What Is Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)?

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What Is MBCT?

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 cognitive therapy. They felt that by integrating cognitive therapy with a program developed in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), therapy could be more effective.

MBCT Versus 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 reassess your patterns of negative thoughts and replace them with positive thoughts that more closely reflect reality.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy builds upon the principles of cognitive therapy by using techniques such as mindfulness meditation to teach people to consciously pay attention to their thoughts and feelings without placing any judgments upon them.

This approach helps people review their thoughts without getting caught up in what could have been or might occur in the future. MBCT encourages clarity of thought and provides you the tools needed to more easily let go of negative thoughts instead of letting them feed your depression.

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.

The combination of mindfulness and cognitive therapy is what makes MBCT so effective. Mindfulness helps you observe and identify your feelings while cognitive therapy teaches you to interrupt automatic thought processes and work through feelings in a healthy way.

MBCT for Depression

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. In fact, a study published in The Lancet found that MBCT helped prevent depression recurrence as effectively as maintenance antidepressant medication did.

On average, MBCT was shown to reduce the risk of relapse for people who experience recurrent depression by nearly 50%, regardless of their sex, age, education, or relationship status.

Research also has shown that MBCT can reduce the severity of depressive symptoms as well as 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. During this time, participants might be taught what's known as the "three-minute breathing space technique," which focuses on three steps, each one minute in duration:

  1. Observing one's experience (how are you doing right now?)
  2. Focusing on breath
  3. Attending to the body and physical sensations

Other MBCT techniques include the body scan exercise, yoga, walking and sitting meditations, sitting with thoughts, sitting with sounds, and mindfulness stretching.

Much of the practice, however, is done outside of class. Participants are asked to do homework, which includes listening to recorded guided meditations and trying to cultivate mindfulness in their daily lives. This may mean bringing mindfulness to day-to-day activities, like brushing your teeth, showering, washing the dishes, exercising, or making your bed, by applying MBCT skills such as:

  • Doing what works rather than second-guessing yourself
  • Focusing on the moment without distraction from other ideas or events
  • Participating without being self-conscious
  • Paying close attention to what is going on around you
  • Taking a non-judgmental stance

Though a lot of the hard work of MBCT is self-directed, advocates 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 in which you can find a program close to home.

A Word From Verywell

If you are struggling with depression, you may want to talk to your therapist about MBCT to see if this approach might be right for you. With proper instruction and guidance you can learn to take your thoughts captive as well as learn to identify and understand how you're feeling.

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Article Sources
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  2. Riemann D, Hertenstein E, Schramm E. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression. Lancet. 2016;387(10023):1054. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(16)00660-7

  3. King AP, Erickson TM, Giardino ND, et al. A pilot study of group mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) for combat veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Depress Anxiety. 2013;30(7):638-45. doi:10.1002/da.22104

  4. Parsons CE, Crane C, Parsons LJ, Fjorback LO, Kuyken W. Home practice in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction: a systematic review and meta-analysis of participants' mindfulness practice and its association with outcomes. Behav Res Ther. 2017;95:29-41. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2017.05.004

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