Perceptions of Learning after an Online 8-Week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Programme – Fiona O’Donnell

Introduction

This research by Fiona O’Donnell (as part of a Psychology Masters from Brunel University London) examined the experiences of participants who had completed an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) 6 months prior to the research commencing in August 2021. The research question was What are the perceived learnings by participants of wellbeing and psycho-educational learnings, after completing an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme? The aim of this research was to give a voice to participants and understand more about their experiences and perceptions of this non-clinical programme. IPA (Interpretative phenomenological analysis) methods were used.

Results & Discussion

The three main themes identified in the results were: finding common humanity, making social connection and loss of group support. The dominance of these three themes was an unexpected outcome of this research. Group connection was described in terms of emotional connection to the group, being part of a social group, online connection to others during Covid-19, shared experience of not being the only one who had difficult feelings and compassion for the other members of the group. It concurs with Gilbert’s (2006) definition of group connection as emotional care for others, mutuality of experience, respect, and compassion. This group connection online could be described as a modern-day virtual tribe, a unique membership of a social unit. Group connection was one of thirteen questions in the interview schedule, however it was often spoken about before the question was asked. It emerged as the strongest area of interest.

Theme 1: “Knowing that you're not the only one that feels like this” (Maggie): Finding common humanity

The first theme which emerged was finding common humanity and emotional connection to the others in the group as well as participants beginning to connect with themselves emotionally. This was vividly remembered by all participants who spoke about the shared understanding of being part of the group, hearing someone else “saying how you are feeling”, knowing you are “not the only one” who feels like this and “knowing you are not alone”. This finding is supported by research by Malpass et al (2012), “I’m not the only one, there are other people with the problem” (p. 71). It is suggested that this realisation reduces feelings of shame for participants. Gilbert (1998) states that most forms of psychological distress include shame, associated with perceived undesirable characteristics. Yalom & Leszcz (2005) highlight the relief at learning you are not the only one who has difficulties, which they call “universality”. Common humanity is defined as the realization of vulnerabilities, personal flaws and failures (Neff, 2009) and seeing “one’s experiences as part of the human condition rather than as personal, isolating and shaming” (Gilbert, p. 358). It’s clear that this concept emerged in the findings from this study.

Group interventions are widely reported to provide a supportive and normalising environment that group members can experience as therapeutic (Yalom & Leszcz, 2005) (Cormack et al. 2018). Although MBSRs are not therapeutic in the clinical sense, healing can occur (Kabat-Zinn, 1990). Evidence of the group as a normalizing experience was demonstrated by Wyatt et al. (2014) who reported a common statement amongst participants was, “I’m not a nut” (p. 220). Yalom & Leszcz (2005) also highlight the relief at learning you are not the only one who has difficulties, one of the therapeutic factors they call “universality”, or common humanity in mindfulness (Hutchinson et al. 2021).

Theme 2: “It was more about interacting with other people” (David): Making social connection

The social connection of the group was another strong theme that emerged. The opportunity to connect with other people seemed particularly important, as well as reducing social isolation, due to the Covid-19 pandemic and government social restrictions. Connecting socially online has been an increasing trend in recent years, however MBSR programmes moving online is a relatively new development as a result of the pandemic. For most of the participants they expressed a feeling of strong social connection online. Three participants highlighted the importance of informal chatting in the smaller breakout rooms as a great way to connect socially. Social isolation was expressed by most participants who reported looking forward to the weekly session “to see how everyone was getting on”. The regular weekly scheduled meeting for this closed group (no others could join once the programme started) was important.

The possibility to meet others online socially during the Covid-19 pandemic meant that online groups were a very important resource to protect psychological wellbeing during this time (Marmarosh et al. 2020). Recent research suggests that social connection online helps to prevent health anxiety whilst experiencing social isolation (Stuart et al. 2021). The growing emergence of online groups may offer more opportunities for accessibility for those who might not ordinarily be able to access face-to-face social connection, for reasons of accessibility, disability, marginalisation, or other factors that could affect this.

Research suggests that practicing mindfulness with others supports the practice of mindfulness as well as increasing feelings of social connectivity (Hanley et al. 2021). There is some evidence that the hormone oxytocin may be linked to having social support (Heinrichs, Baumgartner, Kirschbaum, & Ehlert, 2003). Whether this is applicable to social support groups online is an area for further research, however the research of this study supports a positive experience and feeling of social support during the online MBSR programme. Segal et al (2019) state that there is no research as of yet about the recent move to online for MBPs and he argues that it is not clear how this will impact the participant relationships and group processes on this new online platform. Based on the research from this current study, there is evidence that participant relationships and group processes have adapted well to the online MBPs. There was strong social connection in the online MBSR and it was something that most participants said they looked forward to each week.

Theme 3: “We were all a bit devastated that the last week was coming” (Jacinta): Losing group support

Towards the end of the programme most participants expressed their feeling of “loss” and even “devastation” at the group coming to an end. The formation of a unique group was expressed as well as the desire for this group to continue. Other means of continuing the group were attempted such as WhatsApp groups on three occasions, however these did not continue. A Tuesday night group drop-in was also offered as part of a follow-on opportunity at the centre, however, there was something about this unique group rather than a new one with different people, that participants appeared to want. The unique ‘co-creation of the group’ seemed to resonate with the participants, there was a longing to continue with that particular group (McCown 2016).

Tuckman’s (1965) four stages of group development include: forming, storming, norming and performing. A fifth stage of group development was added at a later stage called adjourning but also known as mourning (Tuckman & Jensen, 1977). This language described by three of the participants described sadness and devastation, which seems to correspond with Tuckman’s final stage of adjourning and mourning, as the group comes to an end, as participants leave the group, unlikely to see the other participants again that they have shared this vulnerable experience with. Brandsma (2017) argues that there is a shared wisdom and insights between participants when they come together, that would not be gained if they practiced mindfulness on their own. Perhaps this shared wisdom and dynamic of being together makes it easier to practice mindfulness and this is also mourned by the participants when the course concludes

Conclusion

The results of this research demonstrate that participants reported experiencing strong group connection whilst attending the online MBSR programme. The group connection emerged as a more dominant finding than expected. While further investigation into the role of the group is recommended, however, there is evidence that the group process is important to the benefits of MBSR. Being online showed no evidence in reduced efficacy and participants mostly reported experiencing emotional connection with each other. It is worth noting that the need for social connection may have been increased due to Covid-19, however, the emotional connection and common humanity seems to be a core component of the MBSR programme experienced by participants. This research provides evidence that common humanity is a core component not only of face-to-face MBSR, but also in online MBSR. This research will add to the developing field of online MBPs and the new role of the ‘virtual’ group. Going forward, there may be opportunities to offer online MBAs to participants who may with restricted accessibility due to multiple factors in order to support emotional connection and social connection.

MTAI News & Events