especially susceptible to these reactions.

For those with chronic illnesses in particular, it’s important to listen to your body, and if you feel pain while you are participating in mindful movement, either modify the pose or stop doing it and rest. Speak to the instructor if you have any concerns.

Resources We Love

Favorite Organizations for Info on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction


This online resource for all things mindfulness offers a primer on how to meditate and articles focusing on mindfulness and sleep, anxiety, and children. The site also features a bimonthly magazine, online mindfulness courses, and a directory of mindfulness teachers and events.


This is the official site offering three series of guided meditation practices developed and voiced by Kabat-Zinn. Each series is available for digital download at $20, or the set of three can be purchased for $49. The site also offers links to videos about mindfulness and meditation apps.

Mindful Awareness Research Center

MARC lists Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress reduction program as a major contributor to the mindfulness programs the institution offers. On MARC’s site, you’ll find a number of meditation resources, including free guided meditations, a weekly podcast, and information on local drop-in meditations. You can also download the free UCLA Mindful App, which offers basic meditations for beginners in both English and Spanish, wellness meditations for people living with health conditions, and instructional videos.

Favorite Books About Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness

Written by Kabat-Zinn, this book offers a practical, step-by-step guide to practicing mindfulness meditation based on the eight-week program of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. The book describes a self-guided training program in mindfulness-based stress reduction to help readers develop a sense of self-awareness and calmness when facing the “full catastrophe” of life, which may include stress, pain, and illness.

Kabat-Zinn’s other books — including Mindfulness for Beginners, Coming to Our Senses, and Wherever You Go, There You Are — are also worth reading.

The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh and Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness by Susan L. Smalley and Diana Winston are good options as well.

Favorite Apps to Practice Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction


Though it does not focus specifically on mindfulness-based stress reduction, Headspace is one of the most popular and well-known meditation apps. It offers a variety of guided meditations for every aspect of life, including work, kids, sleep, focus, stress, and anxiety, and can be a helpful supplement to your meditation practice during and after your eight-week course. Users can sign up for a 14-day free trial. After that, an annual subscription costs about $70.


Calm is another well-known meditation app, offering an array of meditations, calming exercises, and breathing techniques to help users relax and think mindfully. The app also features sleep stories, as well as relaxing music and nature sounds to listen to while studying, working, or going to sleep. A seven-day free trial is available, and then a subscription costs $70 per year.

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