Mindfulness Works, But How?

Minke, K. A. & Staats, A.W.  (2015) Letters: Mindfulness works, but how?  APA Monitor, July/August, p. 8.

Lu (March, 2015) indicates that Segal’s mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT) “could help prevent recurring depressive episodes as well as medication and better than placebo” But she continues: “While mindfulness works to help prevent depression relapse, researchers don’t yet know how.”

We propose that the existing framework of theory and research provided by psychological behaviorism accounts for the way mindfulness works and suggests an explanation why it is effective in preventing relapse. The language we learn contains a very large class of words which elicit an emotional response, either positive or negative. As a consequence they act as rewards or punishers, and generate approach or avoidance behaviors.

How does this apply to MBCT? “…[O]ne characteristic of depression is a habit of thinking negatively about experiences, one’s self or the future.” Depressed people, in other words, habitually say fewer positive emotional words to themselves and more negative. They thus have a stronger negative emotional state, they receive less reward for their behavior, and they are attracted by fewer things.

MBCT changes this process by getting clients to use fewer negative words in their inner dialogues. Centrally, clients are taught to avoid such negative thoughts altogether, concentrating on the present “here and now,” such as one’s breathing, through mindfulness meditation. MBCT also trains clients to use more positive emotional words in rumination. These interventions can have the continuing effects reported, since the newly acquired behaviors relieve the negative feelings, thus rewarding the client’s action.

Karl A. Minke
Arthur W. Staats
Honolulu, Hawaii