Cognitive explanations and treatments for depression

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  • Created on: 19-06-11 14:28

Cognitive behavioural explanations and treatments of depression

Learned helplessness theory was a behaviourist theory proposed by Seligman. He found that humans exposed to inescapable noise and asked to solve impossible problems later failed to escape noise or solve simple problems. He saw some similarities with this and depression, such as passivity, cognitive deficits, sadness and loss of appetite. However, although it was possible to induce this in the laboratory, it was found that for true depression to develop cognitive factors had a role. Hopelessness theory was then developed.

Hopelessness theory

Abramson. Reformed learned helplessness in terms of attributional style (an individual’s way of explaining events that happen to self and others) maladaptive attributional style is considered a prerequisite for depression. Attributional styles include:

Global: The fact that I failed this exam will ruin my life… (depressed attributional style)

Or specific: It’s just one exam and will not ruin everything (non-depressed)

Internal: It’s all my fault, I’m a failure (depressed attributional style)

VS external: This was really difficult, everyone found it hard (non depressed, realistic)

Stable: I’m going to fail everything  (depressed)

VS unstable: I can do better next time (non-depressed)

There is some evidence to support learned helplessness. For example, therapies aimed at changing attributional style can alleviate some symptoms of depression. However, it cannot offer a complete explanation because it does not account for suicidal behaviour: being characterised by passivity and not by an active wish to die. Also, it cannot adequately account for gender differences in depression, there is no evidence that women are more vulnerable to learned helplessness than men. It does not account for different types of depression. Hopelessness explanations have most in common with endogenous depression, but endogenous depression is thought to have biological causes. Biological perspectives clash with cognitive perspective as biological is deterministic while cognitive assumes free will. Biological explanations suggest that behaviours are innate, while learned helplessness (tautologically) assumes it is learned, along with all behavioural explanations. Finally, attributional styles may be an effect and not a cause of depression.

Beck’s cognitive theory.

Beck believes that depression is a disorder of thought rather than of mood. A depressed individual thinks about the self, the world and the future in negative terms. Beck was originally trained as a psychoanalyst, and believes the foundations for depression are often laid in childhood. As a result of negative early experiences, an individual develops negative schemas or core beliefs that lead to negative automatic thoughts. Then individuals apply faulty logic to events, known as cognitive distortions or biases. These include

·         Selective abstraction: focusing on small and unusually negative aspects of a situation and ignoring the wider picture. So if one person doesn’t laugh when the individual tells a joke, the individual thinks they are terrible at telling jokes

·         All or nothing thinking: they are either a success or a failure and there is no middle ground.

·         Overgeneralisation: a general conclusion tends to be made based on one event:


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