Jon Kabat-Zinn’s study of the effect of mindfulness on chronic pain sufferers was influential in the formation of Segal and his associates’ work. Segal, who co-founded MBCT and is author of The Mindful Way Through Depression, describes mindfulness as a way to allow patients “more room and more space” in regards to their pain than what is allotted when they are constantly thinking about it, worrying over it, and trying to eliminate it.
The practice of MBCT for depressive disorders starts small, with the focus on breathing or specific body parts. Patients “eventually work [their] way up to dealing with negative emotions.”
Segal describes the goal for their patients:
What we’re trying to get people to do is to anchor themselves in their experience so that when a negative emotion comes up in the mind, it can wash over them; it doesn’t…bring to mind all of the negative associations that for some people can happen very automatically. Instead they can find a different place for standing and working with these feelings, and as a result have much more of an option for selecting a response and influencing what happens next.
Segal talks about the difference in a person’s reaction to sadness, depending on whether they have mindfulness training not. When someone without training experiences a sad feeling, a part of their brain is activated that automatically begins to diagnose. This takes so much effort that the part of the brain that allows us to just feel the feeling instead of try to evaluate it gets overwhelmed. When someone with training experiences sadness, these two areas of the brain balance one another out, allowing for a healthier, more substantial way of dealing with the emotion.
Studies in recent years have shown MBCT to be 43 per cent effective in reducing relapse in sufferers of depression—as effective as antidepressants. Segal says 75 to 80 per cent of patients continue the mindfulness practice following their training, viewing it as “less about a treatment and more about a way of life and looking after themselves.”
To read more about MBCT, you might want to check out this MBCT primer. You might also want to check out this brief clip from MBCT co-founder Mark Williams on the history of stress. William’s also discusses recent mindfulness studies and the benefits of MBCT in an article in The Guardian.