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Want to Beat Your Depression? Don't Think So Much

By Leah Groth ; Updated August 14, 2017

If you’ve tried to think your way out of the negative thoughts that contribute to depression, you may have been taking the wrong approach. A new study has identified the key to finally beating the blues: thinking less.

Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s (NTNU) department of psychology have determined that metacognitive therapy (MCT) is an effective treatment for depression. In fact, 80 percent of patients treated with MCT fully recovered.

MCT, initially used to treat anxiety, is a scientific, evidence-based treatment that aims to gain control over an individual’s thinking process in order to reduce rumination — the act of overthinking the symptoms and causes of one’s stress instead of focusing on solutions.

“Some people experience their persistent ruminative thinking as completely uncontrollable, but individuals with depression can gain control over it,” explains professor Roger Hagen, one of the authors of the study published in Frontiers in Psychology. “Just realizing this is liberating for a lot of people.”

Patients were treated for 10 weeks, and after six months 80 percent had achieved full recovery from their initial diagnosis of depression. They also used a control group of individuals who didn’t receive the treatment to ensure the depression didn’t just naturally go away.

This line of treatment contrasts with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), currently the go-to treatment for depression and anxiety. CBT encourages patients to analyze the content of their thoughts, challenge their substance and test them in reality.

“Anxiety and depression give rise to difficult and painful negative thoughts. Many patients have thoughts of mistakes, past failures or other negative thoughts,” continues Hagen, pointing out that MCT addresses the process of thinking rather than the thought content itself.

Patients who suffer from depression “think too much,” which can perpetuate the depression. “Rather than ruminating so much on negative thoughts, MCT helps patients to reduce negative thought processes and get them under control,” he explains.

So how do you gain control of your thoughts? “Instead of reacting by repeatedly ruminating and thinking, ‘How do I feel now?’ you can try to encounter your thoughts with what we call ‘detached mindfulness.’ You can see your thoughts as just thoughts and not as a reflection of reality,” Hagen says. “Most people think that when they think a thought it must be true. For example, if I think that I’m stupid, this means I must be stupid. People strongly believe that their thoughts reflect reality.”

He claims that the relapse rate is low — only a few percent after a year compared to the usual 50 percent. And patients are pleasantly surprised with the process. “The patients come in thinking they’re going to talk about all the problems they have and get to the bottom of it, but instead we try to find out how their minds and thinking processes work. You can’t control what you think, but you can control how you respond to what you think.”

The significance of this new study is that researchers are confident that MCT, which has also been tested by the University of Manchester in England as well as in a soon-to-be published Denmark study, will eventually become the norm in depression treatment.

Even if you don’t suffer from serious depression, applying these findings to your life may be helpful. Instead of spending so much time overanalyzing thoughts and feelings when faced with stressful situations or painful emotions, shift your energy toward the solution and try and remind yourself that feelings aren’t fact.

What Do YOU Think?

Do you have any personal experience with metacognitive therapy? Does it make sense as a treatment for depression? How does overthinking keep an individual from experiencing happiness?

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