Embracing the Present: A Dive into Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy

As the pace of life quickens, and with an overwhelming influx of information and stimuli, maintaining a healthy state of mind can sometimes feel like an uphill battle. However, amidst all these challenges, a beacon of hope emerges in the form of an increasingly popular therapeutic approach - Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). This is now an evidence-based 8-week program that now has decades of research behind it. As a psychotherapist with 23 years (eek!) of experience under my belt, I feel immense joy when I have the chance to witness the growth and transformation of individuals who participate in an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) group. Developed to help people suffering from depression, anxiety, stress, and other emotional challenges, MBCT aims to change the way people think and feel about and relate to their experiences. In this blog, we will explore MBCT's fundamental tenets, its applications, and the benefits it offers in our journey towards better mental health.

MBCT: A Brief Overview

MBCT is a fusion of two well-established psychological modalities - Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and mindfulness. CBT, traditionally used to treat various mental health conditions, involves understanding and changing thought patterns that lead to harmful behaviors or emotional distress. Mindfulness, rooted in Buddhist traditions, emphasizes being fully present in the moment, engaging with our experiences in a non-judgmental manner. MBCT, thus, employs mindfulness techniques to help individuals observe their thoughts and feelings as transient mental events rather than absolute truths or directives.

Week 1: Introductions and Grounding

The first session of MBCT is all about creating a safe and supportive space for participants. It includes introductions, setting group norms, and understanding the outline of the program. Participants are introduced to the concept of mindfulness, how often we live on "automatic pilot," experience a mindful eating exercise to ‘wake up’ from eating on auto pilot and are taught their first mindfulness meditation: the Body Scan.

Week 2: Living in Our Heads - Perception and Reality

In the second week, participants delve deeper into understanding the link between perception and their interpretation of reality. Activities include mindful breathing exercises and discussion of patterns of the mind that might increase vulnerability to depression, anxiety and/or stress.

Week 3: Gathering the Scattered Mind & Mindfulness of the Breath

Week three focuses on gathering and focusing attention through mindful breathing. Participants learn to use the breath as an anchor, helping them remain present and not get lost in thoughts or feelings that often lead to emotional distress and increased suffering.

Week 4: Understanding Aversion & Staying Present

In the fourth week, participants learn about the importance of staying present, moving away from dwelling in the past or future. They also explore coping with barriers to mindfulness practice and learn the "3-minute breathing space" meditation.

Week 5: Allowing and Letting Be

Week five is all about acceptance and allowing things to be as they are. It’s so interesting that we have to train our minds on ways we can facilitate this process. So often we react, ruminate and wish things were other than they are. Participants learn to respond to negative events or feelings in a non-judgmental, accepting manner rather than with aversion or avoidance.

Week 6: Thoughts are not Facts

By week six, participants have gained a significant understanding of mindfulness. They learn to see their thoughts as events in the mind, not necessarily facts. This realization can be transformative and liberating, as it allows participants to detach from their negative thought patterns. Many graduates say that learning how to witness/observe their thoughts and see them for what they are – just thoughts - is one of the bigger take-aways from the program.

Week 7: How Can I Best Take Care of Myself?

Week seven focuses on using the learned mindfulness skills to identify early signs of emotional distress and develop a proactive, specific plan for preventing relapse into depression or anxiety and just generally taking better care of themselves.

Week 8: The End is a New Beginning

The final week is a time for reflection and looking forward. Participants share their experiences, insights, and transformations. It's also a time to discuss how to maintain and extend mindfulness practices in everyday life.

Understanding the Practice of MBCT

IN our MBCT sessions, we have at least two guided meditations per sessions, group discussions, and home practice discussions. During a typical session, individuals are taught to switch from the 'doing' mode, an auto-pilot state where we react to situations based on past experiences, to the 'being' mode. This 'being' mode encourages us to engage with the present moment wholly, without trying to 'fix' or change anything, promoting acceptance, equanimity and awareness.

One significant exercise in MBCT is the body scan meditation. Participants are guided to pay close attention to various parts of the body, noting any sensations that arise without judgment. This exercise helps people to connect with their physical selves, fostering an improved mind-body connection. Other mindfulness skills and techniques that participants learn are mindful breathing, sitting meditation, mindful walking, the 3-minute breathing space, and mindful movement.

They learn to understand the relationship between thought and emotion, recognize, loosen and disrupt automatic processes, accept experiences without judgement, and take better care of their emotional and overall wellbeing. Graduates say they feel a greater sense of control over their mental and emotional health.

Benefits of MBCT: More than Just Relaxation

Preventing Relapses in Depression: The landmark trial by Teasdale et al. (2000) demonstrated that MBCT could significantly reduce relapse rates in individuals with recurrent depression, an effect confirmed by numerous subsequent studies. By learning to disengage from auto-pilot responses and view thoughts and feelings objectively, individuals are less likely to spiral into negative thought patterns that precipitate depressive episodes.

Managing Anxiety: MBCT has been shown to be beneficial for anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder. The mindfulness component helps individuals confront their fears and anxieties in the present moment rather than avoid or obsess over them.

Stress Reduction: The mindfulness aspect of MBCT can help manage daily stressors more effectively. By promoting acceptance rather than avoidance or suppression of stress-inducing thoughts, MBCT fosters resilience and healthier coping strategies.

Improving Quality of Life: By encouraging individuals to live in the present, MBCT can increase life satisfaction. A mindful presence can enhance the enjoyment of daily activities and interpersonal relationships.

While MBCT is an effective tool for improving mental health, it is not a cure-all and should be used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan. If you're considering MBCT, please consult with a healthcare provider to ensure it is the right choice for your individual needs.

In a world that often feels overwhelming, MBCT offers a grounding approach to mental health. By teaching us to meet each moment as it comes, it reminds us that even amid chaos, there is room for peace, acceptance, and growth.