Though originally developed to address recurrent depression, MBCT may be beneficial to people seeking treatment for a wide range of mental health concerns.
In this therapy approach, people can learn how to use cognitive methods and mindfulness meditation to interrupt the automatic processes often triggering depression. Low mood, negative thoughts, and certain body sensations such as weariness and sluggishness often occur together during an episode of depression. Even after the episode passes, connections may still exist between the different symptoms, and it is possible for a small negative stimulus to trigger a large downward spiral: Researchers have found when people with a history of depression experience a low mood, they may also experience negative memories and thoughts from the past, which may, in turn, lead to worry about the future and physical sensations such as fatigue.
MBCT helps participants learn how to recognize their sense of being and see themselves as separate from their thoughts and moods. This disconnect can allow people to become liberated from thought patterns in which the same negative messages may be replayed over and over. After developing an awareness of the separation between thoughts, emotions, and the self, people in treatment may find that while the self and the emotions may exist simultaneously, they do not have to exist within the same dimension. This insight can contribute to healing by helping individuals learn to interject positive thoughts into negative moods in order to disarm those negative moods. In general, MBCT attempts to give participants the necessary tools to combat depressive symptoms as they arise. People who learn these skills may then be able to revert to these methods in times of distress or when faced with potentially overwhelming situations.
This therapy is delivered as a weekly group treatment program over the course of eight weeks. Each weekly session lasts for two hours, but completing a 45-minute homework assignment six days a week is also required. For homework, participants listen to audio recordings and practice mindfulness meditation. People in treatment are also introduced to a technique called the three-minute breathing space. This technique encourages participants to incorporate formal practice into their day-to-day life.
Though there is currently no consensus as to how mindfulness should be defined, the basic concept refers to the practice of developing, in a non-judgmental manner, a deeper awareness of what is happening within one’s mind and body from moment to moment. Certain meditation techniques—breathing meditations, sitting meditations, body scan meditations, walking meditations, and yoga—may help to improve a person’s mindfulness. In MBCT, individuals in treatment are also taught cognitive concepts such as the association between thoughts and feelings, and they also often have the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of depression.
Mindfulness is believed to promote good health, and many studies have associated mindfulness with decreases in depression and anxiety. Thus, many mental health professionals have incorporated mindfulness-promoting activities into therapy sessions, and these activities have been shown to help reduce symptoms of depression, decrease stress, and improve emotional control, regardless of the specific issues being addressed.
MBCT in particular may be used as a primary treatment modality or in conjunction with other forms of therapy. Individuals experiencing certain medical concerns may also obtain benefit from MBCT: In a 2013 study of 33 women with fibromyalgia, researchers found that those who were treated with MBCT demonstrated a significantly reduced impact of fibromyalgia, a significant decrease in depressive symptoms, and a slight decrease in the intensity of bodily pain when compared to those who did not receive MBCT. Researchers have also shown individuals with cancer, diabetes, chronic pain, and epilepsy who incorporate MBCT into treatment plans may see improvement in well-being.
Over the past 15 years, the results of numerous randomized controlled trials have demonstrated that MBCT can be a powerful intervention for people who have experienced clinical depression three or more times. Evidence indicates MBCT may reduce the rate of relapse for individuals with recurrent depression by 50%. MBCT has also been applied to mood and anxiety concerns other than depression, with reported success. A 2014 review of the usefulness of MBCT as a treatment modality for several health conditions found the approach may be effective when addressing issues such as depressive relapse, current depression, residual depression, bipolar, anxiety, food and eating issues, and psychosis, among others.