In this guide, we’ll look at Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy exercises (Mindful CBT exercises). These techniques combine cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness. They are helpful for alleviating anxiety and depression and for removing negative thoughts.
As a meditation teacher, I am always on the lookout for alternative, complementary ways to train the mind. And mindfulness CBT techniques are a great way to do that.
However, if you think that CBT exercises are just about “Therapy”, you are dead wrong.
Yes, there are cognitive behavioural therapy exercises for anxiety, depression, and other problems, but you can also use those same CBT exercises for just general mental wellbeing.
CBT and mindfulness are two of my absolute favourite ways of boosting mental health.
When you combine CBT and mindfulness you get “Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy Exercises”. Perhaps the most powerful of these techniques is Jon Kabat Zinn’s Body Scan Meditation.
Let’s take a look at some of the best exercises. And you might also like to try my list of positive thinking techniques.
What Are Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Exercises [MBCBT]?
CBT stands for “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy”.
Exercises in this tradition are based on changing negative thinking and replacing problematic thoughts with healthier ones.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Exercises work in the same way but incorporate the elements of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the practice of focusing on the present moment with a nonjudgmental attitude. It is a meditative technique with its origins in Buddhism. Today, mindfulness is taught by famous teachers like Jon Kabat Zinn and Thich Nhat Hanh. Technically, it is an Integrate Body Mind Training technique.
Combine mindfulness and CBT, and you get “Mindful CBT” or “MBCBT”, a powerful technique with many benefits.
Benefits of Mindfulness CBT Exercises
- Reduce anxiety [Read: Meditation For Anxiety]
- Reduce mood swings
- Stop painful thoughts
- Reduce depression [READ: Meditation For Depression]
- Stop Stress
- Become mentally strong and happy.
Mind.org says: “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.”
A personal example
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.
It has been proven that our beliefs affect our perception of reality according to neuroscientific research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among others.
Believing I was fat and lazy made me live 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. I read through a lot of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy workbooks and learned to change my thinking. Every time I thought I was fat and lazy I would immediately tell myself otherwise. I hit the gym to prove that those negative, harmful thoughts were wrong. That’s one way that mindfulness based cognitive therapy exercises have helped me.
I later became a meditation teacher. And I now give online meditation lessons online. In my lessons, I often combine meditation with mindfulness-based cognitive therapy exercises. My students find these exercises effective for changing their mindsets.
CBT and meditation helped me overcome negative thoughts and get back in shape. And they can help with myriad other psychological issues too.
Let’s take a look at the best mindfulness CBT exercises.
15 Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Exercises You Should Try Today
We’ll start with general cognitive behavioural therapy exercises.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy exercises are all about stopping harmful thoughts and beliefs. They usually (and preferably) involve a professional therapist. But you can do them at home too.
Here are fifteen simple CBT exercises to try. Below, you can find specific mindfulness-based cognitive therapy exercises.
One of the easiest CBT exercises is to write a journal of moods and thoughts. When we do this, we are looking for patterns in our feelings and thoughts. Once we notice a trend, we can take steps to change it. This will help to train you to overcome recurring negative thoughts.
2. Challenge Thoughts
One of the main benefits of cognitive-behavioural therapy exercises is that they can change negative and unwanted thoughts. Therapy tends to focus on automatic thoughts (thoughts that occur without intention) and repetitive thoughts. When we find these thoughts, we challenge them. The poor kid who thinks he is stupid just because he isn’t getting straight A’s, for instance, can see the counterargument, find ways he is intelligent, and start to erase those negative thoughts.
3. Changing behaviour:
This is one of the best CBT exercises for anxiety, although it does take a little courage to start. 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 differently.
4. Introspective exposure
This is a CBT exercise for anxiety and panic attacks.
For this exercise, we intentionally recreate bodily sensations that we usually respond to poorly. We then deliberately react in new, different, and healthier ways. This trains the mind to stop reacting to physical sensations with panic and anxiety.
5. CBT Exercise for Anxiety
Most of the time when we feel fear, we attempt to stop our thoughts. For instance, if we fear the dentist, the moment we think of the dentist, we force the thought aside.
In this Cognitive Behavioral exercise, we 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, life will carry on regardless.
This is an excellent CBT exercise for negative thinking. It 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 kind to ourselves and see whether it creates a better result. This is an opportunity to change our behaviour and see the results.
7. Change Your Perspective
This is a basic CBT technique that gets us thinking in different ways.
For example, let’s go back to our unfortunate kid at school who’s bullied at school 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 is now aware of his shortcomings, but he’s also aware of his strengths too.
8. To Beat Negative Thoughts
Scientists have proven that positivity makes us healthier [Johns Hopkins, Lisa R. Yanek, M.P.H.]. But how can you train your mind to think more positively? You can use positive CBT exercises.
To do this positive CBT technique:
- 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.
We should probably do all three of those things because they are simple ways to start thinking positively.
9. Fear exposure
This Cognitive Behavior Therapy exercise can help us overcome fears.
- Write a list of worries and fears.
- List those events from best to worst.
- Go through each event, starting with the easiest and working towards the hardest. And face those fears.
This builds our tolerance for unpleasant experiences and trains the mind to overcome fear.
10. Turning negatives to positives
For this CBT exercise, 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 is the last one in this initial list of CBT activities. It is all about turning negatives into 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 Therapy exercises)?
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Exercises (MCBT)
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy exercises take things further by combining CBT and mindfulness meditation.
We’ve looked at 12 great cognitive behavioural therapy exercises. Now let’s take things further by introducing mindfulness.
Combining cognitive thinking exercises with mindfulness gives you a potent method for improving mental health and removing negative thoughts.
Mindfulness meditation slows the mind so we can see what is happening in our thoughts. Experts like Vipassana teacher S.N. Goenka have frequently commented on how meditation provides insight into the workings of the mind. Once we gain that insight, we can then change our thoughts using CBT exercises.
Together, mindfulness and CBT are one of the most effective ways of altering thoughts.
Dr Zindel Segal [author of the cognitive behavioural therapy workbook The Mindful Way] tells us “[Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy Exercises] combine the ideas of cognitive therapy with meditative practices… The heart of this work lies in becoming acquainted with the modes of mind that often characterise mood disorders while simultaneously learning to develop a new relationship to them”.
As Dr Segal states, Mindfulness CBT activities 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:
- Body scan meditations
- And yoga
Let’s take a look at how to use mindfulness in CBT, with a list of MCBT exercises.
Try These Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Exercises
13. Quick Breath-Based Meditation
One of the main Mindfulness therapy exercises is “Three Minute Breathing Space”. It’s a quick mindfulness-of-breath exercise. Zindel Segal calls the Three Minute Breathing “a practice for approaching experience from two attentional lenses, both narrow and wide”.
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.
14. Body Scan mindfulness meditation
Body scan meditation is a method created by Jon Kabat Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. You’ve probably seen these types of meditation on Youtube and on meditation apps like Insight Timer and Headspace.
To do this CBT meditation technique, we lie down, close our eyes, and then gradually focus on different parts of the body from head to toe, asking each of those parts to relax. This systematically relaxes the entire body.
15. Mindful stretching
Mindful stretching is precisely as it sounds: stretching while focusing on the body.
The different types of mindful stretches include:
- Pandiculation: Refers to the kind 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 a 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.
- Side-to-side neck stretch: This is a straightforward 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 on the mat with one leg in front, perpendicular to the mat, and the other legs stretched out straight behind us. This is a more complicated pose that beginners might struggle with.
- 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 essential to keep the chest and arms on the ground while doing this.
16: Thought Stopping Technique
The Thought Stopping technique is a CBT exercise in which we stop negative thinking as it is happening. In the stop technique, we intercept bad thoughts and immediately change them.
Here’s how to do the thought-stopping technique:
- Notice when you have a negative thought
- 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 critical 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.
17: Downward Arrow
The downward arrow technique is one of the best cognitive behavioural therapy exercises for anxiety. Here is how to do it.
- The Downward Arrow technique is usually done with a licensed therapist.
- 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 Downward Arrow Technique is to discover the self-defeating belief that is causing negative thoughts, and not necessarily to change it.
18: Mental Contrasting
We all know positivity doesn’t work. But there is an alternative: mental contrasting.
Positive thinking mostly 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.
A better idea is Mental Contrasting.
Mental contrasting is a technique in which we compare positive thoughts about the future with acknowledgement 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 technique. 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’ll] find clarity about what you want and can achieve, and you invest the effort to fulfil your wishes and attain your goals.”
Effects of Mental Contrasting
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 that you will become unhealthy, consider the present reality: you are healthy now, you exercise, you eat healthily, you make healthy choices etc. This contrast puts things back in perspective.
Research shows that the mental contrasting CBT technique promotes success and reduces anxiety
Frontiers In Psychology recently published research into the effects of mental contrasting. 405 participants were asked to think of either an e-Coli outbreak or to think about an e-Coli outbreak and also think about the present realities that were preventing that outbreak from happening.
The results revealed that people who used the mental contrasting technique had significantly lower levels 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 help us to be successful and can also stop anxiety.
Example of mental contrasting for success
- Visualise a wish coming true, or a goal achieved. 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 for anxiety
We can also use mental contrasting to reduce the symptoms of anxiety.
- Visualise something terrible 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.
19. More Mindful Activities
As well as the practices above, MBCBT recommends mindfully doing everyday activities.
- Mindfully clean the dishes
- Eat mindfully
- Mindfully brush your teeth
- Shower mindfully
Combining Cognitive Behavioural Therapy And Meditation
We can combine CBT and meditation for some highly effective cognitive therapy.
Both CBT and meditation are ways of training the mind. The former helps us to adjust our thinking, and the latter helps us to relax and to be more consciously aware. Both CBT and meditation are excellent ways of achieving (and maintaining) mental health. And yet, in many ways, they are opposite.
I’m stunned by the results of doing CBT with meditation. I’ve been merging CBT and meditation for a few months now in my practice, and it has made a world of difference. If you think meditation is good, meditation and CBT is ten times better
- CBT solves so many of the problems of meditation.
- And meditation solves so many of the problems of CBT.
The problem with meditation is that most techniques do not actively change your thoughts; they just make your thoughts less impactful, so your negative thoughts have less of an effect. (I say most meditations because, of the more than 700 meditation techniques in existence, some do help with thoughts, but the most popular methods, such as mindful breathing, are really about silencing thoughts and relaxing the mind).
When you meditate, you become more relaxed, but eventually, your old thoughts will come creeping back unless you change them.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy exercises change those thoughts.
The problem with CBT is that we need to be calm enough to see our thoughts clearly. And this is not the case for most people with mental health conditions.
Traditional CBT makes up for this by using a counsellor. You talk about your problems with the CBT psychotherapist, they identify the negative thought patterns for you and make notes. In other words, you don’t have to identify your thoughts.
There are a few problems with this:
- Not everyone can afford a psychologist (health insurance will sometimes pay but not always)
- Some people prefer to handle their issues on their own
- And in my case, I’m more interested in training my mind with CBT and meditation and not for a specific health problem. It’s an exercise I do for me to keep my mind fit. No doctors needed.
Practising cognitive behavioural therapy exercises without a therapist can be a challenge. Sure, there are CBT group therapy activities that you can do together even if you don’t have a psychotherapist. But what if you want to practise on your own?
Simply put, the average person does not have the clarity of mind to capture their thoughts as they happen.
You know the saying, “Blink and you miss it?” That’s true for thoughts. To catch your negative thoughts, you have to be aware.
This is the primary reason for combining CBT and meditation. Meditation boosts our awareness so that we can spot the thoughts that need to change as they occur.
- Meditation calms and relaxes the mind
- CBT exercises change our thoughts
- Doing CBT exercises without a psychotherapist is difficult because thoughts occur so quickly, they can be hard to catch. One option is to practice group CBT activities, but not everyone is in a group.
- When we meditate, we slow the mind and boost awareness so we can identify our thoughts (and then change them).
- When we combine CBT and meditation, we slow the mind, become aware of our thoughts, and can then change our thoughts.
Simply put: Meditation and CBT are the perfect couple.
Meditative Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Exercises
How to get even more from CBT and meditation.
We use CBT activities to change thoughts. However, if you have too many ideas in your mind, and they are all happening too quickly, you won’t be able to pinpoint any one specific thought to change.
The solution to this is to start thinking less. That way, you will be able to spot individual thoughts and change them accordingly. To do this, practise mindful breathing.
To be successful with cognitive behavioural therapy, you need to be aware of what’s happening in your mind. That can be a challenge. And it’s another reason why meditation and CBT work so well.
By meditating, we can increase our insight, so we are aware of the workings of the mind. We then see what’s happening within, and once we see our thoughts, we can change them.
To develop insight, practise Vipassana meditation.
In my personal experience, when you do CBT and meditation at the same time, you get fantastic results. You get the relaxed and slow mind that meditation gives, plus the healthier thoughts that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy exercises produce.
The mindfulness CBT exercises we have looked at in this guide are a wonderful place to start. Not only will they make you think in healthier ways, but they will also help you to control your subconscious.
If you have a serious health concern, both meditation and CBT should be done with a professional therapist/meditation teacher.
For many people, however, self-help done through a combination of meditation and CBT will yield excellent results. I know it has for me.
Cognitive behavioral therapy – Mayo Clinic https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/cognitive-behavioral-therapy/about/pac-20384610
Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) | CAMH https://www.camh.ca/en/health-info/mental-illness-and-addiction-index/cognitive-behavioural-therapy