Are you feeling more anxious during the pandemic? Are negative thoughts clawing their way into your everyday way of thinking? Are they impacting your well-being and family life?
In the time of COVID-19, it’s only natural for us to feel a bit more on edge, anxious or depressed. So much of our “normal life” has been turned on its head and as a result, you may be in a constant loop of negative feelings and emotions.
Mental health is an important part of overall health and well-being. Learning how to cope with our current situation in a healthy way can help you, your family and your community.
If you are struggling, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, also known as MBCT, may help. MBCT and other meditative practices have been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, lower stress and cortisol levels, and are beneficial for all ages.
What exactly is MBCT?
The best way to answer this is to start with defining CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy. This common form of talk therapy has been around since the 1950s and focuses on the relationship between our thoughts, feelings and behaviors, with the ultimate goal of changing our behaviors. The principle is that if you want to change the way you feel, you have to change the way you think.
Then in the 1990s, mindfulness began to be included with cognitive therapy. Mindfulness is the practice of being fully aware of our body, mind and feelings in the present moment. Working together, MBCT builds upon cognitive therapy and uses traditional practices typically associated with spiritual traditions to address perceptions and beliefs.
“CBT has great value and has helped many people, but doesn’t work for everyone in all situations,” said Scott Bartlett, LCSW, Case Management Director at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital. “Clients sometimes felt they were being told, ‘You’re wrong to think this way,’ or ‘It’s all in your head,’ and felt criticized, so the therapy would not work after this. Some clients need another approach to enhance their cognitive process to be more effective.”
The creator of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Marsha Linehan, PhD, integrated Buddhist principles into cognitive behavior therapy and overcame this obstacle. Dr. Linehan has had great success, and her approach is now widely practiced and the most well-known method integrating mindfulness and CBT.
Who can benefit from MBCT?
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is most commonly used to treat chronic depression, but it is for anyone seeking relief for a wide-range of overwhelming negative emotions and concerns.
“The goal is to relieve symptoms and change your thought process,” Bartlett said.
How does MBCT work?
The combination of mindfulness and cognitive therapy is what makes MBCT so effective.
Mindfulness gives you the ability to step back from your own negative beliefs and emotions. It includes breathing and meditation exercises.
“In spiritual practices, you imagine climbing out of the river and up on the riverbank to observe your thoughts as they float by,” Bartlett said. “Any image that encourages the client to see that they are not their own thoughts and they are not their feelings can help them step back to be an observer.”
The second tool, cognitive behavioral therapy, involves challenging and questioning rather than accepting all your thoughts and beliefs to be 100% true. It teaches you to change your perceptions, and in turn, change how you feel in a healthy way.
What can I expect during MBCT?
MBCT is typically an 8-week group therapy program led by a licensed therapist. During the sessions you’ll learn some meditation and breathing techniques and how to practice a mindful attitude during daily activities when there are no sessions, such as when you’re brushing your teeth and interacting with others.
Initially, you may be asked to undergo a series of exercises aimed at focusing on the here and now, not worrying about the future or reliving the past. It can be as simple as staring at the flame of a candle or holding the palms of your hands close to one another and noticing the sensations.
“You can expect that you will notice very quickly how active your mind is, and how it fights to keep hovering over the past or the future (wondering what you’re going to have for dinner, remembering an encounter you had with someone two hours ago),” Bartlett said. “Expect that you will need time to learn, and that this will require patience and persistence. Also expect you will be asked to challenge and question your assumptions and beliefs."
For the depressed person, MCBT will highlight the prevalence of “ANTs” or Automatic Negative Thoughts. The act of noticing the amount and frequency of these thoughts is the first step to:
- Stepping back and observing them
- Challenging and testing them to show that you don’t have to believe them anymore
- Reducing self-judgment and your judgment of others
What are the benefits of MBCT?
The use of MBCT can have a profound impact on your mindset and well-being by getting you out of your head and more connected with the world around you.
“Many clients report a sense of relief of symptoms,” Bartlett said. “These benefits include a reduction in anxiety, stress, and levels of depression. Both cognitive therapy and mindfulness practices have also shown to improve overall mood and give people a greater ability to handle life’s challenges.”
How can I practice mindfulness at home?
One of the methods used in a number of mindfulness-based practices is the full body scan. This involves sitting or lying on the floor and slowly directing your attention to each part of your body, working your way up from your toes and feet to the top of your head.
“Mentally scanning your body, you bring awareness to every part of your body, and notice sensations, aches, any pain, tingling, temperature, a slight breeze, the feeling of the floor under your back and hips,” Bartlett said.
Integrating mindfulness is possible by taking your usual activities and routines and adding this sense of awareness to them. Mindful walking, mindful breathing, listening to the various sounds around you – even in a quiet room – mindfulness doing the dishes, cleaning, all of these can be done with a sense of focused attention.
“The idea is not to change anything you are doing, other than noticing it,” Bartlett said. “This includes noticing when your mind wanders off the topic and draws you into a thought sequence. This will happen. It happens to everyone. When it does, gently bring yourself back to the present moment, the breath or the body.”
Find a Path Back to Peace of Mind and Body
While mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is typically taught face-to-face by a certified professional, during the pandemic, it is easy to learn and practice mindfulness at home. Bartlett shared the following recommendations to help you find inner peace and ways you can be more present so you can meet the challenges of everyday life—even during the pandemic.
- Mindfulness Apps: Calm, Headspace, Insight Timer
- Book: “The Mindful Way Through Depression,” written by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal and Jon Kabat-Zinn
- Find a Certified Specialist: There are a number of Banner behavioral health specialists* who practice MBCT and other cognitive behavioral therapies. We also offer an Intensive Outpatient Program. To find a behavioral health specialist near you, visit bannerhealth.com.
*Due to social distancing during the pandemic, many insurance companies have shifted to include coverage of virtual, or telehealth, therapy sessions. Contact your insurance company to check what your insurance covers.