Jan 26, 2021
In this episode Dr Lucy Maddox speaks to Sharon and Dr Anne Garland, about CBT for depression. Hear how Sharon describes it, and how both group and individual therapy helped.
Show Notes and Transcript
Overcoming Depression by Paul Gilbert
Image by Kevin Mueller on Unsplash
Lucy: Hello and welcome to Let’s Talk About CBT, the podcast from the British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies, BABCP. This podcast is all about CBT, what it is, what it’s not and how it can be useful.
In this episode we’re thinking about CBT for depression. I spoke with Dr Anne Garland who spent 25 years working with people who experience depression and Sharon, who has experienced it herself.
Both Anne and Sharon come from a nursing background. Anne now works at the Oxford Cognitive Therapy Centre as a consultant psychotherapist, but she used to work in Nottingham, which is where Sharon had CBT for depression. Here’s Sharon.
How would you describe what depression is like?
Sharon: When I was going to school, when I was a little girl, an infant, we would have to go over the fields because I lived in the country, and go down. I could hear the bell of the junior school but couldn’t find it because of the fog. I walked round and round, I was five, walked round and round and round in those fields trying to get to the bell where I knew I would be safe and being terrified on my own. And that’s how it feels actually. Darkness, cold, very frightening.
Lucy: I asked Anne how depression gets diagnosed and she described a range of symptoms.
Anne: In its acute phase it’s characterised by what would be considered a range of symptoms. So, tiredness, lethargy, lack of motivation, poor concentration, difficulty remembering. Some of the most debilitating symptoms are often disturbed sleep and absence of any sense of enjoyment or pleasure in life and that can be very distressing to people. People can be really plagued with suicidal thoughts and feelings of hopelessness that life is pointless.
I think one of the most devastating things about depression as an illness is it robs people of their ability to do everyday things. So for example, getting up, getting dressed, getting washed, deciding what you want to wear can all be really impaired by the symptoms of depression. I try and help people to understand that the symptoms are real, they’re not imagined. Often people will tell me that they imagine these things or that they aren’t real and that it’s all in their mind.
Their symptoms are real, they exist in the body and do exert a really detrimental effect on just your ability to do what most of us take for granted on a day-to-day basis.
Lucy: And so it’s a lot more than sadness isn’t it?
Anne: Absolutely. It can be very profound feelings of sadness but often that’s amplified by feelings of extreme guilt, of shame, anger and anxiety is another common feature of depression.
Also, when people are very profoundly depressed they can actually just feel numb and feel nothing and that in itself can be very distressing because things that might normally move you to feel a real sense of connection. Say for example your children or your grandchildren, you may have no feelings whatsoever, and that in itself can be very alarming to people.
Lucy: The way that depression and its treatment are thought about can vary depending on who you speak to. Just like with other sorts of mental health problems. More biological viewpoints prioritise thinking about brain changes that can occur with depression while more social perspectives prioritise thinking about the context that people are part of.
Anne: As CBT tends to take a more pragmatic view of thinking about a connection between events in our environment, our reactions to those in terms of biology, thoughts, feelings and behaviour and how all of those things interact and that’s a very pragmatic way of thinking about things really. And I guess traditionally in CBT there’s the idea of making what is referred to as a psycho biosocial intervention. What that essentially means is that you can use medication plus psychological therapies – particularly CBT in this instance – and interventions that may influence your environment.
If you do those things altogether then you’re more likely to get a better outcome, which is really what our service in Nottingham is predicated on that idea. That if you think about all of those aspects in a practical, pragmatic way, then that may maximise your chances of seeing an improvement in depression.
And I think one of the challenges in depression, if you look at the research literature, is once you’ve had one episode of depression, you have a 25% chance of another. Once you’ve had two, a 50% chance. And once you’ve had three, a 95% chance of another episode. So the concept of recurrence becomes really important.
A lot of the work we do with people who have more persistent treatment resistant depression is really trying to help the person develop strategies for managing the illness on a long term basis. So it’s very much about trying to manage your mood and how you structure your day and your life and activities and that type of thing. I can be a very complex illness to work with.
Lucy: For Sharon, her first experience of depression was 20 years ago when depression suddenly had a huge effect on her and her life.
Sharon: And at the time the word they used was ‘decompensated’. Like a little hamster in a wheel and I just couldn’t keep going anymore and everything fell apart. I ended up being admitted to a psychiatric hospital for a few weeks.
Lucy: Ten years later, Sharon had another episode.
Sharon: I just couldn’t manage everything, working full-time, single parent, no family support and it just all imploded, I just couldn’t manage, I became really depressed again.
Lucy: This time she saw a psychiatrist who suggested she try CBT alongside medication. Although reluctant, she went ahead with it. At the time the therapy offered had little effect on her.
Sharon: I can’t describe it, it juts was an academic exercise to me.
Lucy: However, a few years later he doctor encouraged her to try CBT again.
Sharon: Because I like to please, not upset anyone, I went along to it. And it was a group CBT and it was compassion-focused, compassionate-based CBT and it was over about 20-24 weeks, something like that. We met every week, this small group.
Lucy: This time it was different, things started making sense for her.
Sharon: We went through that limbic system, the old brain, the new brain, the threat, soothing, drive, and all this explanation which for me, was a very good fit. Because suddenly, it was like a revelation, “So it’s not just me being weak then.” Even though people had told me, I didn’t really believe it.
So this information was important for me and from that we started to develop the discussions of, “Why do I think the way that I do?” Which was what the early CBT had done but somehow this meant more. It actually touched me.
And being in that small group and hearing other people talking and the two therapists that were there guiding, compassionate responses and, “What would we say to this person?” enabled me to see actually far more clearly the relevance of what they were doing.
Lucy: That sounds super helpful.
Sharon: You could offer a compassionate response and you could see the effect it was having and when they said to me I found it very hard to take, I couldn’t accept anybody being kind or compassionate.
Lucy: Sharon had a combination of group compassion-focused CBT which you can also hear more about in the episode on compassion-focused therapy, as well as individual CBT for depression. I asked Anne to talk us through how individual CBT for depression works.
Anne: Well, CBT for depression has two aspects to it really. The first aspect is the idea of symptom relief and really the purpose of that aspect of the treatment is really to try and help people re-engage with activities.
Say for example you feel too tired to get up out of bed, get washed and dressed and make your breakfast in the 30 minutes you normally would have done that, you might try and break that down into smaller tasks. So you might get out of bed and have a cup of tea. You then might get your breakfast and have another break and then you might get dressed.
So this idea that if you make an allowance for your energy levels, your concentration and try and approach tasks by breaking them down into manageable chunks, that will start to get you active again. So that’s really the first step of symptom relief.
The second aspect of symptom relief in depression is really trying to look at the role thoughts might play in the context of depressed mood. And what the research tells us in the cognitive science of depression is once mood becomes depressed, thinking becomes more negative in content. It also becomes more concrete and more over general, so it’s hard for us to be specific in our recall.
And another important factor, a thing that occurs once mood becomes depressed is our memory more readily recalls past unpleasant painful memories and actively screens out positive or neutral memories. The reason why this is important is that our ability to solve problems is really based on being able to retrieve information from the past about how we did that.
But once mood becomes depressed, you’re trying to do an everyday thing like say, I don’t know, mend a broken sink pipe, and you’re trying to do that, but because your mood is depressed and your concentration isn’t great, it’s harder to do. But also, all that’s coming back to you is all the times things have gone wrong, not the times when they’ve gone well. There’s a tendency when mood is depressed for thinking to be very all or nothing. Or you might predict that if you try something it won’t work and therefore you don’t do it. So it’s really about trying to work at that level as well.
The second part to CBT is really what I would call a more psychological component which is really trying to look at some of what the theory might refer to as psychological vulnerability. So trying to look at some of our beliefs that might underpin our depressive episodes or might make it difficult for us to make progress.
Lucy: Looking at the underlying beliefs was something Sharon remembers as being important for her.
Sharon: So the group was great and from that I then moved into a yearlong one-to-one CBT. And that went into, right back to early life experiences, what sort of things have actually helped to develop you, it’s not your fault, these things happened to you, you were too young, you had no control. And a lot of forgiveness, which I’ve never been able to forgive myself even though I now accept I never did anything wrong. And I wouldn’t have been able to do that before.
But the outcomes from that yearlong – it’s longer than a year because I became very unwell – but when we got to the end of it, we’d worked through looking at the rules that I live my life with and deconstructing them. Where have they come from? Do they stand up to scrutiny? What might be better rules to live with? All with this compassionate focus.
And at the end of it, I’ve still got it now, I’ve got it with me now actually, it’s like a little credit card size piece of card, laminated cardboard with the rules on it, my new rules in case I need a little sort of quick fix of reminder of it. But they’re there, so it’s there all the time.
Lucy: Would you be able to give an example of one?
Sharon: I mean the major one, I was a perfectionist. I had to do everything right. And that’s because I used to get punished, I had a very traumatic, abusive childhood and was punished quite a lot, quite severely. And so I had to get everything right and it had to be right the first time and if I didn’t, I’d get really stressed and worried about it.
In order to replace that now is, I like to do things to a high standard, but it’s okay when they don’t go to plan. Good enough is okay. So things just have to be good enough.
Lucy: That’s great, it sounds a really nice modification because it’s not like you’re giving up on liking to do things to a high standard but you’re just being a bit kinder to yourself with that.
Sharon: Yes, that’s right and to say good enough is okay, yeah.
And the other thing, I’m very obedient, still. If somebody tells me to do something, I’m very likely to do it because I fear consequences. And so that was one that guided, was a very strong guiding thing. And then the other one, so once you’ve got that, it’s okay to be myself, I can let my own needs and feelings be known. I get along with others, but I don’t have to do what they say.
Sharon: So they’re just a couple of examples for the way it changed from my rigid control of myself to get through life safely. It was all about safety with me, and security, being safe. To actually thinking, you don’t need to do that, it’s not necessary. You can relax and enjoy yourself and there are no consequences of any significance, to me personally.
Lucy: Some of Sharon’s unhelpful rules for living came from difficult early experiences, although sometimes it’s less clear where these rules come from. You don’t have to know to be able to use CBT.
It’s super helpful to have those examples because I think it can feel so abstract can’t it, when somebody is referred to therapy and they’re not really sure what it’s like. I just think it really helps to hear the exact experiences that somebody else has had.
Sharon: Lots of things actually. You don’t realise, I found, you don’t actually realise you’re living by these rules. It sounds ridiculous (laughs), I didn’t realise until it was discussed in detail with me, gently probing and not going any further than I wanted to. But each time a bit further until actually it was out there. I kind of realised, that’s how I was thinking because it’s so tightly hidden.
Lucy: I asked Anne if someone was a fly on the wall watching a session, what would they see going on?
Anne: I guess they would see really, in terms of starting at the very beginning, trying to help the person to consider the links between events in their environment and then biological symptoms, thoughts, feelings and behaviour.
Just to give you a very simple example of that, say you’ve been depressed for six months and your sleep is affected, it’s taken you until 3:00 in the morning to get to sleep and the alarm has gone off at 7:00, so you’ve woken up in bed. That would be your event in your environment. You feel exhausted and your head is like cotton wool. That would be biological symptoms. And importantly there, most of us when we’re deprived of sleep might feel that way but that becomes intensified in depression.
You might have thoughts like, I can’t be bothered to get up, I feel really tired. You might notice that your mood is really low and so you might lay longer in bed. But also then you might have overslept, so you might then start to have critical thoughts like, you’re really useless, you can’t even get out of bed on time, you’re going to let people down at work, you’re going to be in trouble. You might then start feeling anxious and perhaps a bit guilty.
So you’d really be trying to help people to see that sort of connection.
The aim of antidepressants, if people use them, is really to try and help them to influence some of the biological symptoms of depression and lift mood slightly. So some people do recognise in taking an antidepressant that their mood lifts slightly, some of the symptoms are a bit better. They can do a bit more and therefore their thoughts are not necessarily as negative in content or they’re not as harsh with themselves.
What we’re trying to do in CBT is add to the effects of that by tackling behaviour and thoughts. Usually one of the first homework assignments is to complete an activity schedule. An activity schedule is a diary with every day of the week broken down into hourly slots and what we ask the person to do is keep a record of what they’re doing on an hour-by-hour basis.
We ask them to rate two things there. One is mastery, which is how well you engaged with the activity given how you were feeling. And given how you were feeling is really important because an important part of that initial rationale is making an allowance for the symptoms of depression which are real.
And then the second rating is how much you enjoyed it. So it’s really important to check out if the person feels able to do that.
On the basis on that you’d look for patterns and quite often what you’d see is a pattern between inactivity and low mood and that’s often a marker for rumination.
Also you’d be trying to look for if there had been any activities that are giving the person any sense of pleasure and when you do the ratings, you rate it on a scale of nought to 10. So nought is low and 10 is the high end. And really anything over a four is quite good when your mood is depressed, so that’s what we’d be looking for.
Then we might try and look at activities that the person used to do and enjoy but they’ve given up. Or activities that the person is avoiding and try and think about how we can re-engage with some of those.
Lucy: Here’s Sharon on how her life has changed through doing activities that make her feel good.
Sharon: I had a big fear of meeting up with people, so I wouldn’t go to anything social. I’ve been on my own since the relationship ended 20 years ago and I just won’t take the chance, I won’t risk it again. And all of these things I’ve relaxed now – not that I’m going out with anybody – but I am actually more willing. I meet people for coffee now and I’ll join up with a dog walk and things with other people. Whereas before I’d always make an excuse at the last minute and not go. And I stopped doing that.
Anne: Another important factor in these early stages is really just trying to think also about the effects of not eating and not having a good sleep routine because those two things can really amplify biological symptoms.
Trying to get people to eat regularly and again, with the sleep, trying to re-establish a sleep routine. Thinking about things like caffeine consumption and perhaps not drinking any caffeine after lunch. So very practical things to start with and then trying to begin to schedule pleasurable activities. And also, as I said before, breaking tasks down into manageable chunks.
Lucy: It sounds like breaking stuff down, making it really small and manageable and scaling things back is really important. What other sorts of things might somebody see if they were observing a CBT session?
Anne: I guess they would see us working together. It’s very much what’s referred to as a collaborative endeavour. The person receiving treatment, they bring their expertise and knowledge in how depression affects them on a day-to-day basis. And I bring my expertise and knowledge in terms of how to help people begin to tackle their depression.
We’d also be writing lots of things down. Working towards goals as well, goal setting is a very important part of CBT. So the beginning of treatment you’d be thinking about what problems the person wanted to tackle and what would be the goals that would indicate you’d started to work on those problems.
So it’s very much a participative activity, is CBT. So the person really needs to make an active commitment to try and work within the model. Now obviously depressive symptoms in themselves can make that a challenge because lack of motivation is a key symptom of depression.
So again, in the early stages you might see the therapist working very hard to help the person to engage with treatment.
Lucy: Negative automatic thoughts are those which occur to us automatically. So we don’t have control over thinking that way. And they tend to frame the experiences that we’re having in a way that makes us feel bad about ourselves, or what we’re doing, or about the world around us. They can have a really big impact on our mood and sometimes we don’t even notice that they’re happening.
For people who experience depression, automatic negative thoughts such as ‘I can’t cope’, can often be problematic and persistent.
How might CBT help people to manage those thoughts?
Anne: Well, there’s a variety of methods that can be used. The first one is really just trying to help the person to recognise when they occur, so what are the triggers to them. And also how do they make them feel and what is the impact of that.
And then you can try what’s called modifying or challenging automatic thoughts. So you can apply a series of questions to a thought, what is the evidence for the thought? What is the evidence against the thought? What is the alternative perspective?
And this is a really useful strategy when you’re working with depression because people with depression apply rules to themselves that they wouldn’t apply to other people. So very typically I might ask the person, “Can you tell me the name of somebody whose opinion you respect?” And then I would say, “If you heard your friend Jane say that she was lazy, what would you say to her?” And then I might reverse that and say, “If Jane were here, what would Jane say to you?”
What you’re trying to do is bring flexibility to the thought processes because in depression thinking processes are very rigid, they’re very all or nothing, so they don’t see the shades of grey and they’re very over general.
You then also try to help them to think about what is the impact of thinking this way, or what can you do next? How can you test this out? Which is where the idea of behavioural experiments come from.
Lucy: Behavioural experiments are planned activities to test the validity of a belief. They’re an information gathering exercise, so we test how accurate an individual belief is.
For Sharon re-joining her group helped her test some of her beliefs about what the group members thought about her having left.
Sharon: The group was a challenge because I don’t like being in a group with people. It’s an effort to keep smiling. But I learnt there that I didn’t need to. So I’d be stressed before I went there for quite a number of them and actually I just stopped going, just after halfway through because I just couldn’t cope with it. It was just too intense, it was too much.
And so Catherine phoned me and persuaded me back and I said, “I can’t go in there, I can’t go in there,” and I walked out. I can’t go back in that room when I’ve walked out. And it was just gentle nudging and when I went in they were just, “Oh, hello,” nobody made a comment at all and I was astonished because I thought somebody was going to say, “Oh, back are you?” Not at all, and that was another illustration of my disordered thinking.
So that was a tiring six months, but at the end of it I felt quite upbeat that I’d achieved something.
The individual sessions for the year, they were always extremely positive. But I always came out of there feeling that it was a job well done, I’d achieved something. I never felt, “Ugh, I’m not coming back,” not once. It was excellent from start to finish.
Lucy: I wanted to know from Sharon how she coped with negative thoughts and if she uses the techniques which Anne mentions.
Sharon: I still use all those CBT techniques of the alternative way of looking… What’s another reason that this could be…? Is that really the way this is when you’re feeling down? Deconstruct it. What actually is it that’s a concern here? And are you actually…? Are you thinking about this clearly or could something else be happening? So I still use all of those techniques every day.
Lucy: Do you? It’s really hard isn’t it when you’re having a worry or a thought about how things are in your own head that’s distressing. It feels real doesn’t it? We all feel that our reality is real. How do you manage to capture those thoughts and to sort of use those techniques?
Sharon: I write it down. Things, when they start to swirl around my head and then I know from experience when I’m feeling well, this is just going to look nothing like the original issue unless you get it out of your head. And so I write it down and then I think, what’s actually… I deconstruct it and then put it back together again.
Lucy: And when you’re coming out of it, did you notice yourself coming out of it? Did you notice things changing or was it after it’s gone that you kind of look back and see it differently?
Sharon: Coming out of it, in some ways it’s a bit scary actually because you get used to being in that gloom and that dark. And it requires effort to re-engage and make contact with people and all the rest of it.
It was a year ago that I finished; I’ve been well since then, yeah. So I felt smiley, I’ve had a few, we all have in the last year haven’t we, had a lot of low… Even thinking like that, thinking it’s not me not trying hard enough, I’m thinking why wouldn’t I feel like this? Everybody is feeling like this. So I consider that, when I think like that, I give myself a little mental pat on the shoulder for thinking, “Excellent thinking Sharon.”
Lucy: I asked Anne what the evidence base was like for CBT for depression.
Anne: Well, there’s a very strong evidence base that goes right back to the 70s and 80s really. Essentially, if you summarise, if you look at NICE guidance, what the research tells us is that CBT used alone is as effective as an antidepressant on its own. The two things in combination produce the best outcome. Particularly for people who have moderate to severe depression.
For people who have more mild depression, you might actually just start with CBT and that can be highly effective.
Lucy: The current NICE guidelines recommend CBT for depression and also a range of other treatments. I’ve put a link in the show notes for those guidelines.
Anne: If you look at the evidence base for people with more persistent treatment resistant depression, there is evidence from two studies that I was involved in. One back in the 90s with Jan Scott and Eugene Paykel who were both professors of psychiatry who have now retired. And a more recent one that Richard Morris, Professor of Psychiatry in Nottingham and I conducted where we looked at using CBT in combination with pharmacology for people with more, either chronic depression or persistent treatment resistance. And there is a lot of evidence that it’s very effective in helping people manage the disorder rather than trying to get rid of it completely.
Lucy: That’s really helpful for people to know isn’t it? I suppose not everything might totally resolve and it might be more a case of living with it effectively.
Anne: Exactly, yeah.
Lucy: Are there things you think people should know before they come for CBT?
Anne: I think particularly just picking up on that last point as well, thinking about the impact of childhood trauma can have in terms of depressed mood. When we think about trauma we’re thinking about that in a broad context of it might be sexual and physical abuse, but much more commonly, it’s actual emotional abuse and neglect, childhood neglect, particularly in terms of how that impacts on what psychology would refer to as attachments. Our ability to make and maintain reciprocally beneficial relationships with other people.
And there’s increasing amount of evidence to show that where attachments are disrupted, then that can have a profound effect in terms of adult depression. And I think that’s where a lot of the research is focusing now in terms of thinking about how you might develop more focused interventions in CBT terms.
I think the other thing is that CBT is a very practical therapy. So there’s an idea that you participate, you will be asked to complete, what we refer to as ‘homework’, which isn’t a phrase many people like. So you’d be asked to work on your problems in between sessions.
Initially it’s very here and now focused. So it’s really trying to think about what your problems are on a day-to-day basis in terms of how the depression affects you. And then later in therapy if necessary, we might go back to some childhood events. But generally speaking you only go backwards to the degree to which it tells you how that influences what goes on in the here and now.
It’s also about doing, it’s not just about talking.
Lucy: For Sharon, although she doesn’t feel depression has disappeared completely from her life, she’s found a way to cope and see her thoughts for what they are, thoughts, rather than acting on them. I wanted to know what she would say to anybody thinking of trying CBT for depression.
Sharon: Go for it! Definitely! I think the thing is to be prepared; you’ve got to put some effort into it to get something out of it.
Lucy: The experience that Sharon had of trying therapy more than once and finding it a better fit at a later date can happen to anyone, either because the therapist is a better fit, the type of approach works more or sometimes because the therapist has had more experience in a particular model of therapy.
It’s always okay to raise it with a therapist if you feel like things aren’t working for you. It’s also important to be able to check out what training or experience the therapist has had with treating the problem that you’re going to see them for. One way to check this out is by seeing if they’re accredited with BABCP.
Sharon: As I say, it was a revelation. In fact one of the biggest things was listening to people talking. You think, gosh, that’s how I think!
Lucy: If you’d like more information on CBT for depression, have a look at the show notes. For more on CBT in general and for a register of accredited therapists, check out BABCP.com.
Have a listen to our other podcast episodes for more on different types of CBT and the problems it can help with.
There’s one with Paul Gilbert, who Anne mentions and also Chris Winson, who speak about compassion-focused therapy for depression. And there’s loads more on other common problems that CBT can help with including anxiety.
Thank you to both of my experts, Sharon and Dr Anne Garland.
Thank you for listening and I hope you’re keeping well in these odd times we’re all living through. Until next time, take care.
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