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Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, MBCT, is a modified form of cognitive therapy that incorporates mindfulness practices that include present moment awareness, meditation, and breathing exercises. This therapy was formulated to address depression. Using these tools, the mindfulness-based therapist teaches a client to be in the here and now as well as break away from negative thought patterns that can cause a decline into a mood-disordered state; this therapy can help a person fight off a difficult frame of mind before it takes hold.

MBCT is derived from the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine and creator of the mindfulness-based stress reduction technique, which is often used in meditation and yoga practices. Psychologists Philip Barnard and John Teasdale contributed to this work; and later, Teasdale along with psychologists Zindel Segal and Mark Williams combined this stress reduction strategy with cognitive behavioral therapy.

When It's Used

MBCT was developed for people to prevent relapse from recurring episodes of depression or deep unhappiness. It has been proven effective in patients with major depressive disorder who have experienced at least three episodes of depression. Mindfulness-based relapse prevention may also be helpful in treating:

MBCT has also been shown to improve symptoms of depression in some people with physical health conditions as well, including:

In addition, MBCT has been studied in women with fibromyalgia, showing its effectiveness in reducing the impact of this chronic condition.

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What to Expect

MBCT is normally conducted within a group setting, and the weekly sessions are led by a therapist. In about eight meetings, you will learn meditation techniques as well as basic principles of cognition, such as the relationship between the way you think and how you feel. You will also have the opportunity to learn more about your depressive condition. On the days when there is no session, there is homework, which includes practicing breathing exercises and mindful meditation. You will also be encouraged to bring this present-moment awareness into your everyday routines, when you prepare a meal, as you eat, while you shower, or when you are walking.

How It Works

For a person who has recovered from a depressive state, sometimes normal sadness is a powerful trigger for relapse of depression. Rather than trying to avoid or eliminate sadness or other negative emotions, one learns to change their relationship with these emotions. Accepting sadness, for example, can be executed by practicing meditation and other mindfulness exercises. These activities rebalance neural networks, allowing the client to move away from automatic negative responses toward an understanding that there are other ways to respond to difficult situations. In effect, you will learn that you are not your thought patterns.

By developing a routine meditation practice, clients can use the technique whenever they start to feel overwhelmed by negative thoughts. When sadness occurs and starts to bring up the usual negative associations that can trigger a relapse of depression, the client is equipped with tools that will help them replace their negative thinking with calmness, compassion, and positive action. A study from the University of Oxford showed that such mindfulness-based therapy is just as effective as antidepressant medication.

What to Look for in a Mindfulness-Based Therapist

Screen your potential therapist either in person or over video or phone. During this initial introduction, ask the therapist:

  • How they may help with your particular concerns
  • If they have dealt with this type of problem before
  • What their process entails
  • The timeline for treatment

An MBCT therapist is a mental health professional who has additional training in mindfulness-based practices and techniques and is skilled at teaching these techniques to others. Institutions like universities train and certify MBCT teachers around the world. There is no formal referral service for MBCT programs or therapists. In addition to checking credentials, it is important to find an MBCT therapist with whom you feel comfortable working.

Abott RA, Whear R, Rodgers LR, et al. Effectiveness of mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness based cognitive therapy in vascular disease: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Journal of Psychosomatic Research. May 2014;76(5):341-351.
Piet J, Hougaard E. The effect of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for prevention of relapse in recurrent major depressive disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review. August 2011; 31(6):1032-1040.
Ozen LJ, Gibbons C, Bedard M. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy improves depression symptoms after traumatic brain injury Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy: Innovative Applications (2016; Springer International). 31-45. [Abstract]
UCSD Center for Mindfulness: Mindfulness-Based Professional Training Institute
Last updated: 07/20/2022