The cycle of depression can feel impossible to break when you’re in it — and relapse can seem inevitable. It’s the nature of the disease.
“In depression, the things we go through begin to create neurological changes resulting in a powerless, hopeless, helpless feeling that persist,” said Todd K. Favorite, Ph.D., board-certified clinical psychologist and director of the University Psychological Clinic. The Psychological Clinic recently began offering group-based Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) as treatment for people with depression as well as other mental health conditions. While the chemical and physical aspects of depression and other mental health disorders are far more complex than just feeling down, current research supports a cognitive approach as a way to change patterns of brain functioning and build resilience in people struggling with chronic depression.
Dr. Favorite noted that MBCT is a great mode of therapy to help address depression, especially for people who are susceptible to relapse. The program uses a combination of cognitive therapy and mindfulness to help participants form new, healthier modes of thought. MBCT initiates a cognitive change that helps clients move past events that have the potential to trigger relapse. Participants learn how to view their thoughts without judgment.
Dr. Favorite’s goals for the MBCT program at the Psychological Clinic are twofold – to expand access to Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for clients and to train new clinicians in the method.
What Exactly is MBCT?
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy combines mindfulness techniques and traditional cognitive therapy to treat mood difficulties and emotional stress. But what exactly does that mean? Let’s break it down into two parts:
Mindfulness: Dr. Favorite describes mindfulness as “the intentional focus on thoughts and feelings and sensations, in the moment, in a non-judgemental way.”
Mindfulness, though a relatively new mode of research-based treatment for mental health, has been practiced for thousands of years across cultures and geographies. While sometimes linked to religion, it has been in secular practice for nearly as long. Empirical studies from the past 30 years support mindfulness as an effective means of addressing many aspects of mental wellness, including depression, anxiety, focus and attention and many others.
Cognitive Therapy: Cognitive therapy is based on the idea that our thoughts impact our moods, and chronic, compulsive negative thoughts can lead to episodes of depression. The goal of cognitive therapy is to adjust the negative thoughts so they no longer affect mood in the same way. In a sense, cognitive therapy takes away the “power” of those detrimental thoughts. The therapeutic approach can equip a patient with tools to break the loop — taking the needle off the broken record.
The Psychological Clinic MBCT program combines the strengths of mindfulness and cognitive therapy to help clients make space for non-judgmental thinking and to change the relationship between negative thinking and mood. Participants learn how to recognize negative thoughts that can lead to relapse and move through them before the thoughts can take hold and have a cascading effect.
During the eight-week, group-based MBCT program, participants meet once a week for 1.5 hours. The work done in session is supplemented by daily meditation homework. Throughout the eight weeks, participants build their own personal mindfulness practice and grow more comfortable with daily meditation. It is not necessary to have any prior meditation practice.
Is MBCT Right for Me?
MBCT group can be helpful for preventing relapse in individuals with recurring bouts of depression and mood disorders. Usually participants have already been through some form of individual treatment. Sometimes, however, clients choose MBCT as a standalone in order to build resilience, developing skills for times when they are struggling.
If you are interested in attending MBCT therapy, the first step is a screening designed to ensure the MBCT group at the Psychological Clinic is the right fit for you. Some individuals might need individual therapy before they are ready to attend MBCT group. If MBCT is not the right group for you, the Clinic can offer recommendations for other types of group therapy or therapeutic approaches that might be beneficial.
What is an MBCT Group Like?
The Clinic MBCT groups are small, allowing clinicians to offer individual application, follow up, and attention to each client.
“We think carefully about trying to tailor groups to clients’ individual needs,” said Dr. Favorite. “Also, group is something that I think helps people to realize that their difficult symptoms or struggles are not unique – they are not alone.”
As a center, the Psychological Clinic is invested in a treatment model that includes multiple services acting together for maximum benefit to clients. For example, participants in MBCT have the opportunity to attend other group therapies, like the Self-Compassion Group. Participating in a particular group more than once is also beneficial for some clients.
Group participants are able to share experiences that might be helpful for others. Rather than a top-down structure, knowledge is shared equally by therapist and participants. The therapist is practicing mindfulness techniques right along with the group and the shared experience offers a different type of connection.
The Client’s Commitment
MBCT group is a serious commitment, in both time and discipline. Participants will meet for group once a week for 1.5 hours. Attendance at each weekly session is very important and homework needs to be completed every day. Participation, while not forced, is an important element in participants’ personal growth.
“This will feel unusual,” said Dr. Favorite. “We ask them to bring an open mind.”
When participants bring a sense of curiosity, a willingness to be flexible, and a commitment to themselves — they are rewarded with skills like:
- The ability to recognize shifts in mood
- The ability to tolerate difficult thoughts and feelings
- The ability to balance out difficult thoughts and feelings
- The understanding that thoughts are not facts
- A personal meditation practice
- Awareness of breath and body
The skills each participant learns are meant to translate into making daily life more manageable. For example, Dr. Favorite said, one participant in the program was able to take their breathing skills to work in a crowded lab. If they became overwhelmed or stressed, a simple breathing exercise allowed them to come back to the task at hand with a renewed mindset — instead of spiraling into negative thought and leaving work for the day.
MBCT is about equipping participants with the ability to regulate one’s own thoughts and moods and to put new skills into practice in the way they are most useful to each client. MBCT helps flip the script in a way, empowering participants, helping them step into a well-fortified position and giving them the tools and the knowledge to help themselves at any stage of life.
Ready to Take the Next Step?
Do you think MBCT is the right group for you? If you are ready to commit to building your skills and managing your depression, call (734) 764-3471 to schedule a screening.
Visit mari.umich.edu/psych-clinic/ to find more information on all of our services.