Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy helps prevent relapse in people with depression

The Bottom Line

  • Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) involves exercises and techniques aimed at stopping negative thinking patterns that can lead to depression.

  • MBCT helps to prevent relapses among people with recurring depression.

  • Online mindfulness-based programs are an alternative to in-person therapy and may also help ease depression.

Updated Dec 2016

Anyone familiar with depression knows that even after diagnosis, treatment and recovery, there is a strong likelihood of a relapse or recurrence (1). In other words, when it comes to depression you may have won the battle but not necessarily the war. That’s because people who have suffered previous episodes of depression are believed to be more prone to negative thought patterns and to be more influenced by them (2). 

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, or MBCT, was developed in response to the need for new ways to cope with the aftermath of depression that didn’t rely on the long-term use of anti-depressants (3). MBCT combines cognitive behavioural therapy with mindfulness, a type of meditation that focuses on being in the present moment. It is typically offered during an 8-week group program, delivered by MBCT-trained therapists who incorporate relaxation, meditation and other exercises/techniques into the sessions to promote greater self awareness and control. Participants are encouraged to practice the exercises at home so they will learn to better recognize negative thinking and deal with it before it triggers another bout of depression.

Results from several research studies on the benefits of MBCT have been encouraging (4). One high quality systematic review of 11 randomized controlled trials, involving more than 850 participants with disorders including depression and anxiety, assessed the effectiveness and safety of MCBT for the treatment of depression as well as other mental health disorders (5). Both the study and control groups received “usual” treatment (combination of antidepressants and therapy) but the study groups also participated in MBCT sessions.

What the research tells us

MBCT appeared to be effective in helping people avoid recurrences of depression. For example at the one-year follow-up, MBCT reduced the rate of relapse in people with three or more previous episodes of depression by a significant 40%. Depression “scores,” measured after completion of MBCT and a year later, were also significantly lower. There were also small but significant improvements in participants’ level of anxiety.

Mindfulness-based programs are also accessible online. A recent systematic review of 15 randomized controlled trials found that people taking part in mindfulness-based programs over the Internet showed small improvements in depression and increase in well-being (5). One challenge with a do-it-yourself approach like online therapy is sticking to it, and this review found that people who also received guidance from a trained therapist or who participated in more sessions were even more likely to experience the benefits.

Although it is still a relatively “new” therapy, MBCT has captured the attention and support of patients and mental health practitioners worldwide. The war against depression and mental illness may still be raging, but MBCT could help bring us closer to victory!

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Author Details


  1. Segal Z, Williams J, Teasdale J. Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy for Depression: A New Approach to Preventing Relapse. 2002. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
  2. Farb A, Anderson A, Mayburg H et al. Minding One's Emotions: Mindfulness Training Alters the Neural Expression of Sadness. Emotion. 2010; 1:25–33.
  3. Klainin-Yobas P, Cho M, Creedy D. Efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions on depressive symptoms among people with mental disorders: A meta-analysis. International Journal of Nursing Studies. 2012; 49(1):109-121. 
  4. Galente J, Iribarren S, Pearce P. Effects of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy on mental disorders: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. J Res Nurs. 2012; 18(2):133-155.
  5. Spijkerman MPJ, Pots WTM, Bohlmeijer ET. Effectiveness of online mindfulness-based interventions in improving mental health: A review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials Clin Psychol Rev. 2016; 45: 102-114. 


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