Understanding mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) uses mindfulness and cognitive strategies in harmony to tackle various mental health disorders. This therapeutic approach, inspired by the pioneering work of Aaron Beck in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), combines the strengths of CBT with the enriching power of mindfulness. 

MBCT seeks to enhance healthy self-reflection, reduce stress, manage anxiety, and prevent relapse in conditions like depression. In this article, we delve into the key principles of MBCT, and its applications in stress reduction, anxiety management, and depression prevention—and along the way, you can assess whether it might be the right path to well-being for you.

What Is Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy?

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy combines the use of CBT strategies and mindfulness to help with treating a wide variety of mental health disorders. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is often a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) infused with mindfulness skills and strategies to promote mental clarity and promote relaxation. 

Aaron Beck was the founder of CBT in the 1960s and since then, CBT methods have become standard treatment for treating a wide variety of mental health disorders. CBT methods can help treat:

Mindfulness-based cognitive theory was developed by a group of therapists who saw that CBT was working and helping people, but that mindfulness was becoming a growing skill that was helpful to many people suffering from mood disorders. Therapists Zindal Segal, Mark Williams, and John Teasdale got together with their shared experiences to develop Mindfulness-based cognitive theory.

Key Principles of MBCT

MBCT is grounded in several fundamental principles that guide individuals in their mindfulness practice. These principles are designed to foster self-awareness, nonjudgmental observation, and a deeper understanding of one’s thoughts and emotions. Here’s an explanation of the key principles of MBCT:

  • Nonjudgmental awareness: MBCT emphasizes the importance of observing your thoughts and feelings without imposing judgments on them. Instead of labeling thoughts as “good” or “bad,” individuals learn to acknowledge them with impartiality. This nonjudgmental stance reduces the emotional charge of thoughts and allows for a clearer perspective on their nature.
  • Curiosity: MBCT encourages individuals to become curious about their thoughts and feelings. This curiosity involves an open and inquisitive attitude toward the inner workings of the mind. Rather than reacting automatically to thoughts, individuals explore them with interest, seeking to understand their origins and patterns.
  • Observation: Mindfulness teaches individuals to observe their thoughts and emotions as if they were impartial scientists conducting an investigation. This means stepping back from their immediate emotional reactions and gaining new insights into their experiences. By adopting this observational perspective, individuals can detach from the grip of distressing thoughts and emotions.
  • Present moment awareness: Central to mindfulness is the practice of being fully present in the moment. MBCT teaches individuals to anchor their attention in the here and now, rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. This present-moment awareness helps reduce rumination and anxiety, as it shifts the focus to what is happening in the present.
  • Acceptance: MBCT encourages the acceptance of thoughts and emotions as they arise. Instead of resisting or suppressing uncomfortable feelings, individuals learn to acknowledge and accept them. This acceptance does not imply approval but allows individuals to work with their emotions more skillfully.
  • Letting go: While observing thoughts and emotions, MBCT teaches individuals to let go of the need to control or change them. By relinquishing the struggle to manage every thought, individuals can experience a greater sense of ease and mental freedom.
  • Self-compassion: MBCT emphasizes self-compassion, which involves treating oneself with kindness and understanding, especially during moments of difficulty. Rather than self-criticism or self-blame, individuals learn to offer themselves the same care and support they would to a friend facing similar challenges.

These key principles of MBCT collectively contribute to developing a more mindful and resilient approach to thoughts and emotions. By cultivating nonjudgmental awareness, curiosity, and acceptance, individuals can gain valuable insights into their inner experiences and respond to them with greater wisdom and compassion.

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What Is an Example of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy MBCT?

Imagine an individual named Sarah who frequently suffers from racing thoughts about potential future disasters. She often worries about her performance at work, her health, and her relationships. These anxious thoughts are causing her significant distress and affecting her overall well-being.

Sarah decides to enroll in MBCT at Thriveworks to address her anxiety. Here’s an example of how MBCT might work for her:

  • Initial assessment: Sarah meets with a trained MBCT Thriveworks therapist for an initial assessment. She discusses her anxiety symptoms, triggers, and past experiences. The therapist explains the principles of MBCT and how it combines mindfulness and cognitive-behavioral techniques.
  • Mindfulness meditation: Sarah begins her MBCT sessions by learning mindfulness meditation techniques. In her guided meditation sessions, she focuses on her breath and learns to direct her attention to the present moment. When anxious thoughts arise during meditation, she practices observing them without judgment and gently guides her focus back to her breath.
  • Thought observation: As part of her mindfulness practice, Sarah started to observe her anxious thoughts without trying to change them. She learns to notice the patterns and themes of her anxious thinking, such as catastrophizing or predicting negative outcomes. Instead of reacting emotionally, she approaches these thoughts with curiosity.
  • Mindful body scanning: In MBCT, Sarah also engages in body scanning exercises. During these sessions, she lies down or sits comfortably and brings her awareness to different parts of her body. This practice helps her identify physical tension and sensations associated with anxiety. By noticing these sensations without judgment, she can release physical tension and reduce anxiety.
  • Daily mindfulness practice: Outside of her Thriveworks therapy sessions, Sarah commits to daily mindfulness practice. She sets aside time each day to meditate, observe her thoughts, and practice mindful breathing. Over time, this consistent practice strengthens her mindfulness skills and helps her remain grounded in the present moment.
  • Identifying triggers: With the guidance of her therapist, Sarah identifies specific triggers for her anxiety. She recognizes situations, thoughts, or emotions that tend to provoke anxious responses. This awareness allows her to apply mindfulness techniques in real-life situations when anxiety arises.
  • Cognitive restructuring: In addition to mindfulness, Sarah engages in cognitive restructuring exercises. She works with her therapist to challenge and reframe irrational or overly negative thoughts. For instance, when she worries about her performance at work, she learns to question the evidence supporting these worries and consider more balanced perspectives.
  • Self-compassion: MBCT emphasizes self-compassion. Sarah learns to treat herself with kindness and understanding, especially during moments of heightened anxiety. Instead of criticizing herself for feeling anxious, she practices self-soothing and self-support.
  • Progress monitoring: Throughout her MBCT program, Sarah and her therapist regularly assess her progress. They discuss changes in her anxiety levels, her ability to manage anxious thoughts, and her overall well-being. Adjustments to the treatment plan are made as needed.
  • Long-term benefits: Over time, Sarah experiences a reduction in her anxiety symptoms. She gains a greater sense of self-awareness and emotional regulation. Sarah learned to apply mindfulness and cognitive-behavioral techniques to manage her anxiety effectively and prevent relapse.

This example illustrates how MBCT at Thriveworks combines mindfulness practices with cognitive-behavioral strategies to help individuals like Sarah manage anxiety and develop a more mindful and resilient approach to their thoughts and emotions.

Stress Reduction through MBCT

There are many ways stress reduction occurs with MBCT. Here are some of the following skills a person may learn to utilize and help with alleviating stress with the help of one of our therapists:

  • Mindfulness meditation: You may practice with your therapist, or with a guided meditation or self-directed mindfulness meditation practice to gain a greater awareness of your thoughts, your emotional state, and your physical state. By identifying and growing to know your inner needs, you begin attending to yourself in new ways which are often positive. 
  • Mindfulness-based stretching/yoga: Gentle stretching or yoga practice encourages being mindful of your physical body and its needs, as well as encouraging the alleviation of stress we hold in the physical body and letting go of tension. 
  • Body scanning exercises: Body scanning, may involve laying down or sitting comfortably in a chair, bringing your attention and awareness to different parts of the body, you may begin at your toes and move up the body to the head or start at your head and move down to your toes, moving through each part of your body. This may especially be good for those who have physical symptoms of restlessness, agitation, and tension in the physical body, and those with chronic pain. 
  • Mindfulness practices paired with breath awareness: By focusing on slowing down, noticing your breath and how it naturally rises and falls with each breath, this is different from many structured breathing techniques such as square breathing, as this is simply noticing how your lungs and physical body work together, naturally, to give you life. 

By slowing down and noticing the sensations, one often becomes more aware of how they are doing physically and/or emotionally.

Managing Anxiety with MBCT

Here’s how MBCT can be a valuable tool in managing anxiety:

  • Mindful breathing: One of the core components of mindfulness is focused attention on the breath. By observing the natural rhythm of their breath, individuals can anchor themselves in the present moment. This practice helps reduce anxiety by shifting the focus away from worrisome thoughts and promoting a sense of calm.
  • Mindful body awareness: MBCT encourages individuals to be attuned to their physical sensations. By practicing body scanning exercises, where attention is systematically directed to different parts of the body, individuals can identify areas of tension and stress. This awareness allows for the release of physical tension, which can be closely tied to anxiety.
  • Nonjudgmental acceptance: A central tenet of mindfulness is the nonjudgmental acceptance of thoughts and emotions. In the context of anxiety, this means acknowledging anxious thoughts without evaluating them as good or bad. By observing these thoughts with curiosity and without judgment, individuals can create distance from their anxiety, reducing its impact.
  • Preventing automatic reactions: Anxiety often leads to automatic reactions, such as avoidance or panic. Through MBCT, individuals learn to pause and respond intentionally rather than reacting impulsively. This can help break the cycle of anxiety and prevent it from escalating.
  • Cognitive reframing: MBCT incorporates cognitive strategies similar to those in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Individuals are guided in challenging and reframing negative or irrational thoughts that contribute to anxiety. By replacing these thoughts with more balanced and realistic ones, anxiety can be managed more effectively.

By consistently engaging in these practices, individuals can develop resilience against anxiety and experience greater calm and emotional balance. MBCT empowers individuals to take an active role in managing their anxiety and preventing it from controlling their lives.

Preventing Depression Relapse

MBCT can be utilized to help clients with major depressive disorder prevent a relapse into a deep, depressive episode by not engaging or entertaining those automatic thoughts that perpetuate or worsen depression. An example of this is a client who is struggling with depression saying, “I will never get better because I am a hopeless case.” 

Utilizing MBCT, a way to counteract this thought is with cognitive reframing maybe by stating something like, “I feel like I may never get better and I feel like I am a hopeless case, but I notice that I am learning new skills to help me get better, and I am hopeful for new outcomes as I stay committed to this process.”

By actively attending to your depressive symptoms and not getting hooked on what depression is telling you to do or be, you can find a new sense of freedom.

Assessing Your Mental Health Needs

Assessing your mental health needs is an essential step on the path to well-being and emotional balance. It involves a systematic process of self-evaluation and professional guidance, aimed at understanding your mental and emotional state, identifying potential issues, and determining the most suitable course of action. Here’s how you can assess your mental health needs:

  • Self-reflection: Start by engaging in introspection. Take time to reflect on your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Are there recurring patterns of distress, anxiety, sadness, or irritability? Recognizing these patterns is the first step in understanding your mental health.
  • Symptom identification: Familiarize yourself with common mental health symptoms. This includes signs of anxiety, depression, stress, or other conditions. Compare your experiences with these symptoms to gain insight into your mental well-being.
  • Talk to trusted individuals: Reach out to friends or family members who may have observed changes in your behavior or emotional state. Their perspectives can provide valuable insights into your mental health.
  • Seek professional guidance: Consult with a mental health professional, such as a therapist, counselor, or psychiatrist. They can conduct a comprehensive assessment, using standardized tools and interviews, to diagnose any mental health disorders accurately.
  • Consider your goals: Reflect on your goals for emotional well-being. What are you hoping to achieve through mental health support? Are you seeking symptom relief, personal growth, or enhanced coping strategies?
  • Treatment options: Based on the assessment results and your goals, your mental health professional will recommend suitable treatment options. This could involve therapy, medication, lifestyle changes, or a combination of interventions.
  • Follow through: Once you’ve identified your mental health needs and received professional guidance, it’s crucial to follow through with the recommended treatments. Consistency and commitment are essential for achieving positive outcomes.

Remember that assessing your mental health needs is a proactive and empowering step toward living a fulfilling and emotionally healthy life. Seeking help when necessary and adhering to treatment plans can lead to improved mental well-being and overall quality of life.

What Is the Difference Between CBT and MBCT?

CBT and MBCT are both evidence-based therapies that focus on the connection between thinking patterns and emotions. However, there are several differences between the two. 

CBT

  • Primarily focuses on identifying and challenging negative thoughts and replacing them with positive ones. 
  • Aims to change the way an individual thinks and behavior (especially if you are stuck in a maladaptive behavioral pattern)
  • CBT can be used to treat a wide range of mental health disorders such as anxiety disorders, depression, and more

In contrast, MBCT:  

  • Combines elements of CBT with mindfulness-based practices, which involve cultivating present-moment awareness and nonjudgmental acceptance of thoughts and emotions. 
  • MBCT was specifically developed to prevent relapse in individuals with recurrent depression. However, it is also not a stand-alone treatment for depression.
  • MBCT places a strong emphasis on cultivating mindfulness skills. It aims to teach individuals how to become more aware of their thoughts and emotions in a non-judgmental way which helps to prevent automatic reactions and reduce the risk of relapse in depression.

Benefits of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy

MBCT at Thriveworks offers benefits regarding:

  • Depression prevention: MBCT is most effective in reducing the risk of relapse in individuals who have had recurrent depression, as it helps individuals begin to recognize the early signs of depression and offers tools to manage it effectively. 
  • Increased self-awareness and self-regulation: By practicing mindfulness, individuals become more aware of their thoughts, emotions, and body sensations. This heightened self-awareness can lead to a greater understanding of oneself and patterns of thinking and behaving. 

Often, those who struggle with rumination, or the tendency to get stuck in repetitive thinking patterns (which is a symptom of depression often) can break free of rumination cycles by using MBCT. 

Another added benefit is being able to enhance your overall well-being through increased self-compassion.

Is Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Right for You?

Research shows that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is just about “right” for anyone looking to have a greater sense of self-awareness, sustain emotional regulation, learn how to manage anxiety, and depression, and maintain mood stability, as well as promote more peace in your life. Mindfulness tends to enhance attentional awareness of your physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. 

Most likely, anyone can benefit from paying attention to what their inner needs are. 

Taking the Next Step: Booking Your MBCT Session

Most likely, therapists who complete a Master’s degree-level program are well-versed in MBCT and are knowledgeable about mindfulness practices in general. You can also look for therapists who specialize in MBCT using our website to find the perfect therapist to fit your needs.

Finding Qualified MBCT Therapists: Schedule with Thriveworks

With its roots in the marriage of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness practices, MBCT empowers individuals to recognize and respond to their thoughts and emotions with a non-judgmental, mindful attitude. The benefits encompass depression prevention, increased self-awareness, self-regulation, self-compassion, and overall tranquility. 

MBCT at Thriveworks might be the right path for anyone seeking emotional stability, better mood management, and inner peace. 

To embark on this transformative journey, consider booking your MBCT session with qualified therapists who integrate mindfulness-based approaches with their therapeutic expertise.

Table of contents

What Is Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy?

Key Principles of MBCT

What Is an Example of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy MBCT?

Stress Reduction through MBCT

Managing Anxiety with MBCT

Preventing Depression Relapse

Assessing Your Mental Health Needs

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