Reducing depression – MBCT changes the brain  to reduce self-blame and increase self-compassion

The problem with conditions like stress, anxiety and depression is that when people experience such an episode they establish “though pathways” that spiral downwards. …and then… in the future, when they encounter a “trigger” situation, they slide down the same pathway reinforcing it… and so on… making further episodes more and more likely. And in many cases the trigger doesn’t have to be something big or catastrophic – it could be some relatively minor setback or stressful situation that triggers thoughts leading to stress symptoms …or even anxiety or depression.

Yet there is a way out of this cycle:  The good news is that our brains demonstrate the ability to make new connections and modify existing connections which can change the way that we think, and even change the way we react subconsciously. It just takes some training and ‘practice’.  This is called ‘neuroplasticity’, and it is an ability that we all have at any age.

For people prone to epoxides of depression, they are often consumed with negative thoughts of self-blame and low self-worth. Yet there are many studies that show that Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is effective in enabling subjects to be more objective if such thoughts should arise – or more able to choose to focus on the current movement rather than on ruminations of the past or worries about a future that may never come to be.

I read this recent article on the website describing research by Kate William and her team at the University of Manchester. Here

The research involved working with subjects prone to depression to help them to avoid a relapse. The subjects were trained in Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) which trains individuals to respond to negative self-thoughts with acceptance and compassion as studies suggest that the approach is effective. The team used tests to gauge any reduction in “self-blame” which is thought to be a key component in avoiding a relapse into depression. The researchers used fMRI brain scanning to examine activation in brain regions associated with self-blame before and after the MBCT training.

Sure enough, the impact of the MBCT training was to reduce the self-blame and also to increase self-compassion  in subjects –  so that subjects are no longer so hard on themselves when things don’t work out as hoped.

And Bingo; upon analysis of the brain activity during self-blame versus other-blame activities; they found a drop in activation of the bilateral dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and the medial superior frontal region. The dACC has been previously linked to emotions related to self-blame such as guilt and embarrassment.  So here is a change to the wiring of the brain that demonstrated the reduced self-blame that the subjects experienced.

Interestingly, the researchers also demonstrated that the reduction in self-blame following MBCT was linked to greater “self-kindness” as measured by the Self-Compassion Scale. Their analyses showed that increases in self-kindness correlated with reduced activation in the posterior cingulate cortex.

The researchers commented: “These findings suggest that MBCT is associated with a reduction in activations in cortical midline regions to self-blame which may be mediated by increasing self-kindness”

This research is very encouraging – it demonstrates that not only does MBCT cause subjects experience less self-blame and more self-compassion; but it shows that the wiring in their brains has been changed by the training so that they will be less likely to experience a relapse.