Our patterns of negative thinking are often based on old, well-practiced, automatic cognitive routines (often repetitive). They are motivated (usually ineffectively) by the goal of escaping/avoiding distressing feelings or problematic life situations. These unhelpful routines persist because we remain in a cognitive mode characterized by a number of features. I call these the 7 drivers of old habits of thinking:
- Living on “automatic pilot" (rather than with awareness and conscious choice).
- Relating to experience through thought (rather than directly sensing).
- Dwelling on and in the past and future (rather than being fully in the present moment).
- Trying to avoid, escape, or get rid of unpleasant experience (rather than approach it with interest).
- Needing things to be different from how they are (rather than allowing them to be just as they already are).
- Seeing thoughts as true and real (rather than as mental events that may or may not correspond to reality).
- Treating yourself harshly and unkindly (rather than taking care of yourself with kindness and compassion).
The good news is that we can learn how to step out of and stay out of these ruminative thought cycles. The first step is be mindful (aware), let go. Letting go means reducing your involvement in these routines, freeing yourself from the need for things to be different, as this is precisely what drives the thinking patterns—it is the continued attempts to escape or avoid unpleasant moments that keep the old negative cycles turning. The aim of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is freedom, not happiness or relaxation, although these may well be welcome by-products.
A general attitude of kindness and care help prevent the reinstatement of old habits of thinking by showing us that it is possible to approach unwanted experiences with a gentle curiosity and, in doing so, develop a different relationship to them.
Kindness Plays an Essential Role
Ensuring that a general attitude of kindness and care pervades all aspects of your practice is foundational with MBCT. These particular qualities of mind help prevent the reinstatement of old habits of thinking by showing us that it is possible to approach unwanted experiences with a gentle curiosity and, in doing so, develop a different relationship to them. Mindfulness is not just about paying (or shifting) attention but more about the quality of attention that is being paid. See what happens when you practice being kind to your experiences, and gentle with yourself when old habits of mind threaten.
This article was adapted from Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression, by Zindel V. Segal, Ph.D., C.Psych.
Zindel Segal is Distinguished Professor of Psychology in Mood Disorders at the University of Toronto Scarborough. His guiding professional intention is in using empirical data to advocate for the relevance of mindfulness-based clinical care in psychiatry and mental health. He has carried on a longstanding and valued collaboration with John Teasdale and Mark Williams devoted to the proposition that offering training in mindfulness meditation to formerly depressed people can address relapse triggers and support long-term recovery. Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy—the program developed through this work—has now been evaluated in over 10 studies worldwide. He also serves on the Advisory Board for MindfulNoggin.com which offers a digital platform for MBCT.