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Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)

The word “mindfulness” is commonly heard in society today but what does that actually mean? Could it enhance your life in any way?

What is Mindfulness?
Simply put, it is the ability to become aware of what is going on inside the body and mind as well as in the external world in the present moment without casting any judgment on your experiences. It is the process by which we cultivate the skill to notice thoughts as they arise and learn to choose how we are going to respond to them rather than reacting automatically. Mindfulness gives us a chance to catch unhelpful thoughts before they propel us into a downward spiral of low mood, anxiety and self-criticism.

Why don’t we do this naturally?
The natural, default position of the mind is to go over and over what has happened to us (in our lives, last week, 5 minutes ago) and to worry about what might happen to us in the future... The mind constantly judges ourselves, others and the environment in a bid to work out what could be a potential threat. Us humans do this without having to try, it is the mind’s way of ensuring we survive in a world laden with potential threat. The mind does it all the time. This part of our brain is largely unchanged from when we were cavemen and women, when there really was life - jeopardizing threat at every turn (starvation, predators, weather patterns). In order to keep us safe, our minds easily remember negative events that have occurred in the past and then imagine, plan and predict what might happen in the future.

Why is this a problem?
It is not entirely a problem, it has its uses in keeping us safe when physically threatened, but, if the mind dominates every conscious moment we can easily end up living in the miserable past or worrying future. This default position, if we allow it to dominate, is a significant component in the development and maintenance of emotional difficulties such as stress, low mood, anxiety and generally feeling bad about ourselves. Furthermore, if we are suffering with any long term physical condition that impacts on our ability to do what is important to us, our minds can get busy again interfering with how we cope and how we see ourselves.

What are some of the signs that our minds have taken over?

  • Living on auto-pilot, going through the motions but not being really present
  • Spending our lives rushing around trying to achieve everything
  • Comparing ourselves with others and finding ourselves lacking
  • Comparing ourselves to where we think we should be in life and finding ourselves lacking
  • Predicting the worst outcome of any and every situation
  • Going over and over in our heads what has happened, what might happen and what it all means
  • Endlessly criticising ourselves
  • Finding ourselves in the same predicament time and again
  • Trying to do anything we can to avoid unpleasant thoughts, emotions and physical feelings
  • Having an “all or nothing” belief about ourselves and how we are in the world
  • Making assumptions about what other people are thinking
  • “Making mountains out of molehills” as they say!
  • Focusing on the negatives - ignoring and discounting anything positive

What are the benefits of Mindfulness?
There has been increasing research into mindfulness in recent times and this research has shown that regular mindfulness practice can impact the following areas:

  • Increase levels of happiness and well-being
  • Decrease anxiety
  • Decrease depression
  • Decrease stress
  • Decrease irritability
  • Improve memory
  • Decrease exhaustion
  • Increase mental and physical stamina
  • Decrease the chances of emotional distress
  • Decrease the emotional reaction to pain
  • Increase concentration
  • Improve quality of life
  • Decrease addictive and self-destructive behaviours

The research projects have shown that Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is at least as good as medication or counselling for the treatment of those diagnosed with recurrent depression. On the back of this research, MBCT is now one of the preferred treatments for depression as advised by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence. MBCT has also been clinically proven to help those who are struggling with the constant demands of our modern lives. If you want to know more about the research and its findings have a look at The Finding Peace in a Frantic World website as a starting place.

Some important things to understand about Mindfulness in this context…

  • When we practice mindfulness in this way the desired effect is not relaxation! This might seem odd to you, and rather disappointing, as often we think/hope this is exactly what it is about. You may experience relaxation as a side effect of mindfulness but it is not the primary objective – the primary objective is to practise observing our minds doing their job (eg. making sense of the past, remembering the bad stuff and then predicting the future) without judgment. The hope is that once we start to observe our mind we may begin to develop a different relationship with it...
  • Mindfulness is a central practice in Buddhism but with regards MBCT, it has no religious function.
  • In this context, mindfulness is not about endeavouring to “clear or still the mind”. Mindfulness is about learning to watch the mind at work.
  • Mindfulness is not about, nor is it able, to make the “bad thoughts, horrible emotions, pain” go away. It aims to develop a different relationship with them that, hopefully, promotes acceptance of the discomfort and may lead us to a more satisfying life.
  • You don’t have to sit cross legged on the floor, you can but you don’t have to! Mindfulness can be practiced anywhere in any position!
  • It can seem hard to find the time in the first instance but with persistence, patience and commitment we can discover the full benefit.
  • Sometimes it is really hard, sometimes it’s great, sometimes it doesn’t go as we hope, sometimes if feels easier - all are acceptable, there is no success or failure, right or wrong.

mindfulness gif animation
The mind doing its thing
Hokusai Says read by Mark Williams