Mindfulness Leighton Buzzard

What is the difference between mindfulness and CBT?

You may have heard me mention that I’m studying psychology with the Open University and I was lucky enough that my mindfulness experience gave me an advantage during my last assignment!  The assignment was to compare and contrast cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and mindfulness as approaches for working with and understanding fear and sadness.  Catchy title!  While I knew next to nothing about CBT before the study topic I do have a good understanding about mindfulness so was able to approach the assignment with a little more confidence than normal and I thought you may be interested in a summary of how mindfulness is both similar and different to CBT.  Don’t worry I won’t bore you with my actual essay!!

Firstly I will briefly (and certainly not expertly), describe CBT as a therapeutic approach that looks at the way that we think and how that might affect the way that we act.  We may have attached positive or negative emotions to particular situations based on our past experience which then influence how we behave in similar situations in the future.  This in turn can lead to repeated patterns of behaviour which are reinforced each time we experience them and can become problematic if they result in phobias and anxiety.   Hopefully if you’ve an interest in mindfulness you will already be aware that mindfulness is the practice of focussing on and being aware of the present moment rather than being lost in thought, thinking about the past or the future. 

CBT generally involves one-to-one sessions with a CBT therapist identifying which thoughts or situations may be a problem and working together to improve or change a particular way of thinking.  This may involve making sense of thinking patterns and using behavioural experiments to help consider alternative ways of thinking and behaving.  Mindfulness is more of a skill or technique that can be practised individually with the help of books, apps, websites etc. or as part of a workshop, course or practice group.  It normally involves either an exercise or a meditation where you practise choosing where you are going to place your attention – every time your attention wanders you practise bringing it back – and you try to do this without judging, liking or disliking.

Both CBT and Mindfulness encourage you to be aware of your thoughts and feelings rather than push them away or ignore them.  This can sometimes be an uncomfortable experience so not always the Zen, calm experience that mindfulness is sometimes portrayed as!  Those of you who come to the monthly practice group will be familiar with the range of emotions that we can be aware of and that come and go just within a few minutes of some of the exercises.  During a mindfulness practice we might acknowledge a difficult emotion such as fear or sadness, but also broaden the attention to include noticing what else is also present for example, sounds smells, sights and our breath.  This practice of noticing more than an emotion creates a sense of space so that the difficult emotion is no longer the only thing we are aware of.

Similarities of the two approaches in facing difficult feelings has led to the combination of mindfulness and cognitive-behavioural therapy known as mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and mindfulness has become known as the third wave of cognitive-behavioural therapy.   So how do they both approach fear and sadness?  CBT has been developed with psychological research as a way of problem solving difficulties with negative emotions.  Mindfulness approaches negative emotions as a normal part of a human experience so rather than problem solving or curing them, mindfulness notices them and allows them to part of the present moment. 

Which one you feel works best for you may depend on what you are struggling with, along with personal choice.  They are both used extensively by therapists, counsellors and psychotherapists helping people to cope with difficult emotions.  Whichever you experience one of the main advantages is that both approaches can be practised independently once the techniques have been learnt.  This makes them useful skills to manage difficult emotions for life, not just during a therapy session or workshop.