Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy combines the already-effective insights and approaches of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with mindfulness practices such as meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises. The goal is to help people become more aware of their thoughts and emotions as they occur, and be able to experience them without being controlled by them. These strategies help people avoid the consequences of automatic thoughts that lead to negative emotions and actions. Although mindfulness-based cognitive therapy was initially developed to help people at risk for recurrent depression or relapse into depression, it has proven effective at treating other mood disorders, anxiety disorders, sleep disorders, and to help patients battling chronic pain.

Origins of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy

Most people trace the origins of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy to the work of Jon Kabat Zinn, who developed an eight-week group therapy stress reduction course that included mindfulness training through the use of breathing techniques, meditation, and yoga.

Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” This nonjudgmental awareness allows people to perceive and experience certain thoughts, emotions, and physical symptoms while retaining a degree of separation from them. The key is to enter “being mode” when negative thoughts, feelings, and related symptoms occur, rather than letting them trigger “doing mode.” In being mode, negative thoughts, feelings, and physical symptoms can be experienced and defused, whereas in doing mode they would trigger actions with negative consequences.

In adapting the mindfulness stress reduction to a more generalized therapeutic approach, other researchers combined it with basic education about the condition that an individual experiences, as well as focused, structured exercises from cognitive behavioral therapy. These structured exercises illustrate the connections between thinking and feeling, and give individuals tools to prevent some of the more negative consequences that can come from certain thought patterns.

The combination of increased awareness about emotions and thoughts along with specific practical techniques for responding to them has proven successful for many patients.

When Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Is Effective

Research has shown that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy can produce good results for patients with many different physical and mental health conditions. Among the conditions that respond to mindfulness-based cognitive therapy are:

  • Depression, especially chronic depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Depression, anxiety, and distress in cancer patients
  • Stress and worry in cardiac patients
  • Insomnia
  • Depressive symptoms in patients with Parkinson’s disease

In each case, minor modifications are made to help tailor treatment to the specific population, such as the inclusion of educational material related to the specific condition.