Relieve Depression by Decentering

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By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.


“By practicing with others, people realize that the way their minds generate depressive and ruminative thoughts is really no different from others, like that builder over there, or my neighbor. These are just thoughts — not facts in my life,” – Willem Kuyken


Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) was developed specifically to treat depression and has been shown to be very effective in treating existing depression and preventing relapse when depression is in remission. MBCT involves mindfulness training, containing sitting and walking meditation and body scan, and cognitive therapy to alter how the patient relates to the thought processes that often underlie and exacerbate depression. MBCT attempts to decenter depressive thought processes; that is to learn to observe these thoughts and feelings as objective events in the mind rather than personally identifying with the thoughts or feelings.


Decentering changes the nature of experience by having the individual step outside of experiences and observe them from a distanced perspective. This allows the individual to see their thoughts as a constructed reality produced by their self and not as absolute truth. This, in turn, results in an ability to see depressive thoughts as not true, but simply a construct of the minds operation. This, then, allows the individual to begin to change how they interpret experience. Hence the depressive thought that how another treated them demonstrates that “I am worthless” can be reinterpreted to “this person acts this way out of their personal needs.”


It is not known whether the decentering produced by MBCT is actually necessary for the treatment of depression. This issue was explored in today’s Research News article “Exploring the relationship of decentering to health related concepts and cognitive and metacognitive processes in a student sample.” See:

or see summary below or view the full text of the study at:

Kessel and colleagues recruited university students and measured them for depressive symptoms, decentering, self-focused attention, attentional filtering, and metacognition (ability to judge one’s own performance). They found that the higher the student’s level of decentering, including the decentering components of accepting self-perceptions and distancing, the lower the levels of depression. The relationships discovered were relatively strong. Conversely, the higher the levels of dysfunctional self-focused attention the lower the levels of decentering and the higher the levels of depression.


The results are clear and interesting. They suggest that decentering is clearly and relatively strongly inversely related to depression. They also suggest that this relationship may be mediated by decentering, with the lowering of dysfunctional self-focused attention, resulting in lower depression levels. It should be kept in mind that this study was correlational. So, no conclusions can be drawn regarding causation. But, the results suggest that MBCT’s effectiveness against depression is at least in part due to its promotion of decentering. They also suggest that decentering training by itself might be an effective treatment for depression.


So, relieve depression by decentering.


“Mindfulness practices of MBCT allowed people to be more intentionally aware of the present moment, which gave them space to pause before reacting automatically to others. Instead of becoming distressed about rejection or criticism, they stepped back to understand their own automatic reactions—and to become more attuned to others’ needs and emotions. Awareness gave them more choice in how to respond, instead of becoming swept up in escalating negative emotion.” – Emily Nauman


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


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Study Summary

Kessel, R., Gecht, J., Forkmann, T., Drueke, B., Gauggel, S., & Mainz, V. (2016). Exploring the relationship of decentering to health related concepts and cognitive and metacognitive processes in a student sample. BMC Psychology, 4, 11.



Background: Decentering, a central change strategy of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, is a process of stepping outside of one’s own mental events leading to an objective and non-judging stance towards the self. The study aimed at investigating associated mechanisms of decentering.

Method: The present study investigated the relation of decentering, operationalized by means of the German Version of the Experiences Questionnaire, to severity of depressive symptoms, assessed by the adaptive Rasch-based depression screening, and self-focussed attention, assessed by the Questionnaire of Dysfunctional and Functional Self-Consciousness. Furthermore, the relationship between decentering and a) the ability to shift and allocate attention by means of the Stroop test, and b) metacognitive monitoring, i.e. the absolute difference between judged and real task performance, was investigated. These relationships were examined in 55 healthy students using Pearson’s correlations.

Results: In line with our assumptions, higher decentering scores were significantly associated with lower scores on severity of depressive symptoms, with higher functional- and lower dysfunctional self-focussed attention. Contrary to our expectations, results neither indicated a relationship between decentering and attention ability, nor between decentering and metacognitive monitoring.

Conclusions: The present results suggest that decentering is associated with concepts of mental health (i.e. less severity of depressive symptoms and higher functional self-focussed attention). Overall, the concept decentering seems to be mainly composed of self-focussed aspects when investigated in a healthy sample without intervention. Further investigations of associated concepts of decentering should consider aspects of self-relevance and emotional valence.

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