Can Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Reduce Relapse in Depression?

April 16, 2024

Depression is a recurrent disease that affects millions of people worldwide. It is characterized by feelings of sadness, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, feelings of tiredness, and poor concentration. Depression can be long-lasting or recurrent, substantially impairing an individual’s ability to function at work or school or cope with daily life. At its most severe, depression can lead to suicide.

A growing body of research suggests that Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) may offer a promising approach to reducing the risk of relapse in people with recurrent depression. This article will delve into this topic, providing evidence from various studies and trials. It will also discuss the underlying mechanisms of MBCT, its effectiveness, and its place in the treatment of depression.

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The Concept of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, or MBCT, is a psychological therapy that combines cognitive behavioural techniques with mindfulness strategies. It was developed to help people who suffer from repeated bouts of depression, teaching them skills to combat depressive thinking that may lead to relapse.

According to Pubmed, a well-respected database of scholarly articles and studies, MBCT involves teaching participants mindfulness exercises designed to focus attention on present moment experiences. These practices include breathing meditation, body scan exercises, and gentle yoga movements.

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The main goal of MBCT is to interrupt automatic processes, often triggered by depressive thinking that can lead to a depressive relapse. It encourages patients to focus less on reacting to intrusive thoughts and more on accepting and observing them without judgment. This change in perspective can help disrupt the cycle of depression, changing the patient’s relationship with their thoughts and feelings.

Evidence from Clinical Trials

In the realm of scientific research, the gold-standard study design is the randomised controlled trial. These trials involve randomly assigning participants into different groups, such as a treatment group that receives the therapy being studied and a control group that does not.

According to Google Scholar, an extensive database of peer-reviewed research, numerous randomised controlled trials have been conducted on the effectiveness of MBCT in preventing depressive relapse. Many of these trials have shown promising results.

A study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that MBCT reduced relapse rates by 43% among patients who had suffered three or more prior episodes of depression. Another trial published in The Lancet concluded that MBCT was as effective as antidepressants in preventing depression relapse, and more effective in enhancing quality of life.

Although these results are promising, it’s important to note that more research is needed. Not all studies have found MBCT to be effective, and the quality of the evidence varies. However, the potential of MBCT to serve as an effective treatment option for recurrent depression is clear.

Underlying Mechanisms of MBCT

How does MBCT work to prevent depressive relapse? The answer lies in the way it changes people’s cognitive and emotional reactivity, two factors that play a key role in the recurrence of depression.

One of the key mechanisms of MBCT is its ability to increase mindfulness, the ability to pay attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and acceptance. According to a study published in the journal Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, increased mindfulness can lead to a decrease in cognitive reactivity, or the tendency to respond to negative mood states with patterns of thinking that can trigger a depressive episode.

In addition, MBCT can also reduce emotional reactivity. A study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that MBCT led to reductions in emotional reactivity among patients with a history of depression, reducing their vulnerability to future depressive episodes.

The Role of MBCT in Depression Treatment

Given the evidence, where does MBCT fit in the treatment of depression? According to the American Psychological Association, MBCT should be considered a treatment option for patients in remission from recurrent depression, particularly those with a history of early childhood trauma or those who are not interested in long-term antidepressant treatment.

However, MBCT is not recommended as a first-line treatment for acute depression. Traditional treatments, such as cognitive behavioural therapy and antidepressants, continue to be the first choice for treating acute episodes of depression. However, for individuals who have experienced multiple episodes of depression, MBCT can be a valuable tool for preventing relapse.

In conclusion, while more research is needed, MBCT offers a promising approach for reducing the risk of relapse in recurrent depression. It provides a potentially effective strategy for managing a condition that affects millions of people around the world. Through ongoing studies and clinical trials, researchers are continuing to explore this therapy’s potential and to expand our understanding of its role in depression treatment.


The evidence supporting the use of MBCT in reducing the risk of depressive relapse is growing. While it may not be the first-line treatment for acute depression, it offers another tool in the mental health toolbox, particularly for those with recurrent depression. With its emphasis on mindfulness and cognitive strategies, MBCT offers a different approach to traditional depression therapies. As more research continues to illuminate its effectiveness, it’s potential as a therapeutic intervention for recurrent depression will continue to unfold.

MBCT and Conventional Antidepressant Medication

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is not proposed as an alternative to conventional treatments for acute episodes of depression. Instead, it is often used as an adjunctive treatment for preventing relapse in recurrent depression. A key question is how MBCT compares to antidepressant medication, which is the standard treatment for preventing depressive relapse.

A meta-analysis published in JAMA Psychiatry compared MBCT to maintenance antidepressant medication in terms of preventing depressive relapse. The results of this meta-analysis showed that individuals who received MBCT had a similar risk of relapse over 60 weeks compared to those who continued taking their antidepressant medication. This suggests that MBCT may be an equivalent alternative to long-term antidepressant use for relapse prevention in recurrent depression.

Moreover, MBCT has been found to be more effective than antidepressant medication in improving quality of life. A study published in The Lancet reported that participants in the MBCT group had higher scores on measures of quality of life, including physical health, psychological health, and social relationships, compared to those in the antidepressant group.

In light of these findings, MBCT can be considered not just as a viable adjunctive treatment option, but also as a potential alternative to long-term antidepressant medication for some patients with recurrent depression.

Tailoring MBCT to Individual Needs

One of the strengths of MBCT is its potential for individual tailoring. Zindel Segal, one of the developers of MBCT, has argued for the importance of personalizing mindfulness interventions to the needs of the individual. This includes taking into account factors such as a patient’s history of recurrent depression, their residual symptoms, and their personal preferences.

Research supports the idea that tailored MBCT can be more effective. A study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found that personalized mindfulness meditation as part of MBCT led to a greater reduction in depressive symptoms and improved relapse prevention compared to a standard MBCT program.

The method of delivery can also be tailored to the individual. The advent of digital technology has made it possible to provide MBCT through online platforms, which can increase accessibility for those who may not be able to attend in-person sessions. A study published in Behaviour Research and Therapy found that an 8-week MBCT program delivered via the internet was effective in reducing depressive relapse.

In conclusion, tailoring MBCT to the individual needs of the patient can enhance its effectiveness and potentially increase its acceptability and adherence.


The use of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) in preventing relapse in recurrent depression shows much promise. It complements conventional treatments and, for some, might be an alternative to long-term use of antidepressant medication. The focus on present moment experiences as well as cognitive strategies makes MBCT unique and potentially very helpful to those with recurrent depression.

Moreover, the ability to tailor MBCT to individual needs enhances its potential. It allows for personalization based on patient history, residual symptoms, and personal preferences. This can increase not only its effectiveness but also its acceptability and adherence.

While more research is needed, particularly large-scale, high-quality randomized controlled trials, the growing body of evidence suggests that MBCT is a valuable tool in the mental health toolbox for managing recurrent depression. The future of MBCT looks promising, and its role in depression treatment is expected to become more and more significant.