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Understanding Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy

If you find it difficult to stay grounded in the present moment and your mind seems to wander constantly, it can take a real toll on your mental health. Constant rumination and negative thinking can make it hard to manage mental health disorders like anxiety and depression and can contribute to a decreased quality of […]

therapist william snyder By William Snyder, LPC

Updated on Feb 20, 2024

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If you find it difficult to stay grounded in the present moment and your mind seems to wander constantly, it can take a real toll on your mental health. Constant rumination and negative thinking can make it hard to manage mental health disorders like anxiety and depression and can contribute to a decreased quality of life and feeling of well being. 

Enter mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), a modality that combines concepts of cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness practices. It teaches people how to address their mental health challenges while also learning how to incorporate mindfulness into their daily lives.

Here, we’ll learn more about mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, including its history, what it is used for, how it works, and what its benefits are.

What is Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy?

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is a type of therapy that teaches various mindfulness exercises. It’s based on the concepts of both cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness-based interventions.

The concept of mindfulness goes back over 2500 years, to Buddhist teachings about non-judgmental thinking and self-compassion. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is an off-shoot of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a type of meditation and mindfulness practice created by Jon Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues. Besides mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, other therapy types use concepts of mindfulness, including dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). 

History of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy

Psychologists Zindel Segal, John Teasdale, and Mark Williams developed mindfulness-based cognitive therapy specifically for people who were dealing with depression relapse after treatment for major depressive disorder. The idea was that people who live with depression often ruminate on negative thoughts, which interferes with their ability to cope with their depression and can make them vulnerable to relapsing into a depressive state. 

The original concepts behind mindfulness-based cognitive therapy encouraged people with recurrent depression and depression relapse to become more aware of their thoughts and feelings, which is a tenant of cognitive behavioral therapy. But it also encouraged them to learn to detach from these feelings, which is a key concept of mindfulness practice. 

Although originally developed to tackle depression, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy was later found to be effective at managing anxiety disorders, as well as some specific aspects of chronic pain.

What is an Example of Mindfulness-Based Therapy?

There are many ways that the mindfulness training you learn in mindfulness-based therapy can be integrated into your life, says Melissa Galica, a licensed professional counselor with Grow Therapy. Part of the goal of mindfulness-based therapy is to teach participants different techniques that they can integrate into their daily lives.

According to Galica, examples of everyday mindfulness include:

Key Concepts of Mindfulness Therapy

So, what are the main components of a mindfulness practice? And what are the basic principles behind mindfulness-based cognitive therapy? Two Grow therapists provided their insights.

Integrating Mindfulness into Cognitive Therapy Principles

The key concept of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is the integration of mindfulness practices into cognitive behavioral therapy principles, says Galica. “Mindfulness concepts include awareness of thoughts, feelings, and sensations,” she says. It also means viewing thoughts as mental events rather than absolute truths. A mindfulness practice involves “decentering from unhelpful patterns, reducing rumination and avoidance cycles, and — biggest of all — developing self-compassion,” Galica describes.

Irrational Thoughts are Not Your Fault

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy can send powerful messages to people who tend to blame their negative thoughts or constant rumination on themselves, says  Christy Barongan, a clinical psychologist at Grow Therapy. “The mindfulness component in MBCT helps to frame the cognitive distortions as something that is a product of the human brain and not a fundamental flaw of the individual,” she says. “We all believe irrational things, whether we are diagnosed with a disorder or not, and it it lessens clients’ guilt and shame to understand that these irrational beliefs are not their fault.”

How Do You Conduct Mindfulness Therapy?

Okay, so we know what mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is, but what does it look like in practice? What happens during mindfulness-based cognitive therapy sessions?

In a nutshell, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is a group program usually spanning eight weeks. Ultimately, the goal of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is to make mindfulness a daily habit and link mindfulness to current problems and reactions, Galica describes.

Most of the time, the mindfulness-based cognitive therapy sessions last about two hours. Instruction includes various practices, such as:

Most of the earlier sessions of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy focus on guided meditations that teach participants to focus on their breathing or recognize their body sensations. As they move through the sessions, participants are taught methods for integrating mindfulness into their daily lives and making mindfulness a long-term practice. Additionally, there becomes more of an emphasis on becoming more mindful of your thoughts and feelings in addition to your breath and body sensations.

Often, participants will be given “homework” to do, so that the concepts learned during these sessions are crystallized into practice. This may involve daily mindfulness activities and doing guided meditations.

Concepts of cognitive therapy as well as psychoeducation regarding depression are integrated into the sessions. One key CBT concept taught is that trying to resist or push away your thoughts usually only serves to intensify them. Instead, detaching and learning to let these thoughts go can be helpful. 

Some other elements you may find in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy are:

What are the Benefits of Mindfulness Therapy?

While the concepts of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy may sound good, you might be wondering: Does this type of therapy actually work? Let’s take a look at the benefits and effectiveness of mindfulness-based therapy. 

Decreases Depressive Relapse

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy was created to address the challenge of depressive relapse, which is when depression recurs even after its been treated and well-managed. There is a wealth of evidence pointing to the fact that mindfulness-based therapy is an effective treatment for depression relapse and recurrent depression.

For example, a trial from 2000 looked at 145 people who were in recovery from major depression. They were assigned either eight weeks of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy or their usual treatment. After one year, it was concluded that the people who received mindfulness-based cognitive therapy relapsed at a rate of 40%, whereas people who received their usual treatment relapsed at a higher rate of 66%. 

Additionally, a systematic review and meta-analysis from 2015 found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy was an effective non pharmacological intervention for people who experience depressive relapse. 

Anxiety Disorders

Although more research is needed, there’s evidence that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy can help with anxiety disorders. A 2013 study examined the effects of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy on veterans living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Veterans who received eight weeks of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy showed greater PTSD improvements than veterans who received their usual PTSD treatment.

Bipolar Disorder

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy shows promise for people who live with bipolar disorder. A 2011 study looked at people with bipolar disorder who participated in a pilot study where they were given mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. After treatment, researchers noted improvements in several areas, including executive functioning, task initiation and completion, and memory. However, the researchers emphasize that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy should only be used as adjunct to the first-line treatments for bipolar disorder, which are mood stabilizing medications like Lithium. 

Chronic Pain        

Though research is in its early stages, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy appears to be an effective method for managing chronic pain. A 2021 study found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy reduced several aspects of chronic pain among hospitalized patients in Spain, including pain intensity, depression related to pain, and sleep disturbances.

Give Mindfulness A Try

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) offers a powerful approach for those struggling with persistent rumination and mental health challenges. By combining cognitive behavioral therapy with mindfulness practices, MBCT equips individuals with tools to navigate their thoughts and emotions effectively. This therapy involves integrating mindfulness into daily life through various practices, promoting self-compassion and detaching from negative thoughts.

Get started on the path to improved mental well-being and give therapy a try. Make it easy and use our helpful tool to find an in-network provider near you.


  • Although cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a key component of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), there are differences between the two. In MBCT, thoughts are acknowledged but not emphasized. Instead, you are taught to take a non-reactive stance on thoughts and feelings, trying your best to let them go.

  • Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is a program created by Jon Kabat-Zinn. This program inspired mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) but integrates concepts of cognitive therapy alongside mindfulness techniques.

About the author
therapist william snyder William Snyder, LPC

William Snyder is a licensed professional counselor with over 20 years of experience. He specializes in anxiety, trauma, PTSD, depression, and self-esteem.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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