Changing Thoughts May Be Better Than Changing Behavior in the Early Stage of Psychotherapy for Severe Depression

A recent study took a close look at what predicts improvement in depression in the first five sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy. They looked at the degree to which the therapists used either cognitive therapy methods, practiced structuring the sessions clearly, and how much they used behavioral methods/homework. They also examined whether the patients cooperated with these parts of cognitive behavioral therapy. They also measured the strength of the therapeutic alliance.

Sixty patients with major depression participated in the study. Their sessions were videotaped and trained raters rated how much the therapists used cognitive versus behavioral methods.

What they found was only two aspects of therapist behavior predicted improvement between sessions. Depression was measured after every session, and these measurements showed that patients felt better when therapists used cognitive techniques, but didn’t improve when the therapists focused on behavioral techniques.

Patients also showed greater improvement when they adhered to suggestions made by the therapist, which is not surprising.

The behavioral methods used were techniques such as having patients schedule their activities to become more active, and tracking how they actually spent their time. This is called behavioral activation, and previous studies have suggested it is an effective approach to treating depression. The behavioral activation model is that depressed patients tend to do very little, and this leads to further depression. Patients are encouraged to schedule activities that are fun, or activities that provide a sense of mastery or success. This leads to a lessening of depressive feelings.

The cognitive methods were techniques such as writing down what your thoughts are, and using cognitive therapy to challenge or modify distorted thinking.

So how to interpret the results of this study?

It’s only one small study and I would be cautious about taking too much from it. It does suggest that at least in the early sessions of therapy, cognitive methods may be superior to behavioral methods. This makes sense to me because early in therapy depressed patients feel a lot of pain and lethargy, and getting them to suddenly increase their activity can be very challenging and perhaps too difficult. This may lead to a sense of failure which increases depression rather than reducing it. On the other hand, using cognitive methods may lead to more immediate sense of control and relief, which would tend to reduce depression levels.

My sense is that later in therapy behavioral activation techniques are very useful. But typically in order to get patients to cooperate with these techniques there needs to be a strong alliance with the therapist. This takes some time to build.

It would have been interesting if they had continued the study beyond the first five sessions, and looked at whether over time the relative importance of the cognitive versus behavioral techniques would have shifted.

The study shows that therapist behavior in sessions does matter. This is one of my pet peeves. Many psychotherapists claim to use cognitive behavioral therapy, yet fail to actually use any cognitive behavioral techniques on a regular basis in sessions. This study shows that therapist adherence to structuring sessions and using cognitive techniques matters.

So from a consumer point of view there are a few take-home lessons.

1. If you are seeking cognitive behavioral therapy, make sure your therapist actually does cognitive behavioral therapy during sessions. This means they should structure the sessions clearly, as opposed to simply letting you talk about whatever is on your mind. It also means they should be asking you to track your self talk in written form, during sessions go over those thoughts, helping you learn to identify and correct distortions in the thoughts. If they don’t do these behaviors, and therapy feels free-form, then you’re probably not getting cognitive behavioral therapy, and you might want to look elsewhere. If you don’t regularly get homework to do between tasks, you aren’t receiving cognitive behavioral therapy.

2. At least in the early part of therapy pure cognitive therapy techniques may be more effective than behavioral techniques. You may want to focus your own homework more on identifying and changing your inner thoughts, rather than trying to increase positive behaviors. This probably will yield more relief of depression.

3. The study also confirmed that when clients cooperate and are more involved using cognitive therapy techniques, they improve faster. So even if you’re feeling skeptical, try to fully participate during sessions and in between sessions, as that provides you the best chance of more rapid relief.

Your off to analyze his thoughts psychologist,

Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D.

Copyright © 2010 Andrew Gottlieb, Ph.D. /The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

One thought on “Changing Thoughts May Be Better Than Changing Behavior in the Early Stage of Psychotherapy for Severe Depression

  1. Excellent post, I think that your conclusion is very pertinent and interesting. CBT tools and techniques are very usefull for psychotherapists and their patients.

    Thanks for the post! 🙂

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