Mindfulness-based stress reduction programmes help reduce anxiety, depression and stress


Mindfulness has become a popular self-management technique to relieve stress and cope with busy day-to-day lifestyles.

This review defines mindfulness as the ability to “non-judgementally observe sensations, thoughts, emotions and the environment, while encouraging openness, curiosity and acceptance”.

It looks specifically at a technique called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programmes, which is a training programme developed in the late 1970s by an American stress expert called Jon Kabat-Zinn. The 8-week programme aims to help participants become more aware of what is happening around them and to accept each moment. The goal of the programme is that this increased mindfulness helps them cope with the challenges that daily life presents.

The authors of the review looked for randomised controlled trials that compared MBSR with another treatment or no treatment. They found 31 studies and included 26 with  a total of 1,456 participants. Seven studies included people with mild to moderate psychological problems, 13 studies targeted people with various somatic conditions and 11 studies recruited people from the general population. The treatment length in the studies varied from 4-8 weeks and not all studies measured the outcomes of interest. However, the studies were sufficiently similar to be included in a meta-analysis.

Here’s what they found:

  • All effect sizes are expressed using Hedges’ g-values (positive values indicate beneficial effects)
  • MBSR programmes were effective for treating:
    • Anxiety 0.53 (95% CI 0.43, 0.63)
    • Depression 0.54 (95% CI 0.35, 0.74)
    • Stress/distress 0.56 (95% CI 0.44, 0.67)
  • The MBSR programmes also showed positive outcomes for a range of other criteria:
    • Personal development  0.50 (95% CI 0.35, 0.66)
    • Quality of life 0.57 (95% CI 0.17, 0.96)
    • Mindfulness 0.70 (95% CI 0.05, 1.34)
    • Somatic health 0.31 (95% CI 0.10, 0.52)

The authors concluded:

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction has a moderate and consistent effect on a number of measures of mental health for a wide range of target groups. It also appears to improve measures of personal development such as empathy and coping, and enhance both mindfulness, quality of life and improve some aspects of somatic health.

Further research is needed to assess whether MBSR programmes can help with social well-being and the ability to work. Current studies do not tell us the length of treatment needed in order to see an effect. Nor do they tell us everything we need to know about the long-term effects of MBSR programmes.


de Vibe M, Bjørndal A, Tipton E, Hammerstrøm KT, Kowalski K. Mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) for improving health, quality of life and social functioning in adults (PDF). Campbell Systematic Reviews 2012:3 DOI: 10.4073/csr.2012.3

Katrine Strøjer Madsen. Mindfulness can relieve stress (PDF). Campbell User Abstract.

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Andre Tomlin

André Tomlin is an Information Scientist with 20 years experience working in evidence-based healthcare. He's worked in the NHS, for Oxford University and since 2002 as Managing Director of Minervation Ltd, a consultancy company who do clever digital stuff for charities, universities and the public sector. Most recently André has been the driving force behind the Mental Elf and the National Elf Service; an innovative digital platform that helps professionals keep up to date with simple, clear and engaging summaries of evidence-based research. André is a Trustee at the Centre for Mental Health and an Honorary Research Fellow at University College London Division of Psychiatry. He lives in Bristol, surrounded by dogs, elflings and lots of woodland!

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