Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Improves Emotional Reactivity to Social Stress: Results from a Randomized Controlled Trial

Willoughby B. Britton*, Ben Shahar, Ohad Szepsenwol, W. Jake Jacobs

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

166 Scopus citations


The high likelihood of recurrence in depression is linked to a progressive increase in emotional reactivity to stress (stress sensitization). Mindfulness-based therapies teach mindfulness skills designed to decrease emotional reactivity in the face of negative affect-producing stressors. The primary aim of the current study was to assess whether Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is efficacious in reducing emotional reactivity to social evaluative threat in a clinical sample with recurrent depression. A secondary aim was to assess whether improvement in emotional reactivity mediates improvements in depressive symptoms. Fifty-two individuals with partially remitted depression were randomized into an 8-week MBCT course or a waitlist control condition. All participants underwent the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) before and after the 8-week trial period. Emotional reactivity to stress was assessed with the Spielberger State Anxiety Inventory at several time points before, during, and after the stressor. MBCT was associated with decreased emotional reactivity to social stress, specifically during the recovery (post-stressor) phase of the TSST. Waitlist controls showed an increase in anticipatory (pre-stressor) anxiety that was absent in the MBCT group. Improvements in emotional reactivity partially mediated improvements in depressive symptoms. Limitations include small sample size, lack of objective or treatment adherence measures, and non-generalizability to more severely depressed populations. Given that emotional reactivity to stress is an important psychopathological process underlying the chronic and recurrent nature of depression, these findings suggest that mindfulness skills are important in adaptive emotion regulation when coping with stress.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)365-380
Number of pages16
JournalBehavior Therapy
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2012
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Funding for this study was provided by grants T32-AT001287, MH067553-05 and K23 AT006328-01A1 from National Institutes of Health, the Mind and Life Institute, the American Association for University Women grant, and Philanthropic Educational Organization (Willoughby Britton) the Lenz and Hershey Foundations and the Brown University Contemplative Studies Initiative; the sponsors had no further role in study design; in the collection, analysis, and interpretation of data; in the writing of the report; and in the decision to submit the paper for publication. This was not an industry-supported study. The authors have indicated no financial conflicts of interest.


  • Depression
  • Emotional reactivity
  • Meditation
  • Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy
  • Trier social stress test


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