There is currently a lot of research being done in the field of mindfulness as it relates to psychology. Specifically, a new brand of therapy called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy or MBCT has been increasing in popularity. It combines the effects of the well-researched and empirically supported field of cognitive psychology with this concept of mindfulness. Early research has supported this combination saying that it can be more effective than pure cognitive therapy.
MBCT has two components to it: mindfulness and cognitive therapy. The mindfulness element typically includes some mindful meditation exercises along with other mindfulness principles. These principles will focus on being present in the moment and being aware of one’s own body. The cognitive therapy aspect of MBCT refers to working to identify negative thinking styles and changing those patterns of thinking.
Research has shown that MBCT helps treat depression. A study of depressed patients found that MBCT was specifically helpful in patients who have experienced more than three depressive episodes in the past (Teasdale, 2000). In a different review of available research done by Hofmann in 2010 shows that there is a connection between MBCT and improved mood symptoms.
One thing to note is that if you are severely depressed, it may be challenging to begin practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness requires significant concentration, something that can be difficult when experiencing a depressive episode. If this is the case for you, it may be a good idea to focus on the cognitive aspect of therapy before trying to practice mindfulness.
What is Mindfulness?
You have probably heard the word mindfulness popping up a lot recently. Mindfulness is more than just a buzzword – it is one of the hottest areas of psychological research today. Most simply, mindfulness is the practice of being present in one’s body as well as in the moment. In terms of being present in one’s body, this refers to being aware of the many different functions your body performs in any given moment. For example, right now your body may be breathing, sitting in a specific position, smelling things, hearing things, etc. Through the practice of mindfulness, one strives to become aware of all of the things his or her body is doing. Similarly, mindfulness is focused on the present moment, meaning: where you are, who you are with, what surrounds you, etc. When practicing mindfulness, it is important to recognize that you will have many different thoughts running through your mind. The secret is to accept those thoughts as normal and try to refocus your mind on being present in the moment.
How does mindfulness help depressed patients?
There are many theories as to how mindfulness helps depressed patients. A recent study by Freudenthaler (2017) found that mindfulness helps to explain part of the equation. Freudenthaler found that one of the critical components of mindfulness that helps depressed patients is improved emotion regulation, or the ability to control one’s emotions. Typically, it is difficult to identify the physical symptoms of depression when they are happening. Through mindfulness, one can become more aware of one’s normal bodily function. As a result, it becomes much easier to identify when our body feels different, and we are experiencing symptoms of depression. By practicing mindfulness, a person can learn to better cope with stress and become more present in the moment.
Mindfulness can also help depressed individuals shift their focus on a vague feeling of negativity to a more present-focused mentality. Frequently, depressed people have broad negative thoughts running through their heads such as “Everything is going wrong” or “I am a failure.” These types of statements tend to reinforce the depression as they are not easily disproven. By practicing MBCT, one can begin to focus on what is happening in the present. This allows the individual to stop thinking in broad and unhelpful ways, and instead start to think in a more present-focused and specific way.
I have depression or dysthymia; how do I treat it?
There are multiple ways to treat depression or dysthymia. The first consideration is whether you would like to seek medication or talk therapy. A more conservative approach would be to try therapy first and if that doesn’t work, to find a psychiatrist to discuss medication. Most research shows that the most effective mode of treatment for depression or dysthymia is a combination of medication and talk therapy. Here is a video that explores the decision between medicine and therapy.
Alternative treatments, such as mindfulness, can also be helpful in conjunction with therapy/medication. Mindful meditation can be a great way to become present and aware in the moment and process one’s own emotions. Here are some apps that focus on mindful meditation and other useful tips.
Treatment considerations may be different for depression and dysthymia depending on your presenting symptoms. If it is a more intense depressive episode, therapy may focus on getting you out of bed and doing activities. If it is a longer less severe depression, treatment may focus on cognitive or big picture factors to your depression.
Why do you keep saying “practice” mindfulness?
That is because mindfulness is not something that is easy to master. It is important to recognize that you will never be completely mindful. Instead, we can always be working towards a more mindful life. Recognizing that mindfulness is a process and not an end goal will go a long way toward making it a life practice. One of the critical tenets of mindfulness is to approach it without judgment of oneself. If you can recognize that mindfulness is a practice and a way to approach the world, you will be much more successful in applying it in stressful or depressing situations.
Mindfulness is one of the most exciting and promising areas of research in psychology today. Mindfulness focuses on being present in the moment and being aware of your experience and surroundings. There is a growing amount of research that shows that mindfulness can be very helpful in treating depression when used in conjunction with cognitive therapy. Mindfulness helps with depression by activating specific emotion regulation skills. Additionally, mindfulness can help patients shift their focus from a broad negativistic style of thinking to a more specific and present-focused style. Keep in mind that mindfulness is not a goal but a practice, and the more time you spend working on it, the better you will become.
Disclaimer: The information on this website is intended to be used for informational purposes only. This blog should not be used for therapy purposes and does not constitute or establish a doctor/patient relationship. This website offers information and links to helpful resources, however, is not intended to be considered treatment.
Freudenthaler, L., Turba, J.D. & Tran, U.S. (2017). Emotion Regulation Mediates the Associations of Mindfulness on Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety in the General Population. Mindfulness, 8: 1339.
Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 78(2), 169-83.
Teasdale, J.D., Segal, Z.V., Williams, J.M.G, Ridgeway, V.A., Soulsby, J.M., Lau, M.A. (2000) Prevention of Relapse/Recurrence in Major Depression by Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. Journal of Counseling and Clinical Psychology, 68 (4), 615-623.
Benjamin Hamburger, Psy.D.
Licensed clinical psychologist in New York and California.
Provides individual, group and couples psychotherapy for children (and their parents), adolescents, and adults.
Specializes in working with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety and ADHD.