Finding a breathing space – eight weeks of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy

Over the past month I have been working on a series of posts for Mind about my experience of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). My own original post about Mindfulness – ‘Keeping the beast asleep’ is by far my most popular – and Mind are interested in how users of their services can develop resilience and ongoing mental health management skills. It seemed like a good fit.

I have written eight posts, each one reflecting one of the eight sessions that I attended as part of the Breathing Space ‘Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy for depression’ course. These are based on the diaries I kept of my experience, as well as the handouts we received and my reading of Segal, Williams and Teasdale’s book on MBCT.

The process of revisiting the course, and reading more about it was a really positive one for me. I found myself re-remembering elements I had forgotten and using the techniques more and more. It was great to put down in words some practical examples of how the course helped me, and revisit the feelings and thoughts I’d recorded at the time.

There were also elements of the writing process that I found difficult. Fundamentally, the course is one based in practical experience and ongoing practice. I wanted to emphasise that just reading the posts wouldn’t help in the way that attending a practical course would.

Having said that, I definitely feel that there is a place for a simple week by week exploration of the basic concepts and ideas. Putting these alongside some explanation of some of the practical activities we underwent and I how I experienced them could give people an introduction and a sense of how a mindful approach could help in practice. I hope that is what I have managed to do – to some extent at least.

I also wanted to replicate the development of the course over the eight weeks, the gradual build of skills and understanding which helped me to really grasp some quite new concepts and perspectives. It was tempting to try and explain everything at once – but to really replicate the course and embed the concepts and ideas, I needed to take it slowly.

The first four posts, like the first four sessions, explore and develop new skills and perspectives. These build a foundation from which, in the later posts, we can introduce some new ideas and suggestions for using these skills to improve our lives. At the first session of the course we were encouraged to stick with it, even if we didn’t see initially how it would help. Trusting in the course and keeping going, even at the points when it didn’t seem to be helping, or even making much sense, led to a really positive experience for me. I found myself wanting to do the same for the readers of the series.

The eight posts will be published weekly by Mind. As they are published, I will link to them below with a short summary.

Week 1 – Automatic Pilot

Week 1 – ‘Automatic pilot’

Introducing you to the diary and to the course. Thinking about ways to recognise the ‘automatic pilot’ mode we tend to work in and how this can cause particular difficulty for people with depression who can easily and almost automatically slip back into well worn grooves of negative thinking. We also learnt how to do the first mindfulness meditation – the body scan.

Week 2 – Automatic judgements

Week 2 – ‘Automatic judgements’

This was a slightly longer entry – still lots of introductions of concepts and ideas.We explored the idea of automatic judgements in a number of ways. The first was our tendency to judge our experiences as ‘not quite right’ in some way and to compare them to how we feel they ‘should’ be.This in turn can lead into blame and thoughts about what could or should be different. We also explored the relationship between thoughts and feelings as understood in CBT and how, if you have been depressed in the past, you are more likely to have negative feelings about an event. We also explored the concept of recording pleasant events as they happen.

Week 3 – Mindfulness of the breath

Week 3 – ‘Mindfulness of the breath’

This entry starts by looking at the distinctions between thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations and how hard it can sometimes be to pull these apart. It goes on to explore the problems with trying to use thoughts to ‘solve’ feelings and how doing this can lead to a vicious spiral of rumination into depression. Part of this involves becoming aware of how much we compare our actual experiences to how we feel our experiences should be and making negative judgements about ourselves when they don’t match up. I also give an example of a short ‘breathing space’ meditation which helps you to step out of the ‘stream’ of your thoughts and emotions and ‘stand on the bank’ – thus gaining some perspective.

Week 4 – Staying present

Week 4 – ‘Staying present’

This is one of my favourite entries so far. We talked about using a breathing space to help change our perspective on unpleasant events by taking a brief time out. If we don’t do this, we risk negative interactions between experiences of bodily sensations, thoughts, feelings and behaviour which leads to further entrenched depressed or anxious feelings. We explored in more detail how we tend to react to experiences – by automatically making a judgement about it and then either chasing it (attraction) or trying to push it away (avoidance). The concept of ‘staying present’ is about separating the experience itself from our judgements and reactions to it which can lead to the negative spiral and relapse. We were also given some more information about depression – helping us to understand the territory and recognise difficult thoughts as symptoms and not reality.

Week 5 – Allowing and letting be

Week 5 – ‘Allowing and letting be’

This week we explored the nature of gentle and curious acceptance and how we can develop a new relationship with our experiences. We looked at an experiment which suggested that people whose minds went into ‘avoidance’ (fight or flight) mode when faced with a difficult experience tended to be less creative and flexible when trying to deal with them. We also used the breathing space to try and practically approach and explore difficult feelings and their corresponding bodily sensations.

Week 6 – Thoughts are not facts

Week 6 – ‘Thoughts are not facts’

This week looked at how our thoughts usually behave and how we often react to them. It looked at what we can do to encourage us to see our thoughts as thoughts and not as facts. This included ways of identifying them as thoughts and questions you can ask yourself when you come across a negative thought.

Week 7 – How can I best take care of myself?

Week 7 – ‘How I can best take care of myself’

In the penultimate week of the course we looked at taking action – how to use what we have learned to help us identify things that actively make us feel good and things that bring us down. We thought about how we could create our own personal early warning system to help us deal with the potential onset of low moods. We also explored how the demotivation of depression could be a barrier to taking these steps and what we could do to prevent this.

Week 8 – Dealing with future moods

Week 8 – ‘Using what we’ve learned to deal with future moods’

In the final post of the series we focussed on the main things to take away from the course. This included the main responses – awareness, acceptance and mindfully responding. We also discussed the importance of not ‘banging your head against a bring wall’ – accepting that some things are difficult or impossible to change. We explored how it can help to think of Mindfulness as a process of starting again and thought about how we could embed some of the practices learned in our daily lives.

I really hope you enjoy reading them. If you’re interested in some of the research on the impact and effectiveness of MCBT, this post by The Mental Elf is useful. Feel free to get in touch with me below if you have any questions, comments or feedback while reading the series.

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