What Is Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy?

There are several mindfulness-based interventions that we practice, let’s define each of them and focus on MBCT.

Mindfulness is often incorporated into other therapeutic modalities as part of an integrated approach to treatment. Even small negative thoughts can accumulate and/or spiral out of control, leading to concerns such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.

Mental health professionals have come to realize, however, that mindfulness can be of great benefit, as it can enable people to become better able to separate themselves from negative thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations that may be present, often before they become too overwhelming.

Those who are able to achieve this state of awareness may find it easier to then implement other therapeutic strategies to address any potentially harmful cognitions in order to prevent negative effects.

Regular mindfulness practice is believed to help further psychological insight and emotional healing, over time.

Mindfulness-based interventions, generally aimed at relieving symptoms of stress, mental health concerns, and physical pain can be used to address and treat a range of symptoms and concerns.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) can often help people address stress, chronic pain, cancer, anxiety, depression, and other chronic issues.

MBCT often forms part of the approach to the treatment of recurrent depression, anxiety, psychosis, eating and food issues, bipolar, panic attacks, attention deficit hyperactivity, and posttraumatic stress, among others.

DBT is used primarily in the treatment of suicidal ideation, borderline personality, self-harm, substance dependence, eating and food issues, depression, and PTSD.

ACT is an approach often used in the treatment of anxiety, depression, substance dependence, chronic pain, psychosis, and cancer.

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.

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A patient briefly focuses on the trauma memory while simultaneously experiencing bilateral stimulation.


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.

There are a number of mindfulness techniques and exercises that are utilized as a part of MBCT. Some of these include:

Meditation: People may practice guided or self-directed meditation that helps them gain a greater awareness of their body, thoughts, and breathing.

Body scan exercise: This involves lying down and bringing awareness and attention to different areas of the body. People usually begin at their toes and move up through the body until they reach the top of the head.

Mindfulness practices: Mindfulness involves become more aware of the present moment. It’s something that can be practiced during meditation, but people can also incorporate these activities into the things they do every day.

Mindfulness stretching: This activity involves stretching mindfully to help bring awareness to both the body and mind.

Yoga: MBCT may also encourage people to practice different yoga poses that can help facilitate mindful stretching of the body.

People 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 walking and sitting meditations, sitting with thoughts, and sitting with sounds.

What MBCT Can Help With

Research suggests that MBCT can be effective for helping individuals who have experienced multiple episodes of depression. While it was originally developed to treat depression, it has also been shown to be effective for other uses including:

  • anxiety disorders;
  • bipolar disorder;
  • depression associated with medical illnesses;
  • low mood;
  • unhappiness;
  • depression-relapse prevention;
  • treatment-resistant depression.

Benefits of MBCT

A primary assumption of cognitive therapy is that thoughts precede moods and that false self-beliefs lead to negative emotions such as depression.

MBCT utilizes elements of cognitive therapy to help you recognize and reassess your patterns of negative thoughts and replace them with positive thoughts that more closely reflect reality.

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 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.


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.

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.

Research also suggests that MBCT can be safe and effective for treating people who are currently experiencing active depression.

Things to Consider

Research on the efficacy of MCBT for active or severe depression is still ongoing, however, so always talk to a doctor about your symptoms to determine if this approach is right for you.

It is important to note that while the class aspect of MBCT is important, much of the work 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:

  1. Doing what works rather than second-guessing yourself
  2. Focusing on the moment without distraction from other ideas or events
  3. Participating without being self-conscious
  4. Paying close attention to what is going on around you
  5. 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.

How to Get Started

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.

Mindfulness has become increasingly popular for its ability to promote good mental health, so even mental health professionals who are not specifically trained in MBCT may incorporate some aspects of mindfulness practices in their therapy sessions.

To get started or get a free consultation, get in touch with us here.