What is Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy?

This article will discuss a therapeutic approach to the treatment of alcohol and substance use disorder known as Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCBT). We’ll offer a definition of MBCBT, a brief overview of how it works, and describe the benefits people in addiction recovery gain from MBCBT.

Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy: A Definition

Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy is exactly what the name implies: a form of psychotherapy that combines cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with mindfulness techniques such as deep breathing and meditation.

To read our article about CBT, click here.

Here’s a quick summary, in case don’t want to read that entire piece: CBT focuses on identifying and understanding the connection between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. A CBT-trained therapist will work with a person in addiction recovery to help them identify patterns of thought and emotion that lead to behaviors associated with addiction. Next, they teach them to then replace the habits of addiction with the positive habits of recovery. This process improves their overall well-being and increases their chances of sustained sobriety.

Mindfulness is a perfect companion to CBT. Mindfulness techniques pair particularly well with the initial steps of CBT, which involve identifying and understanding patterns of thought that have been operational for so long they’re automatic.

World-renowned mindfulness practitioner and advocate Thich Nhat Hanh defines mindfulness as “…our ability to be aware of what is going on both inside us and around us. It is the continuous awareness of our bodies, emotions, and thoughts.”

That’s what makes CBT and mindfulness a potent combination. They share a common goal: identifying what’s happening inside the mind and body in the moment. A person in active addiction may not know they can identify – and learn to let go of – the patterns of thought that lead to addictive behavior. The trick to mindfulness in addiction treatment lies in allowing life-interrupting patterns of thought to rise and fade without judging them and without acting on them. A CBT therapist teaches a person in recovery to replace negative patterns of thought with life-affirming patterns of thought that support sobriety.

Benefits of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy

It takes practice, but research shows that mindfulness + CBT works. That’s why MBCT is a common therapeutic approach used in evidence-based treatment plans for alcohol and substance use disorder.

The benefits of MBCBT include:

  • Restructuring the reward circuit in the brain. MBCBT helps reduce addictive behavior by teaching the brain to reestablish the value of natural rewards over the value of alcohol- or drug-related rewards.
  • Improved cognition and executive function. MBCBT helps restore rational decision-making and impulse control, processes that become impaired with long-term exposure to alcohol and substances of misuse. The ability to productively assess risk and reward – with a fully functioning executive control network – is an important part of maintaining abstinence and making choices that support recovery.
  • Improved stress tolerance. Physical and emotional stress can lead to patterns of thought and behavior that precipitate relapse. MBCBT can reduce stress reactivity and decrease time to stress recovery. That means it helps people in treatment manage the magnitude and intensity of their responses to stressful stimuli and helps them return to a non-stressed state when stimuli do provoke a stress response. Both these outcomes decrease the likelihood of relapse
  • Reduced Cravings. Research shows that MBCBT can reduce both subjective cravings for drugs and alcohol and the physical symptoms of drug and alcohol craving. MBCBT helps people in recovery separate the connections between depressed mood or heightened anxiety and the desire to seek and use drugs. Mental health professionals call this decoupling. When mood and drug seeking are decoupled with MBCBT, the likelihood of relapse decreases.
  • Improved self-efficacy and wellbeing. MBCBT strengthens fundamental levels of acceptance, non-judgment, and self-awareness that allow an individual in recovery to manage their psychological and emotional states. The mindfulness component helps people in recovery process the extremes of thought and emotions, while the cognitive component helps them make productive behavioral choices. In combination, these components help people in recovery find balance, which increases their sense of wellness and life satisfaction.

A key element of treatment and recovery is teaching – or restoring – skills that encourage self-reflection and the ability to recognize the difference between healthy, life-affirming patterns of thought and the maladaptive patterns of thought associated with addiction. MBCBT, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and other forms of one-on-one therapy teach these essential skills – but they’re not the entire picture. The latest evidence shows that a holistic, integrated treatment program that addresses the whole person – not just the symptoms of addiction – is the most effective way to help people in recovery achieve sustained sobriety.

How to Find a Quality Treatment Center

If you’re seeking addiction treatment for yourself or a loved one, it’s important to find a treatment center that offers customized, integrated treatment plans that address the biological, psychological, emotional, and social needs of the person in need of treatment. Highly regarded treatment programs will include most of the following therapeutic modalities and techniques:

  • Individual therapy (as discussed in this article)
  • Group therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Community support
  • Experiential therapies
  • Prescription medication (if indicated)

The ideal addiction rehab center will work directly with you to create an individualized plan of action that works to your strengths and values the insight and wisdom you or your loved one brings to the recovery experience. The best way to find an appropriate treatment center is through a referral from a mental health professional. However, you should always spend time learning as much about any rehab or treatment center you consider. Get online and look at their website. Call and speak to the treatment center staff. Visit and see the place in person if you can. Committing to treatment can be a life-changing choice – and you can work to ensure you find a program that gives you or your loved one the best possible chance at a successful recovery.