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The very broad spectrum of talk therapy approaches can be confusing. What is Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, and what role can it play in treating depression and preventing relapses?

Though there's no doubt that talk therapy can be of great help to depressed people — whether their depression is mild, moderate, or severe — deciding what kind of therapy to choose is a tough task!

With so many different approaches out there, what makes Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy different? And is it for you?

What is Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy?

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, or MBCT for short, was originally developed especially for people who had suffered from repeated episodes of major depressive disorder and were at risk of relapsing — sinking into depression again. Conducted in a group setting, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy programs last eight weeks, and features twice-weekly sessions of an hour each. 

MBCT combines elements of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness practice, so it helps to know a bit about those:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy is a short-term, fairly practical, approach to therapy. It focuses on your current problems in life, rather than delving deep into your childhood in a Freudian kind of way, and teaches you to reexamine negative or erroneous thought patterns that no longer serve you. This can free you from rumination and let you take charge of your life again. 
  • Mindfulness can, I think, be summed up as learning to be fully present in the moment. This helps with depression because working on mindfulness can tear you away from inner thoughts that would let you slip further into it. 

The skills you learn in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy include:

  • Being present in the moment, fully aware of your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations, but without attached judgment. 
  • Cultivating a sense of compassion towards yourself, which should help you decrease negative and self-critical thoughts that are holding you back. 
  • Strategies to cope with signs of a depressive relapse.

Who may benefit from Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy?

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy is most likely to be recommended for people who have suffered from repeated bouts of depression, who are currently in remission, but who are at risk of relapsing — sinking into depression again. This is what it was originally developed for, after all! 

Considering that half of people who have had one depressive episode will become depression again in future, while a shocking 80 percent of people who have been depressed twice or more often suffer from yet another episode, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy can help an awful lot of people in this situation. 

In this preventative context, it's pretty effective, too — research has shown that MBCT cuts the risk of having another episode by an impressive 34 percent. This means that Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy is, as a preventative step, as effective as maintenance-dose antidepressant therapy, while arming you with skills that last. 

The therapy has since been explored for other purposes as well, and may also help people with:

  • Anxiety disorders.
  • Substance abuse issues.
  • "Chronic unhappiness", and you don't necessarily need to meet the diagnostic criteria for depression, to consider yourself chronically unhappy, as it is subjective. People with dysthymia, a mild but incredibly persistent for of depression, may also fall into this category.  
  • Major depressive disorder as a result of chronic pain or long-term medical conditions. 
  • Active but treatment-resistant depression — so yes, while Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy​ is typically seen as more of a preventative approach than a therapy for current depression, it may help you if you are depressed at the moment, too. 

Various studies have revealed that Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy can help those who attend it:

  • Become more compassionate towards themselves
  • Spend less time worrying
  • Become more mindful — present in the current moment
  • Analyze their own thoughts in a more constructive way
  • Put an end to ruminating over negative thoughts

All of these points are extremely helpful in treating and preventing depression.

What if you can't find a Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy group or hate group therapy?

Because Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy has proven to be effective for preventing depressive relapses and the treatment is cost-effective, MBCT programs are now offered to people who have had recurrent major depressive disorder in the UK. However, various studies that examine its role in preventing relapses have noted that many people have a very hard time accessing MCBT because of a lack of providers. 

If this is you, but you like the idea of combining CBT and mindfulness to "take charge of your mind", as it were, you might like to know that researchers have also examined how several books on the topic may help you make use of this method at home, without a therapist. These books may also appeal to people who like the idea of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy but really aren't very sure about attending group rather than individual therapy.

The books that have been shown to help people "treat themselves at home" are:

  • The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn — the people who worked together to develop Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy as a method in the first place. 
  • Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman.

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