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Cognitive Therapy for Depression

Psychological treatment of depression (psychotherapy) can assist the depressed individual in several ways. First, supportive counseling helps ease the pain of depression, and addresses the feelings of hopelessness that accompany depression. Second, cognitive therapy changes the pessimistic ideas, unrealistic expectations, and overly critical self-evaluations that create depression and sustain it. Cognitive therapy helps the depressed person recognize which life problems are critical, and which are minor. It also helps him/her to develop positive life goals, and a more positive self-assessment. Third, problem solving therapy changes the areas of the person's life that are creating significant stress, and contributing to the depression. This may require behavioral therapy to develop better coping skills, or Interpersonal therapy, to assist in solving relationship problems.

At first glance, this may seem like several different therapies being used to treat depression. However, all of these interventions are used as part of a cognitive treatment approach. Some psychologists use the phrase, cognitive-behavioral therapy and others simply call this approach, cognitive therapy. In practice, both cognitive and behavioral techniques are used together.

Once upon a time, behavior therapy did not pay any attention to cognitions, such as perceptions, evaluations or expectations. Behavior therapy only studied behavior that could be observed and measured. But, psychology is a science, studying human thoughts, emotions and behavior. Scientific research has found that perceptions, expectations, values, attitudes, personal evaluations of self and others, fears, desires, etc. are all human experiences that affect behavior. Also, our behavior, and the behavior of others, affects all of those cognitive experiences as well. Thus, cognitive and behavioral experiences are intertwined, and must be studied, changed or eliminated, as an interactive pair.

Self-evaluation

Self-evaluation is a process that is ongoing. We evaluate how we are managing life tasks, and we evaluate whether we are doing what we should, saying what we should, or acting the way we should. In depression, self-evaluation is generally negative and critical. When a mistake occurs, we think, "I messed up. I'm no good at anything. It's my fault things went wrong." When someone is depressed, he/she tends to take responsibility for everything that goes wrong, and tends to give others credit for things that turn out fine. Psychologists assume that self-evaluation, in depressed individuals, is too critical, and feeds low self-esteem and a sense of failure.

Evaluation of Life Experiences

When depressed, a person will focus on minor negative aspects of what was otherwise a positive life experience. For example, after a vacation at the beach, the depressed person will remember the one day it rained, rather than the six days of sunshine. If anything goes wrong, the depressed person evaluates the entire experience as a failure, or as a negative life experience. As a result, memories are almost always negative. This is reflective of unrealistic expectations. Nothing in life ever works out just as you want. If we expect perfection, we will always be disappointed. Psychologists help you to develop realistic expectations about life, and help you determine what you need versus what you want. After all, most of the things that don't work out are little things. And even when important problems develop, we can either resolve the problem, or regroup, recover, and start again, with hope for a better future. In depression, the hope is missing.

Pessimistic Thinking

Pessimistic thinking does not cause depression, but it appears to be easier to become depressed if you tend to view the world with considerable pessimism. After all, pessimism is a tendency to think that things won't work out as you wish, that you won't get what you want. Pessimism feeds the negative cognitive distortions and self-talk. On the other hand, optimism appears to create some protection from depression.

Hopelessness is a central feature of depression, along with helplessness. If you view your world as bad, filled with problems, and don't think you can do anything about the problems, you will feel helpless. If you don't believe your life will improve, if you think the future is bleak, then you will begin to feel hopeless. Pessimism encourages these negative assessments of your life. Optimism prevents you from reaching those conclusions. In fact, psychologists have researched ways to learn how to be more optimistic, as a way of fighting depression.

Summary of Cognitive Psychotherapy Approach

First, remember that we cannot present cognitive psychotherapy in one web page, or in a few paragraphs. But, the essence of cognitive therapy is the assumption that irrational thoughts and beliefs, overgeneralization of negative events, a pessimistic outlook on life, a tendency to focus on problems and failures, and negative self assessment, as well as other cognitive distortions, promote the development of psychological problems, especially depression. Psychologists use cognitive therapy to help you identify and understand how these cognitive distortions affect your life. Cognitive therapy helps you to change, so that these issues will not rule your life. If you are feeling overburdened, that life is not working for you, and you don't know what to do next, talk to someone who can help, consult a psychologist.



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APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, September 5). Cognitive Therapy for Depression, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, October 29 from https://www.healthyplace.com/gender/depression-and-gender/cognitive-therapy-for-depression

Last Updated: October 24, 2015

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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