How Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Works

Young woman sitting on couch at home meditating
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Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is a type of psychotherapy that involves a combination of cognitive therapy, meditation, and the cultivation of a present-oriented, non-judgmental attitude called "mindfulness."​


MBCT was developed by therapists Zindel Segal, Mark Williams, and John Teasdale, who sought to build upon a form of therapy called cognitive therapy, developed by Aaron T. Beck in the 1960s. They felt that by integrating it with a program developed in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), therapy could, in turn, be even more effective.

MBSR, meanwhile, is based upon the mindfulness teachings of Buddhism, an Eastern religion founded by Siddhartha Gautama, who lived and taught in the northeastern Indian subcontinent some time between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE.

What Is Cognitive Therapy?

A primary assumption of cognitive therapy is that thoughts precede moods and that false self-beliefs lead to negative emotions such as depression. The goal of cognitive therapy is to help you recognize and re-assess your patterns of negative thoughts and replace them with positive thoughts that more closely reflect reality.

How It Builds on Cognitive Therapy

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy builds upon the principles of cognitive therapy by using techniques such as mindfulness meditation to teach the patient to consciously pay attention to his thoughts and feelings without placing any judgments upon them, or without getting caught up in what could have been or might occur in the future. It provides clarity of thought and can give you the tools needed to more easily let go of negative thoughts instead of letting them feed your depression.

Basically, much like with cognitive therapy, MBCT operates on the theory that if you have a history of depression and become distressed, you are likely to return to those automatic cognitive processes that triggered a depressive episode in the past. With MBCT, you can learn to interrupt those automatic thought processes.

What It's Used For

The goal of MBCT is to help patients with chronic depression learn how to avoid relapses by not engaging in those automatic thought patterns that perpetuate and worsen depression. Research has also shown that it can help reduce cravings for addictive substances.

What to Expect

The MBCT program is a group intervention that lasts eight weeks. During those eight weeks, there is a weekly course, which lasts two hours, and one day-long class after the fifth week.

Much of the practice, however, is done outside of class. Participants are asked to use guided meditations and try to cultivate mindfulness in their daily lives.

Still, though a lot of the hard work of MBCT is self-directed, those behind the concept stress that the classes themselves are important to the efficacy of the program. Still, there is not necessarily an established network of teachers around the globe or a single directory on which you can find someone close to home.

If you're interested in learning more about MBCT, you can explore more on the official program website.

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Article Sources

  • Crane, Rebecca. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. New York: Routledge, 2009.
  • Hayes, Steven C., Victoria M. Follette and Marsha M. Linehan, eds. Mindfulness and Acceptance: Expanding the Cognitive-Behavioral Tradition. New York: The Guilford Press, 2004.