By Molly McCarthy, Contributing Writer
Shrewsbury – Get out of bed, go to work, stop at the store, pick up the kids, make dinner, go to a meeting, do the laundry, clean up, check email, go to bed. There is no stopping in today's 24/7 lifestyle. And the stress that comes with our fast-paced lives takes its toll on many people's health.
Jennifer, an engineer from Shrewsbury, felt the strain to the point that she started having panic attacks. Jennifer's psychologist referred her to the Stress Reduction Program held at the Center for Mindfulness through the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
The Stress Reduction Program uses Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) techniques to help participants use their inner resources to better their health and quality of life.
Participants learn mindfulness meditation, take part in gentle yoga, and engage in discussions with teachers and other participants on how to use the practice in their daily lives, along with receiving instruction in many other guided exercises.
Mindfulness is a way of learning to pay wise attention to whatever is happening, which allows a greater sense of connection to life inwardly and outwardly. Mindfulness is a practice, a method aimed at cultivating clarity, insight and understanding.
Being skeptical, Jennifer attended every one of the program's mandatory free-of-charge orientation sessions, then attended all of the eight weekly two-and-a-half-hour classes and the required all-day retreat. She completed the 45 to 60 minutes of home practice every day as well.
Jennifer felt she was just going through the motions and putting in the effort because she had told her psychologist she would. She found sharing with other participants in class scary, but it allowed her to see that other people worry too.
“It was not just a “me” thing. I was convinced that worrying was just my thing and that was how I was supposed to be and that was who I was, and it was never going to change,” she said.
Jennifer admitted that not every practice or exercise clicked for her. She found the yoga and mindful walking worked best, as opposed to sitting still and meditating. She said that other participants identified strongly with other practices. She looked at the program as a way to build a toolbox, and some of the tools were good for her and some weren's. Jennifer said it felt good to get a set of tools that she could use for the rest of her life. She found her class experience life-changing.
“A couple of years ago I would'se told you I worry a lot, but it works in my favor because I get a lot done and I benefit from it. I didn's actually realize that it was bad for my health and bad for me. It really didn's help me get a lot more done; it just made me think I was. In the class, you are taught to recognize who you are and what you need,” Jennifer said.
Diana Kamila, BA, education specialist and senior teacher at the Stress Reduction Program, has been teaching stress programs for over 30 years and MBSR since 1991. It took her own serious stress-related health scare for Kamila to start looking into ways to decrease her own stress and that led her to MSBR.
“The beauty of this program is that it really invites a person to go within and to investigate,” she said.
One of the hardest things for participants is committing to the time required for the program. Kamila explained the program calls for a lot of practice, six days a week.
Jennifer felt the time commitment was difficult, but the rewards were worth it.
“It was hard to cut out the “me” time especially when my mind was busy with the list of things to do and I felt I needed to worry about it. It's hard to put that aside,” Jennifer said.
Jennifer's husband was supportive of her decision to join the program, which enabled her to practice daily.
Kamila explained that teachers in the program ask the participant to surround themselves with support throughout the eight weeks.
“It takes a lot of courage to do this program. It might be scary sometimes for people that come to take this program. They are so used to distracting themselves in life that when they are suddenly invited to come home to themselves they don's like what they see. In the stillness it can stir someone up and that's why we ask them to scaffold themselves with support,” Kamila said.
Teachers in the program ask participants to do a pre- and post-test as a form of documentation.
“We now have 33 years of research so I think that that's really made a difference in people's lives with pain, fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety, breast cancer, prostate cancer, hot flashes and a broad range of issues,” Kamila said.
Jennifer still uses her mindfulness tools after graduating from the program and feels strongly that it helped her in many facets of her life. She is not the only one who has noticed a shift; her co-workers and husband have noticed as well. She feels that it even has rubbed off on the people she interacts with in her everyday life. More than 17,000 people have completed the program since it was founded in 1979 by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn.
The program will turn no one away because they do not have enough money. There are payment plans and scholarships available.
Orientation and classes take place at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society located at 222 Maple Ave. in Shrewsbury.
Orientation for the spring session of the Stress Reduction Program starts in April. To reserve your place in an upcoming Orientation Session, call the Center for Mindfulness at 508-856-2656. Or visit www.umassmed.edu/cfm for more information.