Benefits of mindfulness therapy

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Erban
Updated January 5, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

If you find that you tend to dwell on the past or worry about the future, you're not alone. This is something most people experience, but there's a practice called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) that has helped many individuals counter this tendency and appreciate the present moment. Mindfulness training through mindfulness-based cognitive therapy may help you concentrate on the present and develop an awareness of your emotional health and surroundings. Discover the benefits of mindfulness-based interventions, such as mindfulness based stress reduction and mindfulness-based relapse prevention, and how engaging in these practices can positively impact your physical and mental well-being.

What is mindfulness-based therapy (or simply mindfulness therapy)?

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How do I make time for mindfulness therapy?

History of mindfulness-based therapy

Mindfulness is a state of being in which you are focused on the here and now. You tend to notice your present thoughts and more fully experience the sensations of your body. This way of experiencing life can bring many benefits—physically, mentally, and emotionally.

The beginnings of a movement: Jon Kabat-Zinn

Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer in mindfulness, combined ideas from Buddhism (which he had studied intensely) and science (which was his chosen profession) to develop a new discipline called mindfulness-based stress reduction. He began his practice working with people who lived with significant pain and later worked with those who needed to reduce their stress. Kabat-Zinn's seminal 1994 book, Wherever You Go, There You Are, has become a guidebook in beginning mindfulness meditation. In his book, Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness in a manner that encompasses the central meaning of this peaceful practice of mindfulness-based stress reduction.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the quality of consciousness or awareness that arises when you intentionally attend to the present moment in a nonjudgmental and accepting way. Incorporating mindfulness can be especially beneficial in clinical psychology to address issues such as borderline personality disorder and chronic pain. Mindfulness interventions, often practiced in a group setting, may include relaxation training to alleviate physical pain and enhance emotional awareness.

Mindfulness as a depression treatment: Segal, Williams, and Teasdale

In the early 1990s, scientists Zindel Segal, Mark Williams, and John Teasdale were looking for a way to prevent relapses of depression in patients who had a pattern of improved symptoms and then relapse. They drew on the work of Dr. Kabat-Zinn and the existing practice of cognitive behavioral therapy to create mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) proved to be extremely effective for preventing depression relapses but also had success in treating acute symptoms of depression and other mental health disorders.

As this promising research into mindfulness-based therapy has developed, meditation programs have been shown to reduce psychological stress in randomized controlled trials and clinical trials. These studies support the learning of mindfulness-based practices (like breathing exercises) to help with stress management, interpersonal effectiveness, cognitive restructuring, and more. Today, professional medical advice often incorporates mindfulness practices into cognitive therapy, talk therapy, and daily life. 

How mindfulness-based therapy works

In mindfulness therapy, you will likely be directed through practices that work to reduce your stress by paying attention to your breath, thoughts, sounds, bodily sensations, and everyday motions. At first, your mental health professional will likely guide you through mindfulness exercises that are very basic. As mindfulness meditation becomes more familiar to you, your therapist may take you beyond what seems mundane to you and on to your negative and positive thoughts and sensations. This progression may help you to get the most from the therapy and enjoy greater success. The following is an overview of some techniques you may learn in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT):

Awareness of thoughts

A part of the psychology of mindfulness therapy is being aware of the thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations that come to you in the present moment. Your therapist may instruct you to talk about your thoughts concerning something simple, such as what your hands feel like. With time, your therapist may ask you to become aware of your innermost sensations and cognitive thoughts that are contributing to your mental state, such as anxious or depressed thoughts. This awareness of the present through mindfulness therapy, which can be considered a type of meditation, can take time to develop. You may be able to practice stress reduction on your own, but mental health professionals can be an effective resource for guiding you through mindfulness therapy. 

Awareness of sensations

As your mindfulness therapist continues with mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) treatment, they may direct your attention to your physical sensations. If the subject is your hands, they might ask you to notice if they feel warm or cold, achy, tense, etc. This may make it possible for you to truly experience your feelings without the input of your unhelpful thoughts.

Having the right mindset

As you are sensing the present moment during mindfulness therapy, your therapist may instruct you to notice thoughts or feelings you are experiencing. Instead of judging your thoughts and feelings, you will likely be instructed to simply be aware of them. They may also teach you decentering techniques that allow you to disengage from your thoughts and feelings while you practice be present. 

Guided imagery

Another form of mindfulness therapy practices is guided imagery—the act of  describing a scene or journey in vivid detail and thinking about it or noticing your sensations. Many mindfulness therapists use guided imagery to help ground you in the here and now for mindfulness-based stress reduction. If you want to practice this on your own, you may find guided imagery or audio files online for purchase or at your local library. 

Decision-making

In mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, you may also learn strategies that help you improve your decision-making skills. You may find that you can change the way you think based on the information you gain through your mindfulness therapy practice. Once you change your thoughts, your responses and emotions may also change.

The science behind mindfulness therapy

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Mindfulness therapy is a well-established, proven way to improve symptoms of depression, anxiety, and mental illnesses of many different types. This type of cognitive therapy is based on scientific research about the brain and how it functions.

Insula: The present-moment pathway

The insula is a part of the brain that relays information about the present moment. Thus, it is called the present-moment pathway. When you practice mindfulness therapy, this portion of your brain lights up and becomes stronger. You can become more attuned to what is happening right here and right now and less focused on distracting thoughts of the past or future.

Executive command center

The executive command center is the part of your brain where reasoning and decision-making take place. If you are depressed or anxious, the executive command center may be working over time to find a way out of the crisis. If you are feeling sad or fearful, this part of your brain will likely be reasoning out why and coming up with solutions. When your executive command center is firing, your present-moment pathway tends to become weaker.

Finding balance

When you incorporate mindfulness through mindfulness therapy, it may help you balance your insula and executive command center so that both are adequately strong, without either overwhelming the other. Once these two very different parts of your brain are in balance, you may receive adequate input from both so that you can choose the best responses to your challenges. This therapy may teach you to develop the capacity to choose your thoughts and change your feelings.

Types of mindfulness therapy

One of the goals of mindfulness therapy is to create new patterns of thinking and experiencing that can improve your responses to stress and mental health.  Mindfulness therapy has developed over the last 20 years with several methods making their way into the therapeutic sphere. Many of these therapies are done one on one in active control conditions with a therapist, but group therapy is often available too. These types of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy include:

Mindfulness-based stress reduction: An eight-week course developed by Kabat-Zinn to teach people how to reduce stress through mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy: Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) can be defined as a therapeutic approach used for major depressive disorder (MDD) that combines the experience of mindfulness with the talk therapy of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Mindfulness-integrated cognitive behavioral therapy: An 8- to 12-session course of cognitive therapy treatment that combines mindfulness with CBT in a four-stage treatment plan including the personal, exposure, interpersonal, and empathic stages. It is typically used for both chronic and acute disorders.

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT): A behavior therapy that focuses on being mindful of negative thoughts and emotions without trying to eliminate or avoid them.

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): A therapeutic modality that includes mindfulness, dialectical, and cognitive behavioral techniques. It began as a treatment for personality disorders but is now also used for depression, anxiety, chronic pain, and other disorders.

How to get started with mindfulness therapy

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How do I make time for mindfulness therapy?

Mindfulness therapy may help you develop a compassionate and accepting relationship with your thoughts and feelings through mindfulness meditation and other strategies. You can search online for a local therapist with experience in mindfulness therapy. You can also receive mindfulness and cognitive therapy online in the comfort of your own home through an online therapy platform, such as BetterHelp. Research has shown online mindfulness-based cognitive therapy to improve depression and anxiety symptoms along with quality of life in general.

Takeaway

If you’re experiencing anxiety or intrusive thoughts, you don’t have to face them alone. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a therapist with experience and training in mindfulness therapy. All you need is an internet connection and a device that allows you to text, talk, or do videoconferencing. Take the first step toward greater peace of mind and reach out to BetterHelp today. 

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