Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)
Reviewed by therapist.com team
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 08/15/2023
MBCT combines cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). It was originally developed to treat depression and prevent relapse.
Mindfulness is the practice of paying intentional, nonjudgmental attention in the present moment with both your body and your mind. Rooted in Eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, mindfulness was introduced to Western, secular audiences in the 1970s by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of MBSR.
The principles of mindfulness include non-judgment, patience, open-mindedness, trust, non-striving, acceptance, and letting go. MBCT incorporates these principles into cognitive behavioral therapy to create an integrated approach that is particularly effective for people struggling with depression.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a form of talk therapy that helps people identify unhelpful or negative thought patterns that affect their emotions and behaviors.
One of the main concepts of CBT is that your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are interconnected in what is known as the cognitive triangle. CBT teaches that you can reshape your thoughts and beliefs, which will result in different outcomes for your feelings and behaviors.
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy combines the cognitive approach of CBT with the mindfulness approach of MBSR. It borrows heavily from both to create its own unique form of treatment. Key differences include:
- Structure: MBCT is an eight-week group therapy program, just like MBSR. CBT, on the other hand, is a form of individual therapy that is short term but doesn’t adhere to a specific timeline.
- Self-regulation: MBCT incorporates mindfulness as a way for clients to learn how to self-regulate. Although CBT can incorporate principles of mindfulness, it is not a required part of treatment.
- Pattern recognition: CBT focuses on helping clients recognize patterns of thought so they can challenge and change unhelpful beliefs. MBCT also emphasizes pattern recognition, specifically regarding negative patterns common among people with depression, while MBSR does not.
Common mindfulness techniques used during the course of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy include:
- Meditation: Meditation is a mindfulness practice in which a person uses their breath as a guide to become fully present in the here and now. If your attention wanders during meditation, you simply bring it back to your breath without judgment. A person can meditate in silence or with the help of a guided meditation.
- Body scanning: With body scanning, a person lies down and methodically brings their attention to different body parts, typically starting from either their head or toes and working up or down the body. The person notices the sensations that occur in each body part as they scan, again without assigning judgement.
- Decentering: The practice of decentering allows a person to distance themselves from the meaning of a thought and instead merely notice that the thought is happening. For example, instead of thinking, “I’m a bad person,” they would shift to thinking, “I’m having the thought that I’m a bad person.” Doing so allows the person to observe their thoughts, like watching clouds go across the sky, instead of assigning meaning to them.
- Three-minute breathing space: First, observe your current physical and emotional state for one minute. Then, focus on your breath for another minute. Finally, focus your attention on your body’s physical sensations for one minute.
- Daily mindfulness: Daily mindfulness involves incorporating the principles of mindfulness into your everyday habits. For example, you can practice mindful dishwashing by remaining in the present moment while you notice the various sensations involved in the experience, such as the smell of the soap, the temperature of the water, and the sound of water splashing.
- Mindful movement: Yoga is often recommended as a mindfulness-based exercise. However, you can practice mindfulness in all sorts of exercise and movement, such as stretching or going for a walk, by focusing on the present moment and noticing the sensations you experience while doing so.
MBCT was initially developed for people struggling with repeated bouts of depression. It has been shown to reduce rates of relapse among those with recurrent depressive episodes by helping them:
- Recognize and change negative thought patterns: Depression is characterized by feelings of sadness, loneliness, emptiness, and even hopelessness. People struggling with depression may experience thoughts of guilt, worthlessness, death, or suicide. MBCT can help disrupt those negative thought patterns.
- Interrupt thought spirals: Often, people with depression experience distressing thoughts that “spiral” out of control. One mistake, setback, or negative feeling can lead to increasingly catastrophic thoughts and feelings that may lead to extreme or dangerous behaviors. MBCT can teach people how to interrupt those thought spirals by grounding themselves in the present moment.
- Strengthen awareness over judgment: Symptoms of depression can produce a lot of guilt and shame. For example, a person may feel ashamed or embarrassed if they can’t get out of bed in the morning or make simple decisions during the course of their day. MBCT teaches people with depression to focus on self-awareness instead of self-judgment.
- Learn how to be present: People with depression may be overwhelmed by past trauma or struggle to imagine a happy, healthy future. With MBCT, you can learn to heal from and ultimately let go of both the past and the future in order to live more fully in the present.
- Practice self-regulation: Depression can cause overwhelming feelings that interfere with a person’s ability to function. MBCT teaches self-regulation to help people with depression better manage their emotions.
Although MBCT was originally developed to treat depression and prevent the relapse of depressive episodes, it has also shown promise in treating other mental health conditions, including:
Although mindfulness is rooted in religious traditions, it has also been empirically proven to produce positive results regarding certain mental health conditions. In particular, studies show that MBCT is effective in treating active depression, treatment-resistant depression, and recurrent depression. Additional studies are researching its effectiveness for anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other mental illnesses.
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is an evidence-based treatment method that has proven effective for people struggling with depression as well as other mental health disorders. If you’re interested in seeking mindfulness-based treatment, click here to find an MBCT program near you.
In addition to MBCT, there are other therapies that draw from the principles of mindfulness, including:
- Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)
- Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
- Dialectical behavior therapy
- The Hakomi Method of somatic therapy
About the author
The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.
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