In 1992, Zindel Segal, John Teasdale, and Mark Williams collaborated to create an 8-week program modeled on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Jon Kabat-Zinn—who developed MBSR—had some initial misgivings about the program, fearing the curriculum might insufficiently emphasize how important it is for instructors to have a deep personal relationship with mindfulness practice. Once he got to know the founders better, he became a champion for the program. In 2002, the three published Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression: A New Approach to Preventing Relapse, now a landmark book.

MBCT’s credibility rests firmly on ongoing research. Two randomized clinical trials (published in 2000 and 2008 in The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology) laid the foundation, indicating MBCT reduces rates of depression relapse by 50% among patients who suffer from recurrent depression. Recent findings published in The Lancet in 2015 revealed that combining a tapering off of medication with MBCT is as effective as an ongoing maintenance dosage of medication. Further studies have found that MBCT is a potentially effective intervention for mood and anxiety disorders.

Should I Choose MBSR or MBCT?

According to the Centre for Mindfulness Studies, mindful awareness is the foundation of MBSR and MBCT. In both 8-week programs, participants are guided through a series of practices that encourage paying attention to experiences, thoughts, emotions, and sensations in the body. Explore the differences between MBSR and MBCT before you decide which program to follow.

The Key Differences Between MBSR and MBCT

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction:

  • Designed for everyone (particularly people who deal with chronic stress)
  • Explores how mindfulness can help with stress, and the stress of living with a chronic illness
  • Uses mindfulness practices to highlight different ways to respond to suffering
  • Works to change your relationship to suffering by encouraging you to turn toward pain
  • Emphasizes being present with what is 
  • Recommended for general psychological health and stress management and as an intervention for symptoms of anxiety

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy: 

  • Designed to prevent depressive relapse
  • Explores how mindfulness can help you stay well while dealing with depression or anxiety
  • Uses mindfulness practices to offer insight on negative mind states associated with depression and anxiety
  • Works to change your relationship to suffering by recognizing patterns in thought and emotion
  • Emphasizes your choice in how to respond to negative mind states
  • Recommended as an adjunctive treatment for unipolar depression and an intervention for symptoms of anxiety

How Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Helps with Anxiety

A skills-based approach, MBCT asks patients to inquire into, familiarize themselves with, and redirect the thought processes that are getting them into trouble (cognitive distortions, or what some people call “negative self-talk,” or “stinkin’ thinkin’”). It takes close attention and stick-to-itiveness to shift these ingrained thought processes. MBCT isn’t about changing or fixing the content of our challenging thoughts, it’s about becoming more intimately and consistently aware of these thoughts and patterns. The awareness itself reduces the grip of persistent and pernicious thought loops and storylines.

Like MBSR, MBCT is an eight-week program consisting of weekly two-hour classes with a mid-course day-long session. It combines guided meditations with group discussions, various kinds of inquiry and reflection, and take-home exercises. “Repetition and reinforcement, coming back to the same places, again and again, are key to the program,” says Zindel Segal, “and hopefully people continue that into daily life beyond the initial MBCT program, in both good times and bad.”

Can Mindfulness Really Help Reduce Anxiety?

A small study conducted at the University of Waterloo suggests that just 10 minutes of mindfulness helps with ruminative thought patterns. In the study, 82 participants who experience anxiety were given a computer task to complete, but were regularly disrupted. They were then split into two groups: one group listened to a guided meditation for 10 minutes, while the other group listened to an audio book for 10 minutes. Participants were then sent back to the computer while the disruptions continued.

The meditators had greater success in staying focused, and, as a result, they performed better on the task. “That was surprising to me,” says lead researcher and psychology PhD candidate Mengran Xu. “Mindfulness meditation promoted a switch of attention from their internal thoughts to the external environment. It helped them focus on what’s happening right now, in the moment, and not to get trapped in their worries.”

This study adds to the growing body of evidence that mindfulness could be a powerful ally for people who struggle with ruminating thoughts and internal focus common with anxiety and depression. But, Xu adds, just why it helps is still unknown. “If we know how, we can make it more effective.”

He wants to find out. Xu and colleagues have already finished one forthcoming study where participants were instructed in mindfulness meditation, muscle relaxation, or listened to an audio book. Xu says his team wants to see “how each intervention would affect people’s scope of attention, cognition, and problem solving in a hypothetical stressful situation. The aim is to examine if mindfulness practice expands people’s perspective.

“Sometimes [stress] is inevitable, but it depends on how broad your perspective is. Both mindfulness meditation, and relaxation can help broaden how people think about things.”

Keywords; anxiety, depression, mindfulness