Mindfulness-based therapy

mindfulness based cognitive therapy, mbct, MBCT therapy, mindfulness therapy

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is a relatively new concept to the Western world, although mindfulness has been extolled by Buddhists for thousands of years. Its popularity in the United States is largely owed to Jon Kabat-Zinn, who created mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) in the late 1970s. Taking a cue from MBSR, Zindel Segal, Mark Williams, and John Teasdale tried to improve cognitive therapy by integrating mindfulness concepts. The result, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), attempts to combine the best of both worlds. Originally conceived as a treatment for recurrent depression, MBCT is now also used to treat anxiety and general wellness.

What is Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy?

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy is a group treatment that meets for a two-hour session once a week. On days without a session, clients are asked to do homework that may take 30-60 minutes to complete. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy is designed to take eight weeks to complete. Although created as a group treatment, the principles can be adapted to individual counseling as well. As the name suggests, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy has two main parts, cognitive and mindfulness.

Cognitive component

The therapist teaches the group members the basics of cognitive therapy, including how certain thoughts can lead to depressive and anxious feelings. The therapist then helps the group members restructure and reframe their thoughts in an attempt to change the clients’ maladaptive thought patterns.

Mindfulness component

The mindfulness component trains clients to develop awareness and acceptance of their thoughts without incorporating harmful judgments and self-criticism. Mindfulness helps individuals break depressive thought cycles. When you focus on the moment—and learn to accept your thoughts without judgment—you are less likely to ruminate on the negative thoughts that lead to depression. Group members are asked to practice mindfulness meditation on their own time as homework.

Note: Not to be confused, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) are also cognitive therapies that possess a mindfulness component. However, mindfulness is not featured as prominently and the cognitive aspects differ significantly from traditional cognitive therapy.

Techniques of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy
The following techniques are commonly used in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy:

Three-minute breathing space

True to its name, this mindfulness technique has three steps, each one a minute in duration:
  • Attend to the experience: Observe the whole environment without any attempt to change it.
  • Focus on the breath: Narrow the focus to your breath.
  • Attend to the body: Widen the focus to attend to the body and any sensations experienced.

Three-minute breathing space emphasizes some of the most important skills of mindfulness in a brief period: Shifting attention, checking in with your body, and moving on without getting bogged down in your thoughts.

Body scan

Body scan is another common Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy technique. The individual scans each body part one at a time, noting its relationship with the five senses. This technique grounds the person in the moment. It is useful when a person is ruminating and caught in a depressive thought spiral.

Cognitive restructuring

Cognitive restructuring is one of the main techniques of cognitive therapy. The therapist teaches the client to analyze their maladaptive thoughts and replace them with more realistic thinking. The therapist may ask the client to fill out a thought record so that they can work on their thinking outside the therapy session.

Everyday mindfulness

One of the goals of any mindfulness practice is to become more mindful when performing regular activities. You can be mindful about anything you do and there are benefits to escaping from the thoughts that race through our heads each day. Therapists might ask clients to perform mindful eating or walking, for example.


People tend to have a particular perspective on a situation. Sometimes, their view might lead them to incorrect or unhelpful assumptions. Reframing is when a therapist gives a client a different perspective that may help them change how they feel about a situation. For example, say a man feels a woman does not like him because she is acting aloof around him. The therapist might point out other reasons she may be acting that way, such as when she is anxious or dealing with other problems. 

Mindful stretching

Another effective Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy technique is mindful stretching. Not only does it allow one to take a break from the stressors of everyday life, it improves flexibility and strength. On a greater scale, the practice of Yoga is frequently linked with mindfulness, exhibiting the inexorable link between mind and body.

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Does Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy work?
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy has a growing database of strong psychometric research to support its effectiveness:
  • Numerous research studies have shown that MBCT is a valuable intervention in reducing depression, especially in individuals who suffer from recurrent episodes.

  • Mindfulness has long been associated with benefiting individuals who suffer from anxiety disorders. It is not surprising then that MBCT has been found effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety.

Training resources
Training opportunities for those professionals wishing to learn more about MBCT are plentiful at many levels of intensity:
  • Certain universities, including Harvard, Brown, and the University of California-San Diego, offer academic programs toward a Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy Teaching Certificate. Although you could realistically practice MBCT without formal certification, these schools provide intensive training that some employers and clients may look for when finding an MBCT therapist.

  • This book, from the creators of MBCT, provides all the information you need to begin a mindfulness practice.

  • The MBCT website is a one-stop shop for a variety of resources on MBCT, including books, training, and links to online mediation sessions.


Mindfulness-based cognitive psychotherapy melds the principles of CBT with mindfulness meditation in an attempt to bolster the efficacy of performing either intervention alone. It is effective in reducing treatment-resistant depression and anxiety and aids with basic wellness. 


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