Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is different from traditional cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in that it focuses on learning how to accept emotions rather than transform them. Individuals with health anxiety, also known as hypochondriasis, are often treated with CBT. Because CBT has been an effective therapeutic protocol for anxiety in general, it has been the most common avenue of treatment for people who are experiencing significant fear and worry about their health. Unfortunately, CBT does not always prove effective for individuals with health anxiety. This could be due to the fact that these people worry about changing the content of their thoughts or still harbor fear about physical symptoms they experience. Unlike CBT, MBCT focuses on somatic and bodily experiences. Because many people with hypochondriasis feel their symptoms in their physical body, it would be expected that MBCT would not work as well as more traditional cognitive therapies. To test this hypothesis, Freda McManus of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford in the UK recently led a study comparing traditional unrestricted services (US) and MBCT in a sample of 74 individuals with health anxiety.
McManus evaluated the participants prior to the treatment, at the end of the 8-week intervention, and again 1 year later. Many of the participants had other psychological issues in addition to their health anxiety, and McManus found that both the US and the MBCT had the same effect on these other conditions. Specifically, levels of depression and generalized anxiety were similar for both groups of participants at the end of the intervention. However, the levels of health anxiety were significantly reduced in the MBCT group at the end of the treatment period and even further reduced over time. In fact, more than half of the MBCT group were no longer in the clinical range upon completion of MBCT, and this rose to more than 63% 1 year later. The US group only saw 20% fall below clinical range following treatment and just over 23% at 1-year follow-up. McManus believes that acceptance of emotions, rather than changing emotional content, allows individuals with health anxiety to better cope with the fears and worries associated with their somatic and cognitive symptoms. She added, “This suggests that the MBCT intervention, adapted to focus on symptoms of health anxiety, added significant advantage to US in terms of reducing symptoms of health anxiety.”
McManus, F., Surawy, C., Muse, K., Vazquez-Montes, M., Williams, J. M. G. (2012). A randomized clinical trial of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy versus unrestricted services for health anxiety (hypochondriasis). Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0028782
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