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What is Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy?

By H. Colledge
Updated May 17, 2024
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Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, or MBCT, is a technique used in the treatment of disorders such as depression and anxiety. Cognitive therapies help people identify unhelpful thoughts and change the way they think, while mindfulness techniques teach an acceptance of difficult thoughts and feelings. In mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, the two different techniques are combined, and people learn how to observe and accept unhelpful thoughts and emotions without actively trying to engage with them or suppress them. The outcome of practicing this method is that difficult thoughts become less powerful and upsetting, and the mind is able to move on. In the treatment of depression, there is evidence that MBCT is effective in preventing relapses.

Conditions such as anxiety and depression can be treated using mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. In depression, feelings of unhappiness, hopelessness and lack of self-esteem may be experienced in combination with physical symptoms such as tiredness, sleep problems, and changes in appetite. Antidepressant medication may be used to treat the condition successfully, but relapses are common. During depression, negative moods become connected with negative thoughts, forming a pattern which is easily reactivated. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy helps people recognize such patterns and, instead of attempting to push away unwanted thoughts and emotions, they are accepted.

In mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, the acceptance of difficult and unpleasant thoughts and feelings enables them to be held in awareness without people having to struggle with them, engage with them or attempt to escape from them by carrying out distracting activities. The technique teaches that struggling with thoughts and feelings, or trying to push them aside, generally leads to those thoughts and feelings becoming stronger, while acceptance allows them to remain as merely ideas and emotions, which a person need not identify with or act upon. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is built upon the idea that the struggle with the mind and body, in order to try and quench unpleasant feelings and thoughts, can be the true problem. Exercises are carried out which allow people to practice stepping back from their thoughts and emotions, preventing them from spiraling out of control.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy may be undertaken in the form of individual treatment with a professional or by taking part in group therapies. Books and CDs are also available for people to practice MBCT at home. As well as being used to treat anxiety and depression, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is sometimes used by people who wish to develop greater awareness of personal thought patterns, and an increased ability to deal with difficult life events, as well as for general stress reduction.

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