15 Mindfulness CBT Exercises You Need To Try
Do you use mindfulness CBT exercises?
As a meditation teacher, I am always on the lookout for alternative, complimentary ways to train the mind. And mindfulness CBT exercises are a great way to do that.
But here’s a key point: CBT exercises aren’t just about “therapy”. If your mind is already healthy you can use mindfulness CBT exercises to make it even stronger.
In fact, mindfulness CBT exercises are one of my absolute favorite ways to be mentally strong.
I believe the mind is the most important tool we have. I believe a healthy, happy mind will produce a positive lifestyle, and a negative, unhappy mind will produce the opposite.
That’s why I train my mind like an athlete trains their body, spending hours every day doing exercises to keep my mind in top condition.
Mindfulness CBT exercises offer an alternative to meditation, and can be used with meditation as a powerful way to strengthen the mind.
What Are Mindful CBT Exercises And How Does MBCBT Work?
CBT stands for “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy”. It’s a series of cognitive thinking exercises you can use to correct unhealthy thinking. And honestly, it is one of the best mind training techniques.
“CBT is a type of talking treatment that focuses on how your thoughts, beliefs and attitudes affect your feelings and behaviour, and teaches you coping skills for dealing with different problems.”
Negative experiences lead to negative and harmful thoughts that become negative beliefs.
A personal example of Mindfulness CBT exercises in action
When I was a kid I was out of shape and was bullied badly for it, called fatso and lazy. I heard those words so much I began to think them. And the thoughts soon became a belief. Believing I was fat and lazy mad me life the life of a fat and lazy person— never exercising, eating unhealthily, and wasting time playing games and watching TV.
This continued until I went to university.
At uni, I started to challenge my thoughts. Every time I thought I was fat and lazy I would immediately tell myself otherwise, and I would hit the gym to prove that those negative, harmful thoughts were wrong. That’s one way CBT exercises and meditation have changed me.
15 Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Exercises Try
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy exercises are all about changing harmful thoughts and beliefs.
CBT exercises are ways of changing unhealthy and harmful thoughts. It usually (and preferably) involves a professional therapist. That said, I’ve personally used CBT on myself successfully.
Here are the 15 best CBT exercises to try.
One of the most fundamental CBT exercises is to write a journal of moods and thoughts. When we do this, we are looking for patterns in our moods and thoughts. Once we notice a pattern we can take steps to change it.
2. Challenging thoughts
One of the main goals of cognitive behavioral therapy is to find and change negative and inaccurate thoughts.
In particular, we look for automatic thoughts (thoughts that occur without intention) and repetitive thoughts.
When we find these, we challenge them. The poor kid who thinks he is stupid just because he isn’t getting straight A’s, for instance, can find the counterargument, find ways he actually is intelligent, and start to erase the negative thoughts.
My guide to making positive thinking automatic will help with this.
3. Changing behavior:
This CBT exercise is used mostly for OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder)
For this exercise, we intentionally expose ourselves to situations in which we respond in negative or repetitive ways. We then intentionally recreate the event and try to act in a different way.
4. Introspective exposure
This is a CBT exercise for panic attacks and anxiety.
For this exercise, we intentionally recreate bodily sensations that we normally respond badly to. We then deliberately react in new, different, and healthier ways. This trains the mind to stop reacting to the sensation with panic and anxiety.
5. Following fear to the end
Most of the time when we feel fear we immediately stop the thoughts.
For instance, if we fear the dentist the moment we think of the dentist we force the thought aside.
In this CBT exercise, we actually allow the fear to continue to the end. We see ourselves going to the dentist, getting that painful work done, and then carrying on with life. This trains us to realise that even if the worst happens things will probably not end up that bad.
6. Changing behavior experiment
This CBT exercise is a way to test how different thoughts and beliefs lead to different actions.
For instance, if we believe that being hard on ourselves makes us work harder we experiment with the opposite. We try being nice to ourselves and see whether it creates a better result. This is an opportunity to change our behavior and see the results.
7. A change of perspective
This CBT exercise is basically thinking the other way.
For an example, let’s go back to our unfortunate kid at school who’s being bullied and flunking exams.
He starts to think he’s a failure.
What can he do?
He can write all the evidence that he is a failure. And then he can write all the evidence that he is a success. This gives our kid a better perspective. He now is aware of his shortcomings, but he’s also aware of his strengths too.
8. Looking for positives
This is my favorite mindful CBT exercise.
Scientists have proven that positivity makes you healthier.
But how can you train your mind to think more positively?
- intentionally schedule positive events in the future to look forward to.
- look at the positives from the past.
- look for positives in the present moment, focusing on all the good things happening right now.
In fact, we should probably do all three of those things. This is a simple way to start thinking positively.
9. Facing fears
For this CBT technique:
- write a list of our fears or of negative things we are worried about.
- list those events from best to worst.
- go through each event, starting with the easiest and working towards the hardest. And actually fact those fears.
This builds our tolerance for unpleasant experiences and trains the mind to overcome fear.
10. Turning negative to positive
For this CBT technique we simply write a positive version of every negative thought. “I’m ugly” we think, so we write “I’m beautiful”.
11. Oh, I forgot about that…
In this technique, we simply remember all the positive things that happened in the past day.
12. I hate that, but I love that
This final technique is about turning negatives to positives.
When we think about a negative situation, or when we are actually in a negative situation, we immediately find things about the situation that we like.
This trains the mind to stop dwelling on the negative and to see the positives instead.
So that’s CBT exercises. How about MBCBT exercises (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy exercises)?
Mindfulness Based Cognitive Behavioural Therapy exercises take things further by combining CBT exercises with meditation
We’ve looked at 12 great cognitive behavioral therapy exercises. Now let’s take things further by introducing mindfulness.
Mindfulness CBT exercises are powerful. Combining cognitive thinking exercises with meditation makes for a potent concoction.
Mindfulness slows the mind so we can see what is happening in our thoughts. Mindfulness CBT exercises let us change those harmful thoughts. It’s easy to see why mindfulness CBT exercises are the best.
What Are Mindfulness Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Exercises?
I previously discussed using meditation with therapy.
One way to do that is with MBCBT exercises.
Mindfulness Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy exercises are precisely what they sound like: combining mindfulness practices with CBT exercises.
Cognitive psychologist Dr. Zindel Segal is the author of The Mindful Way [AMAZON]. Dr. Segal says, “[Mindfulness Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy] combines the ideas of cognitive therapy with meditative practices… The heart of this work lies in becoming acquainted with the modes of mind that often characterize mood disorders while simultaneously learning to develop a new relationship to them”.
Mindfulness CBT exercises are about studying the mind so we can take control of it.
The mindfulness aspect is based on Jon Kabat Zinn’s mindfulness based stress reduction (Source: GoodTherapy.org).
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction uses:
Let’s take a look at some of the best Mindfulness Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy exercises.
Try These Mindfulness CBT Exercises
13. Three Minute Breathing Space
One of the main Mindfulness CBT exercises is “Three Minute Breathing Space”. It’s basically a quick mindfulness-of-breath exercise.
Zindel Segal calls the Three Minute Breathing a “a practice for approaching experience from two attentional lenses, both narrow and wide”. (source: Mindful).
It’s broken into three minutes:
- For the first minute we observe how we are feeling, and describe those feelings in words.
- For the second minute we practice awareness of breath.
- For the third minute we continue focusing on the breath but extend awareness to the whole body.
This version is a quicker version of the breath-based meditations used in Buddhism.
14. Body Scan
Body scan meditations are a very popular technique. You’ve probably seen these types of meditation on Youtube and on meditation apps like Insight Timer.
Read my full guide to body scan meditation for more on this. It’s a great way of increasing happiness and reducing the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
15. Mindful Stretching
Mindful stretching is precisely as it sounds: stretching while focusing on the body.
The different types of mindful stretching include:
- Pandiculation: A ridiculously complex name that basically refers to the type of stretches we do when we yawn (palms on shoulders, elbows raised, mouth open).
- Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation: This is the type of stretch given to a football player who has cramp in their legs.
- Gomukhasana (cow-face pose): In cow-face pose we sit with crossed legs and interlock the hands behind the back in a way that expands the chest. Learn this pose in Yoga Journal’s guide.
- Side-to-side neck stretch: This is a very simple pose in which we use one hand to pull the head to the side.
- Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One Legged King Pigeon Pose): In this position, we have the hips to the mat with one leg in front, perpendicular to the mat, and the other legs stretched out straight behind us. This is a more complex pose that beginners may struggle with. For a guide to this pose, take a look at YogaOutlet’s guide.
- The Scorpion: This is a modified version of Vrischikasana (Scorpion Pose). To do the pose we lie flat on the front with the arms out to the side. We then lift the right foot high up and press the right hip out. Next, we stretch the right foot to the outside of the left leg. It’s important to keep the chest and the arms on the flow while doing this.
BONUS: CBT Stop Techinque
The CBT Stop technique is a method to stop negative thinking in its tracks.
In CBT, stop technique is used to intercept bad thoughts and immediately change them.
Here’s how to do the CBT stop technique:
- Notice when you have a negative thoughts
- Stop. Take a mindful breath
- Mindfully observe the thoughts going through your mind
- Notice what you’re focusing on
- Notice sensations in the body
- Pull back and examine the thoughts
- What’s the big picture of the thought?
- What’s an alternative way to look at the situation
- How important is the thought?
- What would you say to a friend who had this thought?
- What is the number one thing you could do right now to help yourself? Do it.
BONUS 2: CBT Downward Arrow Technique
The CBT downward arrow technique [here’s a guide by the excellent David D Burns M.D] is a technique to uncover core beliefs that harm us.
- The CBT Downward Arrow technique is usually done with a licensed therapist.
- Here’s how the CBT Downward Arrow Technique works:
- The therapist chooses one negative thought from the patient’s journal. For instance, let’s say you have a negative thought that an upcoming work meeting will go badly.
- The therapist asks “Why would it upset you if this happened?”.
- The patient answers the question. “If my meeting goes badly the boss will be angry.”
- The therapist then asks why that would matter, “If the boss is angry it will affect my work”.
- This keeps going until we hit upon the core self defeating belief: “Because if I lose my job I won’t be able to support my family.”
- The purpose of the CBT Downward Arrow Technique is to discover the self defeating belief that is causing negative thoughts, and not necessarily to change it.
Bonus 3: Mental Contrasting
We all know positivity doesn’t actually work. But there is an alternative: mental contrasting.
For years, positivity was practically my religion. I tried everything to make myself think positive. And indeed I did eventually find the solution to negative thoughts.
Positive thinking essentially does not work for a few reasons:
- When we think positive the mind thinks we have already achieved our goal
- Too much positive thinking will make our goal look easier than it is
- When we force ourselves to think positively we refuse to see the more “negative” or more challenging aspects of reality, and so we do nothing to change those things.
Mental contrasting balances things out.
Mental contrasting is a technique in which we contrast positive thoughts about the future with acknowledgment of the obstacles in our way. And vice-versa, we can balance out anxieties about the future by thinking about the positives preventing those negative situations from happening.
Gabriele Oettingen of New York University recently published research into this techniques. She tells THE DAILY MEDITATION:
“When you mentally contrast the thoughts and fantasies about a desired future with the main inner obstacle of reality standing in the way, [you]l find clarity about what you want and can achieve, and you invest the effort to fulfill your wishes and attain your goals.”
Oettingen researched the effects of mental contrasting on fears and anxieties.
The research shows that we can reduce anxiety in this way: When we think negatively about the future we think about the present reality and everything that is standing in the way of that future coming true.
For instance, if you are worried you will become unhealthy, consider the present reality: you are healthy now, you exercise, you eat healthy, you make healthy choices etc. This contrast puts things back in perspective.
Research shows mental contrasting promotes success and reduces anxiety
Frontiers In Psychology recently published research into the effects of mental contrasting.
Here’s how the study worked:
405 participants were used
They were asked to do one of the following:
Think about an e-Coli outbreak
Think about e-Coli outbreak and also think about the present realities that were preventing that outbreak from happening
This test showed that results showed that people who used the mental contrasting technique has significantly lower levesl of anxiety.
After this, participants were asked to think about an actual event that would soon happen in their lives, an event they felt negatively about.
Half the group were asked to also think about the present reality that prevented that negative situation from happening.
The group that used mental contrasting once again had much lower levels of anxiety.
Oettingen states that mental contrasting in this way can both help us to be successful and can also stop anxiety.
How To Do Mental Contrasting Technique For Setting Goals In Your Future
We can use mental contrasting to stop anxiety and to develop self motivation.
Let’s take a look at how to do both of these things.
Example of mental contrasting for success
- Visualize a wish coming true, or a goal being met. Imagine that your ideal reality is coming true right now.
- Imagine all the good things that would come from this wish coming true, and how you would feel.
- Identify the obstacles and problems that could prevent you from being successful. These could be inner or outer obstacles. E.g.: You want to lose weight but you lack motivation. Acknowledge it. Or you want to lose weight but you can’t afford the gym. Again, acknowledge it.
- Make a specific plan to overcome the negatives that are stopping you from being successful.
Example of using mental contrasting for anxiety
We can also use mental contrasting to get a grip on anxiety.
- Visualize something bad happening. Imagine that your fear has become a reality.
- Imagine the negatives that would come from that. (Stop if you feel too much anxiety or fear)
- Think about all the present positives that are stopping the negative situation from happening.
- Make a specific plan to make use of the present positives to stop the thing you are anxious about.
Learn more about Mental Contrasting
Want to learn more about mental contrasting? I recommend reading Rethinking Positive Thinking [AMAZON] by study lead Gabrielle Oettingen.
In Rethinking Positive Thinking, Oettingen reveals the secret science of why positive thinking typically does not work. And she offers valuable insight into how mental contrasting can unlock our true potential.
Recommended Reading: Yoga And Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy
Besant Prashan has created an excellent guide to MBCBT Yoga, it explains how to combine mindfulness and yoga to heal body and mind. It’s called Yoga And Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy.
More Mindful Activities
As well as the practices above, MBCBT recommends doing everyday activities in a mindful way.
- Mindfully clean the dishes
- Eat mindfully
- Mindfully brush your teeth
- Shower mindfully
Take a look at these 25 mindful habits for some great ways to introduce mindfulness to everyday activities.
CBT exercises and MBCBT exercises are excellent ways of stopping negative, harmful thoughts and boosting positivity. And they’re made even better by introducing meditation.
Which of the CBT techniques have you tried, and how did it help you?
Leave a comment.
Paul Martin Harrison
Paul Harrison is a meditation teacher, author and journalist based in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Paul has helped thousands of people to discover their true potential. Don’t miss Paul’s inspirational and enlightening book Journey To The Buddha Within You.