Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is a form of therapy that incorporates mindfulness and mindfulness meditation strategies. Its foundation includes structural elements of MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) with basic principles of cognitive therapy. Developed by Zindel Segal, Mark Williams and John Teasdale, it was originally designed as a relapse-prevention treatment for depression.
Get to Know Mindfulness Therapy
According to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. With millions of people seeking to improve their quality of life, mindfulness therapy provides an alternative treatment option to discuss with a health practitioner.
CBT vs. MBCT
Though MBCT incorporates some of the tools of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), there are also techniques that set it apart.
CBT is what most people associate with therapy. It involves traditional talk therapy where a patient discusses their experiences with a professional. In these sessions, current thought patterns are identified, analyzed, and challenged. The goal of these sessions is to change thinking patterns and behavior by neutralizing unhelpful thoughts.
In a similar fashion, mindfulness therapy encourages participants to neutralize the control that negative thoughts have on them. Students are taught to view them as creations of their own minds instead of facts. This allows individuals to identify these thoughts exactly when they occur and not become overwhelmed by them. Participants also learn to question their thoughts and beliefs through a kind and curious lense.
Where the two styles differ is the addition of mindfulness practices in MBCT. Techniques include:
- Body scan to bring awareness to the body
- Mindful stretching and walking
- Shifting focus between breath, body, sounds, and thoughts
When CBT is combined with mindfulness practices, a shift occurs from “fixing” thoughts and solving problems, to simply practicing awareness of them. This shift allows students to recognize the ever-changing nature of emotions without any intervention on their part.
While this addition has its benefits, in an interview with mindful.org, MBCT founder Segal is careful to discuss that mindfulness is not “something that would ‘replace’ therapy and existing therapeutic methods and systems, but that would leverage the power of therapy by providing another ‘skills-based’ approach with results supported by research.”
How does it work?
MBCT is an eight-week group therapy program. It includes a two-hour class each week, and a day-long session at the mid-course mark. In the sessions, participants experience:
- Guided meditations
- Group discussion
- Inquiry and reflection
- Take-home exercises
A key component of MBCT is the Three-Minute Breathing Space. This mini-meditation concentrates many of the teachings of the program into three steps:
- Attend to what is. This involves a broad recognition of one’s experience.
- Focus on the breath. Attention narrows to a single point of breath.
- Attend to the body. Students widen their attention again to the body and its sensations.
This pattern of shifting attention between a broad and narrow focus helps practitioners get unstuck from automatic patterns of thinking. The repetition and reinforcement of all of these practices and skills helps students continue them long-term in their lives.
Who is it for?
With at least 50% of patients experiencing a relapse after a major depressive episode, MBCT was initially designed for those at risk for a recurrence. Segal focused his work on the ease with which someone could relapse into depression when triggered by a sad mood. A relapse could lead to feelings of inadequacy, thereby triggering a downward spiral. MBCT aims to provide an intervention to this cycle.
Exploration and extension of MBCT into other groups are also underway. Groups include: acutely depressed patients, those diagnosed with health anxiety, social anxiety, fibromyalgia, or multiple chemical sensitivities
A recent study also suggests that MBCT provides similar benefits to medication in protecting against a relapse, providing an alternative option for patients who wish to discuss non-pharmaceutical treatments with their health care provider.
In contrast to the traditional therapy approach of analyzing inner experiences, mindfulness therapy relies on simple awareness. This switch from the “standard clinical sequence” can open patients to new and different methods of relating to their thoughts.
Mindfulness also provides a way to stay in touch with bodily sensations. When feeling overwhelmed by our thoughts and feelings, it is typical to lose focus on what our bodies are telling us. Bodily sensations, however, provide immediate feedback about what is happening mentally and emotionally. Becoming observant of these signals allows us to separate from the overwhelm of our thoughts and feelings.
Working from their experience as cognitive therapists, Segal, Williams, and Teasdale also realized that “change depended on applying therapy skills between sessions and in real-world situations.” Mindfulness therapy provides those actionable skills for patients to create sustainable change. The insights gained within the confines of a traditional talk therapy session can expand into daily life when combined with mindfulness practices.
While the research on the applications of MBCT is still young, it is gaining attention for its possibilities. Continuing to study the benefits, ideal candidates, and how to provide increased accessibility is an ongoing focus for the developers.
Segal is also currently working on and piloting the Mindful Mood Balance program, which would allow people to experience MBCT from any location using any device. This program has not been tested for and is not intended for anyone in the middle of an acute episode of depression. It is meant to prevent relapse and reduce residual depressive symptoms.
Each person’s experience in their health journey is unique. Having the ability to explore and discuss various options, such as mindfulness therapy, allows for a personalized path to wellness that feels best. To get started with mindfulness in your daily life, check out Everyday Mindfulness.