One of the principal characteristics of people struggling with anxiety or depression is frequently pondering over negative thoughts such as past failures, mistakes and feelings of inadequacy. A new study by a team of Norwegian and British researchers shows that training the mind to stop focusing on such thoughts may improve mental health. Findings of the study, which appeared in the journal Frontiers in Psychology in January 2017, highlight that a technique known as metacognitive therapy (MCT) is very helpful in the treatment of depression.
Stian Solem, associate professor of psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and co-author of the study, states that MCT involves training people to reduce depressive rumination i.e., constantly pondering over negative thoughts. In cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which is a recommended treatment option for depression and anxiety, individuals analyze their negative thoughts to challenge if they are valid or real. According to Solem, MCT works differently – it does not do a deep dive into negative thoughts; instead, it helps people in reducing and establishing control over such thoughts.
MCT trains individuals to not treat their thoughts as reality
According to the researchers, the realization by depressed individuals that they do not need to worry or ruminate can be rather emancipating for them. Patients taking part in MCT sessions are often surprised by the fact that they do not have to deliberate on various problems during the course of therapy. Roger Hagen, professor in the department of psychology at NTNU, explains that MCT concerns itself with the thinking process instead of the thought content.
To test the efficacy of MCT, the researchers enlisted the participation of 20 patients with depression who took part in 10 therapy sessions over the course of 10 weeks. Another 19 participants, representing the control group, did not receive any treatment during this period. After the end of 10 weeks, 80 percent of the participants in the MCT group reported complete recovery from depressive symptoms, compared to only about five percent in the control group. A follow-up survey after six months showed similar recovery rates with a small number of participants reporting relapses.
Hagen explains that as part of MCT, individuals are encouraged to encounter their thoughts with ‘detached mindfulness’ – insulating the mind from unnecessarily undesirable and complex thought processes. Most people start believing strongly that if they have certain thoughts it means those thoughts are real. The technique trains them to recognize thoughts as simply thoughts and not something that reflects reality. While it may not be possible for individuals to control their thoughts, they can control their responses to such thoughts.
MCT-based approach leads to low relapse rates
According to the researchers, the limitation of several past studies on depression was the lack of a control group. The fact that depressive symptoms tend to get better over time, along with the absence of a control group, made it difficult to prove if a treatment was successful or if the depression got better by itself naturally. The study by NTNU researchers took care of this limitation by comparing the results of the MCT group with a control group.
Hagen states that conventional treatments for depression are known for their high relapse rates, which are 50 percent after one year and 75 percent after two years. The NTNU study exhibited significantly lower relapse rates, with a small percentage of participants reporting relapse. Positive results of MCT have been observed in smaller studies at the University of Manchester, where MCT has been developed over a 20-year period. The researchers hope that these findings will enable MCT to increase in popularity not just in Norway but even globally.
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