Full Catastrophe Living—Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. ISBN: 0385303122.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., is one of the most recognizable names in the field of mindfulness meditation and its clinical applications. Dr. Kabat-Zinn is the Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, MA. The Stress Reduction Clinic, founded by Kabat-Zinn in 1979, has drawn thousands of participants. Patients seek help to cope with health problems or stressful life situations.

This review focuses on Dr. Kabat-Zinn's first book, Full Catastrophe Living—Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. This book was designed to give the reader full access to the training program offered at the stress clinic. Our goal is to introduce this type of alternative material for your general information.  

In the title, the word catastrophe refers the enormity or magnitude of one’s life experiences (i.e., stressful situations at work, home, or in relationships; the high-paced activity and busyness of daily life; and all the emotional activity that will result from these events). 

At the core of Dr. Kabat-Zinn's program is the practice of mindfulness, a form of meditation originating from an ancient Buddhist tradition. Another term for mindfulness is “moment-to-moment awareness”, or paying attention to what is going on in one’s life, to what is going on in one’s body, and getting to know oneself.

In the book, we find that mindful breathing is the first fundamental technique used in meditation (i.e., focusing the breath moving in and out of the body).

We then learn to pay attention to sensations within the body though a technique called the “body-scan”. According to Dr. Kabat-Zinn, this technique is often used for patients who have chronic pain. A “body-scan” involves lying down in a comfortable, quiet setting, and using the mind to focus through the body, section by section (feet, legs, thighs, abdomen and so on). Within each section, we notice how it feels (including areas which may be very painful), and then redirect the focus back to breathing (letting the body soften and relax). This continues with each body part until the entire body is relaxed.

The book separates information into five main categories, delving into extensive detail about the philosophy of health, the relationship of the mind to body, stressors people might face, types of health problems that might develop, and ways to react to all of the above.

The first section provides the foundation for mindful meditation and includes many exercises to aid in meditation. Instructions and illustrations for specific techniques such as the “body-scan”, mentioned above, and a sequence of yoga postures are well described and easy to follow. The book not only explains how to do these postures (with appropriate cautionary notes on things which may not be suitable for some individuals) but it also explains what happens in the mind and body when engaging in “mindful hatha” yoga (the style used in the stress clinic). Yoga “is” meditation, according to Kabat-Zinn, and this particular style consists of gentle stretching and strengthening movements, done mindfully and purposefully, and within one’s own limits. The type of yoga he prescribes should never be competitive or focus on doing, pushing, or progressing.

The downside of this book is that there is quite a lot to read and learn about mindfulness meditation, therefore the book is quite wordy. Dr. Kabat-Zinn also incorporates numerous examples and situations from the Stress Reduction Clinic throughout the book. He describes extensively patients' medical backgrounds and feelings about their illnesses. This may appeal to some readers, especially those who seek to relate to other people’s experience.

But others may find this style too wordy and detailed, making it tiring to read and absorb. Nevertheless, the benefits of the information, insights, and skills that can be gained from this book will outweigh the negative aspects for most people. Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s readers can find this book and other material in a CD version as well as video presentations.

[Editor’s note: Since yoga has become very popular, classes in various styles are widely offered at the YMCA, wellness centers, and/or senior centers, just to name a few. This book can be very helpful when evaluating programs suitable for ME/CFS and fibromyalgia and other serious chronic health conditions. Some styles of yoga can be very intense, requiring one to maintain precise poses for long periods of time. Bickram yoga is practiced in a very hot environment (95 to 100 degree room), enabling profuse sweating thought to produce cleansing. These may be suitable for advanced yoga enthusiasts or young and healthy participants, but these are not compatible with the Kabat-Zinn program. Be sure to get a clear description and understanding about any class that you are considering, and ask if instructors offer the type of yoga practice prescribed by Kabat-Zinn.