Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for depression. At the heart of CBT is an assumption that a person's mood is directly related to his or her patterns of thought. Negative, dysfunctional thinking affects a person's mood, sense of self, behavior, and even physical state. The goal of cognitive behavioral therapy is to help a person learn to recognize negative patterns of thought, evaluate their validity, and replace them with healthier ways of thinking.
At the same time, therapists who practice CBT aim to help their patients change patterns of behavior that come from dysfunctional thinking. Negative thoughts and behavior predispose an individual to depression and make it nearly impossible to escape its downward spiral. When patterns of thought and behavior are changed, according to CBT practitioners and researchers, so is mood.
Antidepressants, especially when combined with talk therapy, generally help people recover from depression. Symptoms begin to improve within weeks for the majority of people taking antidepressants. And people who take antidepressants long-term -- up to 36 months -- have a relapse rate of only 18% compared to 40% for those who do not.
But if they work so well, why do so many people stop taking antidepressants within a few weeks of starting them? Or skip doses when they start to feel better?
How Does Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Differ From Other Depression Treatments?
The focus and method of cognitive behavioral therapy sets it apart from other, more traditional therapies:
CBT is based on two specific tasks: cognitive restructuring, in which the therapist and patient work together to change thinking patterns, and behavioral activation -- in which patients learn to overcome obstacles to participating in enjoyable activities. CBT focuses on the immediate present: what and how a person thinks more than why a person thinks that way.
CBT focuses on specific problems. In individual or group sessions, problem behaviors and problem thinking are identified, prioritized, and specifically addressed.
CBT is goal oriented. Patients working with their therapists are asked to define goals for each session as well as longer-term goals. Longer-term goals may take several weeks or months to achieve. Some goals may even be targeted for completion after the sessions come to an end.
The approach of CBT is educational. The therapist uses structured learning experiences that teach patients to monitor and write down their negative thoughts and mental images. The goal is to recognize how those ideas affect their mood, behavior, and physical condition. Therapists also teach important coping skills, such as problem solving and scheduling pleasurable experiences.
CBT patients are expected to take an active role in their learning, in the session and between sessions. They are given homework assignments at each session -- some of them graded in the beginning -- and the assignment tasks are reviewed at the start of the next session.
CBT employs multiple strategies, including Socratic questioning, role playing, imagery, guided discovery, and behavioral experiments.
CBT is time limited. Typically, treatment with CBT lasts 14 to 16 weeks.