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Beck's Cognitive Triad of Negative Thoughts

Instructor: Gaines Arnold
This lesson discusses the method Dr. Aaron Beck devised to explain how a person can become depressed. The cognitive triad of negative thoughts discusses three types of negative thoughts - related to the person, future and experiences.

The Mark of Failure

When Anthony looked down at his horse, he looked in apology. If he had been a better rider the top pole on two of the barriers wouldn't have fallen. If he had paid more attention to timing when they did their practice run, they wouldn't have gotten more penalty points for that failure. His mother, a champion in both dressage and show jumping, had urged her only son into equestrian events. Unfortunately, he was not the champion she hoped for. He was actually still a little afraid of his mount. Sometimes he would repeat to himself, 'Everything I do is a failure', then he would despair for his future. Depression seemed to plague him more each day.

How Does Depression Begin?

Anthony is experiencing classic signs of depression. He is despondent and sees the future as hopeless. A strict behaviorist (a psychologist who believes that mental state can only be determined by behavior) might say that Anthony is reacting to environmental stimuli, but that theory seems too restrictive to others. Behaviorism doesn't take into account the activity in the mind that has a part in how a person reacts.

Cognitive behaviorist, or simply cognitive, theories of depression posit that behavior as well as thoughts and perceptions have an equal part in reactions to stimuli. When a cognitive therapist looks at the depression Anthony is expressing, they not only look at what has happened to him (his mother's expectations, his finishes during competitions), they also look at his thought patterns. Basically, cognitive theorists believe that for depression to afflict someone, they not only need to have certain events occur, they also need to have certain thought patterns relative to those events. One such theorist is a man named Aaron Beck.

How Does Beck's Triad Work?

Beck developed a system called the cognitive triad of negative thoughts to explain how a person's thought life could create a depressive mindset. This mindset would then eventually lead to clinical depression if practiced enough. Beck devised the triad because he said that people who are depressed have unrealistic thoughts regarding themselves. Every person has thoughts about their future, themselves and the events they experience. Depressed people, according to Aaron Beck, carry false negative beliefs. The triad consists of negative thoughts which take the form of:

  • Self: 'I am a bad person.'
  • Experiences: 'My life is terrible.'
  • Future: 'My life will never get better.'

These may seem like extremes, but Beck's theory suggests that these are generally the cause of an individual's depression. He also says that the severity and length of time repeating these thoughts directly correlates to how severe an individual's depression will be. Basically, the more a person has these types of thoughts, will express how deep their depression is.

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