Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program for PCOS

Woman meditating on the beach
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Stress is a part of everyone’s lives. High levels of stress has a significant impact on our health as it is associated with increasing blood pressure, glucose, weight gain, and is a risk factor for heart attacks.

Levels of stress hormones like cortisol have been shown to be high in women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which may worsen the condition by increasing insulin and other metabolic parameters and contribute to weight gain or difficulties losing weight.

Of course, reducing stress is a solution for avoiding adverse health risks of chronic stress. Which is why most cities now offer mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programs, to help people manage their stress with mindfulness practice.

New research shows that a mindfulness stress program can be helpful for women with PCOS.  In a study published in Stress, women with PCOS participated in an 8-week mindfulness stress management program. At the end of the study, the women had less stress, depression, and anxiety, as well as improved quality of life. The women also saw reductions in cortisol levels. These results lead researchers to suggest that “mindfulness techniques seem promising in ameliorating stress, anxiety, depression and the quality of life in women with PCOS and could be used as an adjunct method to the conventional management of these women.”

As a stressed-out woman with PCOS, I decided to try out an MBSR program for myself.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is about awareness of the present moment, paying attention to one's current thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations moment to moment without judgment. It’s not being in the future, thinking of things that need to get done, or in the past, dwelling on mistakes. It’s about what you’re experiencing right now.

Mindfulness practice relieves stress due to an enhanced relaxation response. This response causes changes in brain activity and structure, improvements in the autonomic nervous system, hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, cortisol, sleep, mood, enhanced focus and sensory awareness.

Inside a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I signed up for the 8-week MBSR program. I knew I wanted a better handle on managing my stress but wasn’t sure if the program would work for me as I didn’t think I would be able to meditate and totally clear my mind of thoughts and my to-do list for long periods of time. What I quickly learned was that mindfulness isn’t just about meditation, but awareness.

There were 22 of us in our regular Wednesday morning group, all from different backgrounds and all with a different story. There were physicians, former CEOs, stay-at-home moms, retired workers, and grandparents. We did have one thing in common: we wanted help managing our stress.

Starting with our first session, each class was taught by an experienced instructor who led us through formal mindfulness practice exercises. These mindfulness practices began with sitting with the focus on the breath and extended to sitting with awareness of sounds, body sensations, and yes thoughts. What I was surprised to learn was that it’s impossible to silence your mind. Instead, mindfulness encourages you to notice your thoughts as they pop up but not to dwell on them, always bringing your awareness back to your breath and body. Mindfulness practice is like training a muscle. The more you use it, the better you get at it.

As the weeks went by, we were introduced to other forms of mindfulness practice such as laying down and doing a scan of the body, and movement exercises. There was required homework: at least 40 minutes daily of formal mindfulness practices using guided records, as well as readings from by Jon Kabat-Zin, the founder of MBSR. Specific ways to integrate mindfulness into the regular day, such as ‘Stop, Breath, Be’ to help deal with high-stress events, were also practiced daily.

Sometimes my mindfulness practices were so relaxing, it was as if I woke from a deep sleep. This relaxation carried into my day. I felt happier, more centered and in control over things, including my response to stress.

By the final session, having previously done a full day retreat in silence, another requirement of the program, I felt I had obtained the basic skills of mindfulness practice. Now the work of integrating mindfulness into my daily life had just begun. I just have to notice it.

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