How Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Works (2022)

What Is Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy?

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.


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 your experience (How are you doing right now?)
  2. Focusing on your breath
  3. Attending to your 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.

How to Positively Conquer Common Cognitive Distortions


The primary 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 Lancetfound that MBCT helped prevent depression recurrence as effectively as maintenance antidepressant medication did.

(Video) Applying Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy to Treatment

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.

Why Some People Are More Prone to Depression

Things to Consider

Research on the efficacy of MCBT for active or severe depression is still ongoing. It's important to talk to your doctor about your symptoms to determine if this approach is right for you.

It is important to note that while the class or group 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:

  • Doing what works rather than second-guessing yourself
  • Focusing on the moment without distraction from other ideas or events
  • Participating without being self-conscious
  • Paying close attention to what is going on around you
  • 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. Finding classes might be challenging, however, depending on the availability of trained MBCT therapists in your area.

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.

There is not necessarily an established network of teachers around the globe or a single directory in which you can find a program close to home. Talk to your doctor or consider searching an online therapist directory if you are interested in finding an MBCT therapist in your area.

Mindfulness has become increasingly popular for its ability to promote 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.

The Best Online Therapy ProgramsWe've tried, tested and written unbiased reviews of the best online therapy programs including Talkspace, Betterhelp, and Regain.

(Video) What is Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)?

7 Sources

Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

  1. Mackenzie MB, Kocovski NL. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression: Trends and developments. Psychol Res Behav Manag. 2016;9:125-32. doi:10.2147/PRBM.S63949

  2. Sipe WE, Eisendrath SJ. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy: Theory and practice. Can J Psychiatry. 2012;57(2):63-9. doi:10.1177/070674371205700202

  3. Crane R. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. New York: Routledge; 2017. doi:10.4324/9781315627229

  4. King AP, Erickson TM, Giardino ND, et al. A pilot study of group mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) for combat veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Depress Anxiety. 2013;30(7):638-45. doi:10.1002/da.22104

  5. Riemann D, Hertenstein E, Schramm E. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression. Lancet. 2016;387(10023):1054. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(16)00660-7

    (Video) Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy: An Introduction – Dr Cinzia Pezzolesi

  6. Tickell A, Ball S, Bernard P, et al. The effectiveness of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) in real-world healthcare services. Mindfulness. 2020;11(2):279-290. doi:10.1007/s12671-018-1087-9

  7. Parsons CE, Crane C, Parsons LJ, Fjorback LO, Kuyken W. Home practice in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction: A systematic review and meta-analysis of participants' mindfulness practice and its association with outcomes. Behav Res Ther. 2017;95:29-41. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2017.05.004

By Nancy Schimelpfening
Nancy Schimelpfening, MS is the administrator for the non-profit depression support group Depression Sanctuary. Nancy has a lifetime of experience with depression, experiencing firsthand how devastating this illness can be.

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How effective is mindfulness-based cognitive therapy? ›

Study shows that MBCT has the high percentage in reducing depressive symptoms than psycho-education. MBCT significantly decrease depression severity and improved treatment response rate but not remission. MBCT shows significant decrease in depressive symptoms and improve the mindfulness skill.

Does mindfulness-based intervention improve cognitive function? ›

Theoretical accounts and preliminary evidence suggest that Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBIs) improve cognitive function, but reviews of empirical studies have provided mixed results.

What is the aim of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy? ›

The core aim of MBCT is to increase psychological health by increasing mindfulness, which can be characterized by the following skills: (1) acceptance of thoughts and feelings without judgment, and, (2) focusing fully on the present moment (Allen et al. 2006; Baer et al.

How does mindfulness therapy work? ›

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.

What are the strengths of the mindfulness-based treatments? ›

If you are struggling, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, also known as MBCT, may help. MBCT and other meditative practices have been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, lower stress and cortisol levels, and are beneficial for all ages.

Does mindfulness-based cognitive therapy prevent relapse of depression? ›

Extending previous work, we found that MBCT reduces the risk of depressive relapse/recurrence compared with the current mainstay approach, maintenance antidepressants.

Does mindfulness training help working memory work better? ›

The study, which was originally published in Brain Imaging and Behavior, found that mindfulness training boosts the density of the hippocampus, which is a region of the brain that plays a key role in both working memory and long-term memory.

Does mindfulness based intervention improve cognitive function a meta analysis of controlled studies? ›

Theoretical accounts and preliminary evidence suggest that Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBIs) improve cognitive function, but reviews of empirical studies have provided mixed results.

What is the difference between CBT and mindfulness? ›

Thus mindfulness can alter one's attitude or relation to thoughts, such that they are less likely to influence subsequent feelings and behaviors. In contrast, CBT involves the restructuring and disputation of cognitions and beliefs toward acquiring more functional ways of viewing the world (18).

When was mindfulness-based cognitive therapy developed? ›

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) was developed by Segal, Williams, and Teasdale (2002) as a therapy for relapse prevention of major depression.

What theory is mindfulness-based on? ›

In brief, the Mindfulness-to-Meaning Theory asserts that mindfulness allows one to decenter from stress appraisals into a metacognitive state of awareness that broadens attention to previously unnoticed pieces of information about one's life, accommodating a reappraisal (i.e., a reframing) of adverse circumstances that ...

Why is mindfulness important in therapy? ›

Mindfulness can also enhance emotional well-being of clinicians, helping us develop beneficial therapeutic qualities such as acceptance, attention, compassion, equanimity, and presence that enrich and enliven our work and help us avoid burnout.

What kind of therapy uses mindfulness? ›

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.

Is mindfulness therapy evidence-based? ›

Stress reduction.

The researchers concluded that mindfulness-based therapy may be useful in altering affective and cognitive processes that underlie multiple clinical issues. Those findings are consistent with evidence that mindfulness meditation increases positive affect and decreases anxiety and negative affect.

What are the limitations of mindfulness? ›

Mindfulness has potential downsides that are often ignored. For some people, mindfulness practices could increase the stress response, negative emotions, dissociation, and even inhibit sleep. As with any intervention, before we recommend mindfulness we must understand its potential risks.

How can mindfulness create a positive therapy session? ›

7 Ways to Use Mindfulness As A Therapist
  • Practice mindful listening.
  • Explore mindfulness of emotions.
  • Practice and encourage non-judgment.
  • Encourage the cultivation of self-compassion.
  • Offer your clients basic mindfulness techniques for wellbeing that they can take home.
  • Enhance awareness of the mind-body connection.

What is one possible adverse effect of mindfulness based interventions? ›

The study found that mindfulness meditators had worse physical and mental health than non-meditators, including higher levels of pain, headaches, stress, depression, anxiety, insomnia and acute illness.

Is Mbct effective for depression? ›

Results showed that relative to the health-enhancement program, MBCT was associated with a significant reduction in depression-symptom severity and a significant increase in treatment-response rates. In 2015, Chiesa et al compared MBCT to a psychoeducation control group with positive results.

Does mindfulness help with short term memory? ›

While prior research has found that mindfulness meditation improves short-term memory and that meditators have bigger hippocampi, this is the first study to link the two findings together. In other words, the improvements in interference weren't transitory, but led to actual structural differences in the brain.

How does meditation increase working memory? ›

Regular meditation increases blood flow to the brain, which leads to a stronger network of blood vessels in the cerebral cortex and reinforces memory capacity. One study that was published by a reputable cognition journal indicated that meditating for 20 minutes a day boosts memory and concentration.

Does meditation improve memory recall? ›

Research has shown that participants with no experience in mindfulness meditation can improve their memory recall in just eight weeks. Meditation, with its power to help us concentrate, has also been shown to improve improve standardized test scores and working memory after just two weeks.

Is MBCT more effective than CBT? ›

CONCLUSION. Both CBT and MBCT have been proven in studies to be effective ways of treating depression, and if you are choosing between the two it is really a personal choice. If you are not sure which type of therapy would suit you best you could always try to source a therapist who offers both options.

Is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction CBT? ›

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is believed to improve chronic pain problems by decreasing patient catastrophizing and increasing patient self-efficacy for managing pain. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is believed to benefit chronic pain patients by increasing mindfulness and pain acceptance.

Is mindfulness effective for anxiety? ›

Researchers reviewed more than 200 studies of mindfulness among healthy people and found mindfulness-based therapy was especially effective for reducing stress, anxiety and depression. Mindfulness can also help treat people with specific problems including depression, pain, smoking and addiction.

Who proposed MBCT? ›

WHAT IS MINDFULNESS-BASED COGNITIVE THERAPY (MBCT)? MBCT is based on the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) eight-week program, developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Who introduced MBCT? ›

MBCT, which was developed by Zindel Segal, Mark Williams, and John Teasdale, is primarily derived from the earlier work of Teasdale, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Phillip Barnard.

How is MBCT delivered? ›

MBCT is delivered in weekly sessions of 2.5 h per session over an 8-week period, with a 1-day (6 h) retreat. MBCT (Segal et al. 2002) is derived from two main therapeutic approaches: (1) the mindfulness-based stress reduction program (Kabat-Zinn 1990) and (2) cognitive-behavioral therapy for depression.

Why is mindfulness good for mental health? ›

How mindfulness helps mental wellbeing. Becoming more aware of the present moment can help us enjoy the world around us more and understand ourselves better. When we become more aware of the present moment, we begin to experience afresh things that we have been taking for granted.

Is mindfulness a DBT or CBT? ›

A big difference in DBT vs CBT is how they approach the patient. DBT is mostly focused on how a person interacts with others and themselves. It tends to use mindfulness philosophies to help patients accept themselves and their environment. Meanwhile, CBT tends to be more logic-focused.

How is mindfulness linked to psychology? ›

Mindfulness can help us cope with depression, boost our psychological well-being, manage physical pain, and even have better memory. When it comes to the way we think and feel, being mindful of our emotions helps us to switch to more positive mindsets and work towards being a 'better'—or at least, a happier—person.

What are mindfulness interventions? ›

Mindfulness interventions aim to foster an open and accepting awareness of one's thoughts and feelings, including an observant attitude toward the thought patterns and body experiences that occur when one feels acutely anxious or depressed.

What is mindfulness therapy for anxiety? ›

Mindfulness and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Mindfulness helps you reduce anxiety by practicing our inherent ability to be mindfully present, focused, and relaxed. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) offers many other effective strategies to reduce anxiety.

What is mindfulness based training? ›

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) therapy is a meditation therapy, though originally designed for stress management, it is being used for treating a variety of illnesses such as depression, anxiety, chronic pain, cancer, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, skin and immune disorders.

How do you approach mindfulness? ›

Some examples include:
  1. Pay attention. It's hard to slow down and notice things in a busy world. ...
  2. Live in the moment. Try to intentionally bring an open, accepting and discerning attention to everything you do. ...
  3. Accept yourself. Treat yourself the way you would treat a good friend.
  4. Focus on your breathing.

What are the two types of mindfulness? ›

How to Choose a Type of Mindfulness Meditation
  • Breathing meditation: A practice where you focus your attention on the sensations of breathing.
  • Body scan: A practice where you focus on each individual body part in turn, from head to toe.
11 Oct 2016

How can mindfulness improve a person's ability to regulate their emotions? ›

Mindfulness works the other way round, by increasing our ability to bear with discomfort, both on the physical and emotional level. When our capacity to bear with emotional discomfort is enlarged, we are less likely to react to our emotions or to let them control us.

How does mindfulness change the brain? ›

The pre-frontal cortex is the area of your brain responsible for things like planning, problem solving, and controlling your emotions. The grey matter in this area can become thicker after practising mindfulness, showing increased activity in these areas of thought.

What happens to the brain during meditation? ›

It can strengthen areas of your brain responsible for memory, learning, attention and self-awareness. The practice can also help calm down your sympathetic nervous system. Over time, mindfulness meditation can increase cognition, memory and attention.

How long does meditation take to change your brain? ›

Previous studies have reported that MBSR, which involves 24-30 hours of meditation practice over two months, led to an increase in gray matter density—a measure of the amount of cortical grey matter in a given area — and gray matter volume—the total size of the grey matter— in several brain areas including the ...

What are the 7 principles of mindfulness? ›

  • Non-judging. Be an impartial witness to your own experience. ...
  • Patience. A form of wisdom, patience demonstrates that we accept the fact that.
  • Beginner's Mind. Remaining open and curious allows us to be receptive to new.
  • Trust. Develop a basic trust with yourself and your feelings. ...
  • Non-Striving. ...
  • Acceptance. ...
  • Letting Go.

How do u practice mindfulness? ›

How to Practice Mindfulness
  1. Take a seat. Find a place to sit that feels calm and quiet to you.
  2. Set a time limit. If you're just beginning, it can help to choose a short time, such as 5 or 10 minutes.
  3. Notice your body. ...
  4. Feel your breath. ...
  5. Notice when your mind has wandered. ...
  6. Be kind to your wandering mind.
12 Dec 2018

What are the disadvantages of mindfulness? ›

The study found that mindfulness meditators had worse physical and mental health than non-meditators, including higher levels of pain, headaches, stress, depression, anxiety, insomnia and acute illness.

How do I do mindfulness? ›

Reminding yourself to take notice of your thoughts, feelings, body sensations and the world around you is the first step to mindfulness.
  1. Notice the everyday. ...
  2. Keep it regular. ...
  3. Try something new. ...
  4. Watch your thoughts. ...
  5. Name thoughts and feelings. ...
  6. Free yourself from the past and future.

What are the 4 core elements of mindfulness? ›

Let's explore together some of the elements that seem to be key in practicing mindfulness.
  • Awareness. ...
  • Intention and Attitude. ...
  • Presence. ...
  • Insight. ...
  • References:
30 Dec 2017

What are the 3 components of mindfulness? ›

In general, they seek to develop three key characteristics of mindfulness: Intention to cultivate awareness (and return to it again and again) Attention to what is occurring in the present moment (simply observing thoughts, feelings, sensations as they arise) Attitude that is non-judgmental, curious, and kind.

What are the 4 mindfulness techniques? ›

Next time you find your mind racing with stress, try the acronym S.T.O.P.:
  • S – Stop what you are doing, put things down for a minute.
  • T – Take a breath. ...
  • O – Observe your thoughts, feelings, and emotions. ...
  • P – Proceed with something that will support you in the moment.

What is another word for mindfulness? ›

In this page you can discover 15 synonyms, antonyms, idiomatic expressions, and related words for mindfulness, like: carefulness, heedfulness, heed, careful, caution, dhyana, regard, samatha, unmindfulness, care and satipaiihana.

How does mindfulness reduce stress? ›

By lowering the stress response, mindfulness may have downstream effects throughout the body. Psychological scientists have found that mindfulness influences two different stress pathways in the brain, changing brain structures and activity in regions associated with attention and emotion regulation.

What is a cognitive benefit of meditation? ›

A growing body of research suggests that meditation can enhance various cognitive functions, including attention, memory, and executive function,2428 and that it positively affects brain function and structure relevant to cognition.

Who is mindfulness not suitable for? ›

But despite these findings, mindfulness isn't appropriate for some patient groups as Dr Christina Surawy, a clinical psychologist, warns: “MBCT isn't suitable for patients who are in the grip of a drug or alcohol dependency, as they won't be able to fully engage with the therapy.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of mindfulness? ›

You may experience greater self and social awareness, two mental assets that help significantly in regulating mood and emotions. Cons of Being Mindful: It takes work, practice, and personal effort. Its just another thing you should do. Sometimes, being more aware can actually increase personal frustration or judgment.

Does mindfulness work for everyone? ›

Although some people find mindfulness helpful, not everyone does. Mindfulness might not be the best option for you. Or it might help you at some times and not others. If you've tried something and it hasn't helped, it's important not to blame yourself.

What are the 5 steps of mindfulness? ›

  • Five Steps to Mindfulness.
  • First Mindfulness Exercise: Mindful Breathing.
  • Second Mindfulness Exercise: Concentration.
  • Third Mindfulness Exercise: Awareness of Your Body.
  • Fourth Mindfulness Exercise: Releasing Tension.
  • Fifth Exercise: Walking Meditation.

How much meditation is enough? ›

Although it is not an exact science, the consensus seems that to see benefits from meditation, you should aim for at least 10 minutes a day at a minimum. However, each person will respond differently, so it's important to test out longer meditation periods if 10 minutes does not seem to be making a difference for you.

What does mindfulness mean in psychology? ›

Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.


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