Research has shown that Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) can reduce by half the risk of future depressive episodes in those who have already had several depressive episodes. The effects of MBCT have been proven as effective as antidepressant medications. Research has also demonstrated MBCT’s success in managing stress, anxiety, anger, and other unwanted mood states. So why is this therapy so effective?
Mindfulness involves a specific way of paying attention, which, when practiced daily, trains our brains to become aware of what is going on around us and within us in the present moment. When you are depressed or anxious your mind is likely focused on the past or future, not the present. The five senses – sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste – are always in the present moment. So, one way to practice this present-moment awareness is to bring your attention to one or more of your five senses. This can be practiced through informal mindfulness exercises such as mindful eating or mindful showering. After regular practice of these exercises, you will be better able to redirect your attention to the present moment when you feel caught up in spiraling thoughts and feelings.
Another way to practice this present moment awareness is through mindfulness meditation. Mindful meditation (referred to as “meditation”) is different from other types of meditation in that it is not religious-based, does not involve clearing your mind, and is usually guided by a mindfulness instructor. Meditation is an exercise that transforms your brain, similar to how physical exercise transforms your body. Meditation is the most important type of mindfulness practice, and when practiced daily will result in profound changes in your brain by strengthening neuropathways related to calmness, focus, and joy.
Mindfulness training teaches us to be aware not only of our five senses, but also our thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and external triggers that lead to unwanted mood states. Becoming aware of our triggers is the first step toward learning how to respond differently to them. Once we realize that we are having an anxious thought, then we are able to choose how we respond to that thought and the feeling that accompanies it.
Our typical response to unwanted thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations is to avoid or change them. This is a natural human response, and makes sense when there’s an easy solution such as removing your hand from a hot pan. However, often our efforts to get rid of our thoughts and feelings make them worse. For instance, worrying about all of the things that are troubling you and trying to figure out how to feel better usually increases the intensity of the anxiety and depression. This is because thinking things through is helpful in solving problems at work, but this strategy is not effective when it comes to our emotions. Rumination, worry, overthinking, and other forms of avoidance of our thoughts and feelings actually increase our distress. You may have heard the equation, Pain X Resistance = Suffering, used to explain this phenomenon. This means our resistance to pain (physical or emotional) multiplies our level of suffering. Since you cannot often directly change your level of pain, the only thing you have control over is how you respond. You can choose to continue to resist it by trying to make that feeling go away, or you can choose a new way to respond that has the power to release you from the unhealthy cycles in which depression and anxiety keep you stuck.
Mindfulness teaches us a new way of responding to our thoughts and feelings. By accepting our thoughts and feelings as they are and letting them pass in their own time, we learn that they are temporary. Acceptance does not mean that we like what we are experiencing, and it doesn’t mean that we never get ourselves out of a bad situation. It just means that when we are feeling something that we don’t like and cannot change it, we take a breath and lean into the feeling, allowing it to be as it already is. This is not easy to do, and most people require several weeks of mindfulness training in order to get to this level of acceptance. That’s why MBCT is taught as an eight-week course. Just as you can’t train for a marathon in one week, you can’t train your brain by meditating a few times or every so often. In order to be effective, mindfulness must be practiced daily, and the strongest effects will come from a structured course taught by a trained mindfulness instructor.
Dr. Laura Chackes, Licensed Psychologist and Founder of The Center for Mindfulness & CBT, teaches 8-week MBCT courses for adults and older teens, as well as a modified MBCT program for children and younger teens and their parents (Family Mindfulness Program) at her center in St. Louis. For information on upcoming courses, check the Courses and Group Therapy.tab above, or visit our Facebook page, @mindfulstl, to stay up to date as soon as new courses are announced.