Beck’s Cognitive Theory of Depression – Going Deeper into the Human Mind

By on March 2, 2013

In 1967, American psychiatrist Aaron Beck developed his own cognitive theory of depression after he became disillusioned with the psychodynamic philosophies, on observing that the psychoanalytic methods often did not help relieve depression for his patients. Beck proposed that depression is a result of irrational and pessimistic thought process. He believed that distorted thinking patterns and illogical beliefs can cause a variety of mental or psychological problems, including depression and chronic anxiety. In his view, the way an individual perceives his life events affects his emotional state, that is to say, negative life events do not by themselves cause depression, but it is the unreasonable perception of an individual that results in depressive disorders.

Beck’s Cognitive Model of Depression

According to Beck’s cognitive model of depression, certain kinds of early experiences lead to the formation of dysfunctional beliefs, which are rigid, extreme and counterproductive, and make a person vulnerable to depression later in life. These beliefs are triggered when a critical incident occurs or depressive mood sets in. They tend to intensely influence the current thought process, creating a pattern of negative automatic thoughts that in turn produce symptoms of depression (behavioral, motivational, affective, cognitive and somatic), thus enveloping the mind in a web of pessimistic notions.

Beck’s theory of depression has three aspects: first, the cognitive triad, which explores the negative views regarding the self, the world and the future. Second, schemas, which are the conceptual patterns in the mind of maladaptive or adaptive attitudes and beliefs. Third, cognitive distortions, which are incoherent thoughts; pessimistic and unrealistic perceptions of life.

The Cognitive Triad

People suffering from depression have extremely negative thoughts about themselves, about their experiences and their surroundings, and about the future. The feeling of despair and helplessness is often accompanied by the belief that nothing they do will make a difference in their worthless lives. The world seems meaningless to them and everything else insignificant. They draw negative conclusions while completely ignoring the good things happening around them. The illogical thoughts running though their mind make the future seem bleak.

Schemas or underlying beliefs

251/365 - Manic DepressiveThe depressogenic schemas or dysfunctional beliefs are thought to develop during childhood and adolescence as a result of negative and emotionally or psychologically damaging experiences with one’s parents or other significant people. These set of assumptions are deeply embedded in one’s mind. Though, one might not be consciously aware of these thoughts, but they are present in the subconscious mind and tend to covertly influence an individual’s current attitude and behavior.

Information Processing

Beck also hypothesized that negative cognitive triad is maintained by a variety of negative cognitive errors. People who are depressed are inclined to misinterpret the information from the world. The way they process information is distortional and misleading. Their perception is biased as they tend to make unrealistically negative interpretations about their life. Some common examples of misinterpretations are:

Dichotomous or all-or-none thinking: a tendency to think in extremes and seeing everything in terms of “all or nothing”, “black or white”, etc.; it also includes establishing false and unrealistic assumptions and trying to live according to fixed rules.

Arbitrary inferences: a habit of jumping to a negative conclusion without any evidence to support it.

Personalizing:  holding one responsible for all the unpleasant incidents that take place. Blaming oneself unnecessarily for each and every negative occurrence increases insecurity and decreases self-esteem.

Selective abstraction: an inclination to focus on only the negative aspects of a situation while ignoring all the other positive elements.

Overgeneralization: involves illogically drawing conclusions based on a single event with minimal or no evidence.

Catastrophizing: a tendency to exaggerate the importance of an insignificant matter or situation. Irrationally believing that something is far worse than it actually is.

Descriptive perspective of Beck’s theory

Over the years, extensive research has been conducted to examine the various aspects of Beck’s cognitive theory of depression. It has become more detailed and thorough while still maintaining its fundamental standards and beliefs. It has led to the generation of a very effective form of treatment for depression known as cognitive therapy. It has also been supported as a descriptive theory that shines light upon many important characteristics of depression.

It is a known fact that people suffering from depression possess a pessimistic attitude not only towards the world but themselves, as well. Depressed people are inclined to think more negatively about themselves and their lives as compared to non-depressed people. They tend to be more reclusive and often experience feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, guilt and self-blame. On the other hand, non-depressed people have the ability to positively perceive every situation and be optimistic about the future, which serves as a protective factor against depression.

Initially, Beck had postulated that a source of stress, pressure or strain was required to trigger the dysfunctional attitudes or depression-producing schemas, but recent research has shown that depressogenic schemas can be activated in a previously depressed individual by simply inducing a depressed mood.

A substantial amount of evidence has been gathered which supports the cognitive errors responsible for maintaining the negative cognitive triads.  Many experiments have been conducted that confirm that depressed people are able to recall negative information, unpleasant events and gloomy memories more easily than positive emotional information whereas it is the opposite for non-depressed people. Furthermore, depressed people are more prone to jump to negative conclusions without any sufficient evidence and often undervalue the positive aspects of any situation. Their depressiveness compels them to think unhappy or negative thoughts as they are what effectively maintain the vicious cycle of depression.

Beck’s Cognitive Therapy

Beck’s cognitive therapy focuses on specific problems and emphasizes on modifying beliefs and thoughts in order to treat depression. Since, he believed that distorted patterns of thinking and illogical beliefs are responsible for depression; he tried to help patients in adopting rational and constructive ways of thinking. He challenged their extreme statements and helped them to identify distorted thoughts. Most of the depressed people interpreted events in disastrous terms; they would only think about the worst consequences and tragic possibilities. Beck thought this to be because of faulty thinking, so he suggested those ways to alter their thinking and adopt a positive outlook.

The Thinker in the Dark - A5

In the initial phase of therapy, patients are familiarized with their negative automatic thoughts. They were made aware of the relationship between their patterns of thinking and emotional responses. They are asked to keep records of each negative thought that passes through their mind and of their emotional reactions to various incidents or situations. With the help of therapy, they are able to detect the cognitive errors they had been making for so long. They are taught to challenge the rationality of every negative automatic thought.

In Beck’s cognitive therapy, patients are not made to change their beliefs and thoughts through debate or persuasion, rather, they are asked to gather information about themselves. They are even encouraged to find out the dysfunctional beliefs or schemas that may be the cause of their pessimistic point of view and low self-esteem. This is an essential phase for the patient as these techniques keep him from being pulled back into the realm of depression. The causal factors that make the patient vulnerable to depression need to be dealt with effectively so that the improvement is long-lasting.

The effectiveness of Beck’s cognitive therapy has been well documented. Research suggests that Beck’s approach of treatment is highly beneficial in relieving the patients from depression and other disorders. The improvements in patients are abiding and the chances of relapse are minimal. It has been proved to one of the most reliable forms of psychotherapy.

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