I’ve just concluded another Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy group, an eight-week program using a set of cognitive-behavioral therapy principles and mindfulness practices that are extremely effective in relieving mild to moderate states of anxiety and depression, as well as chronic worry and unhappiness. I thought you might like to know what we do in MBCT, and how it works.
First, we learn about autopilot mode: our habitual way of functioning that allows us to get through the day, doing the things we have to do, while our minds are elsewhere – usually rehashing events or conversations from the past, or rehearsing events or conversations we anticipate in the future. That constant rehashing and rehearsing is tiring, and it contributes to anxiety and depression.
So we learn how to step out of autopilot and into the present moment, using the breath, the body, and our five senses to help us get there and stay awhile. When we’re in the moment, we’re able to notice what’s happening right now, which is likely to be at least neutral, if not positive. For example: I’m breathing and I’m alive, at least 80% of my body doesn’t ache and is functioning just fine, it’s stopped/started raining and the sun is/isn’t shining, and I’m hungry/thirsty/sleepy/restless/bored. In the present moment, things are just as they are, and most of the time nothing bad is happening.
A common misperception about mindfulness is that it means we just live in and for the moment, with no regard for the past or future. That’s a mistaken view. When we’re mindful, we are awake and aware of what is happening, both within us and around us, which includes not only our body sensations, thoughts, and emotions, but also awareness of the past and the future, of our memories and plans. We haven’t forgotten what’s happened to us, we’re just not stuck constantly re-living it. We aren’t oblivious to the future, we just aren’t trying to solve problems that haven’t happened yet.
As we practice stepping out of autopilot (via exercises like the Body Scan and being mindful of routine daily activities) MBCT students work on strengthening the ability to focus attention, using simple meditation practices. This helps to reduce mind wandering and lessen the grip of powerful negative thoughts and emotions. They also practice non-judging awareness, by bringing an attitude of kind and interested curiosity to their experience. These are the foundational elements of mindfulness, also taught in Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs.
But in addition, MBCT incorporates cognitive therapy concepts like this one: mood influences perception. For example, if you’re in a low mood, you’re more likely to perceive social rejection. We learn that the human mind has a “negativity bias,” and that being anxious or depressed will magnify the effect. MBCT students practice noticing habitual reactions of aversion and attachment, learning how to turn towards uncomfortable sensations, emotions, or thoughts, and to sit with them, rather than ignoring or trying to avoid experiencing them. This is a powerful practice that increases one’s capacity to tolerate difficult mental and emotional states.
Another concept we learn in MBCT is that thoughts are not facts. It is possible to learn to step back from thinking and simply observe your thoughts without being caught up in them, which reduces reactivity and increases stress resilience. And a key concept in MBCT is this: motivation works backwards in depression, meaning you can’t just wait for depression (or anxiety) to go away. You’ll have to push yourself to do things when you don’t feel like it, but if you practice staying in the moment, allowing your feelings to just be, and then focus on simple tasks that bring pleasure or mastery, you will improve your mood, as well as your physical well-being and self-confidence!