July 22nd, 2020

Compassion Focused Therapy and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy: An introduction

By Dan Whale

  • Perfectionism
  • Trauma/PTSD
  • Stress
  • Therapy
  • Family

Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) are two similar therapeutic approaches which teach techniques of self-acceptance and self-understanding in order to combat unhelpful ways of thinking.

CFT

CFT is most commonly used to treat those that struggle with high levels of shame and self-criticism, sometimes stemming from experiences in childhood to early adulthood. These traits are commonly linked to anxiety disorders, mood disorders, eating disorders, personality disorders, hoarding and psychosis and CFT has been proven to be an effective long-term treatment option.

Why a therapist might suggest CFT

Certain research suggests that humans have three main emotion regulation systems: a threat and self-protection system, a drive and excitement system, and a soothing and social security system.

The threat and self-protection system works as you’d expect - it generates anger, fear and disgust in order to keep us safe. Our drive and excitement system makes us seek out ‘outside resources’ - food, companionship, status, it drives us to go after what brings us happiness.

Finally, the soothing and social security system is activated when we feel at peace and content enough to not search for outside sources - it is our state of relaxation. Mental illness can be borne out of an imbalance between these three systems.

Those experiencing a lot of shame and self-criticism may well have not received sufficient stimulation of their soothing and social security system in earlier life, and may have received too much stimulation of their threat and self-protection system. As a result, they can find it difficult to feel comfortable with themselves or accept praise from others.

CFT aims to correct this imbalance between systems and therefore make it easier for people to accept both praise and criticism without feeling distressed.

How it works

Developed in the 2000s by Paul Gilbert, CFT overlaps other therapies that are commonly used to treat trauma, as shame and self-criticism can be linked to early instances of abuse and neglect - to varying degrees. As such, CFT will usually attempt to address early memories, recognise negative ways of thinking and attempt to correct misconceptions.

Fundamentally, CFT aims to replace feelings of hostility and insecurity towards one’s self with compassion and understanding. This will usually involve some form of ‘homework’ so clients can practise these new skills in between sessions.

CFT can be received both individually or as part of a group, in which you help develop your levels of compassion with others.

MBCT

MBCT can also be used to treat high levels of shame and self-criticism, but can also be applied to broader examples of depression. Differing from CFT, it places a core focus on the mind-body link and incorporates practises such as meditation and breathing exercises.

Why a therapist might suggest MBCT

MBCT was originally developed to prevent relapse in those that had experienced recurrent episodes of depression, but it can also be used in treating certain anxiety orders, addictions and depression associated with long-term health conditions.

As with CFT, MBCT’s approach also teaches ways to address self-criticism and clarify the link between negative ways of thinking and depression.

How it works

The MBCT website lays out the three main goals of MBCT.

  1. To help you understand what depression is.
  2. To help you discover what makes you vulnerable to downward mood spirals, and why you get stuck at the bottom of the spiral.
  3. To help you see the connection between negative thinking and downward spirals; including setting unrealistically high standards for yourself, feelings that you are simply “not good enough,” and ways you may lose touch with what makes our life worth living.

Here you can see that the concepts of challenging feelings of inadequacy and avoiding unrealistically high standards are similar to the aims of CFT. However, there are some notable differences.

Firstly, MBCT is usually received in a group format. Whilst clients will be encouraged to hone new skills between sessions, certain techniques will be learnt and practised together.

Secondly, MBCT involves more physical meditative activity. An example of this would be the ‘Three Minute Breathing Space’. This exercise teaches clients to spend one minute focussing on the question ‘how am I doing right now’, the second minute focussing on the breathing itself and the third focussing on physical sensations and how they affect the rest of the body.

Other examples involve certain types of stretching and general awareness of physical sensations during daily life, such as when showering or brushing one’s teeth. These techniques act as tools which help ground us to our current moment instead of slipping down emotional spirals when we are triggered by certain events.

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Most commonly, therapists will advise a therapeutic approach that they feel is best suited to your situation. That being said, therapists will always listen to your preferences. If you think that one of the above approaches would really work for you, or perhaps you have tried a different approach that didn’t have the desired effect, speak to a professional about CFT and MBCT.

At HelloSelf, we have many therapists that can offer these approaches. If you’d like to learn more, contact us today at hello@helloself.com.

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