New research shows that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy can help promote self-kindness in people with a history of depression.
The research, led by the University of Exeter with collaboration from the universities of Oxford and Magdeburg, indicated that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy might break the cycle of highly critical thoughts and feelings of worthlessness, which often leads to depression relapses.
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy combines two approaches: mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy. It encourages awareness of thoughts and feelings, to be kinder to yourself and to respond more wisely to difficulties and stress. Practising this method can reduce the likelihood of depressive episodes in the future.
Previous research highlighted individuals with recurrent depression benefit from mindfulness-based cognitive therapy when they learn to become more compassionate towards themselves.
The authors believed that their study helps to better understand how mindfulness-based cognitive therapy prevents relapse.
What is mindfulness-based cognitive therapy?
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy aims to break negative thought patterns. It combines techniques such as meditation, breathing exercises and stretching with elements from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
It focuses on being more present in the moment and being kinder to yourself. By practising the skill of deliberately paying attention to what happens in the mind and body, it brings familiarity to patterns and habits. By bringing awareness to warning signs early, before stress, depression, or anxiety appears, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy encourages a more positive approach to dealing with overwhelming feelings.
Improving self-kindness in people with depression
The researchers studied 50 people who were in remission from depression and at risk for depressive relapse. The group was split in half, with one group being tested before and after an eight-week mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and compared with an untreated control sample of 25 people with recurrent depression.
Dr Hans Kirschner, of the University of Magdeburg, the first author of the study, said: “It’s encouraging to see that an evidence-based treatment like MBCT can help individuals with recurrent depression to move to a kinder self-view and a related body state of safety. We hope that this can strengthen individuals’ resilience and prevent a depressive relapse. Though, this idea must be tested formally in future research.”
In contrast, the untreated control group demonstrated the body responses indicative of a more adverse response to self-compassion meditation when they engaged in it a second time.
Additionally, the study has built on the team’s previous research that found that a brief self-compassion exercise can temporarily activate a pattern of self-kindness and feeling safe in healthy individuals. The researchers explored this effect in people with depression and found that the self-compassion exercise alone was not sufficient to bring about the feeling of safety, but mindfulness-based cognitive therapy effectively helped.
Professor Anke Karl, from the University of Exeter, lead author of the study, said: “This study extends our previous research that found that a brief self-compassion exercise can temporarily activate a pattern of self-kindness and feeling safe in healthy individuals, but in individuals with recurrent depression this is unlikely to happen without going through an effective psychological therapy that we know addresses vulnerability to relapse.”