A new study showed that self-compassion could reduce symptoms of chronic depression among sufferers. Through mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, sufferers could break away from the chains of negative thoughts.
The capability of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy in decreasing chronic depression was presented by psychiatrists at Radboud University Medical Center, a teaching hospital in the Netherlands. Their findings highlighted the benefits of the therapy in boosting positive thoughts in patients. Specifically, the therapy could help develop self-compassion in those who have been enduring severe depression for years. They published their findings in the Journal of Affective Disorders.
What is Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy?
Cognitive therapy is a type of psychotherapy used by psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals to challenge negative thoughts experienced by patients. Negative thoughts are challenged to change unwanted behavioral patterns among sufferers, allowing them to break the chains and improve their overall quality of life. Typically, this therapy is applied in patients with depression and mood disorders.
According to Psychology Today, a US-based magazine, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is a variant of cognitive therapy modified to integrate certain actions, such as breathing exercises and meditation. The modification focuses the therapy to target negative thoughts that usually fuel depression. It challenges the chains of depressive thoughts and addresses the difficulty of the sufferers in achieving positive thoughts.
For example, MBCT for patients with recurring depression or unhappiness can help gain control over thoughts and emotions. Through breathing exercises and meditation, patients can become mindful of their thoughts and learn how to handle them upon recognition. So, when blows of unhappiness hit, the person can easily realize an upcoming depressive episode and gain a foothold to counter it before the wave swallows them.
However, MBCT does not delete negative thoughts or emotions. It works by teaching the person to identify negative thoughts and develop some sort of relationship with them. This way, their neural networks are rebalanced to let them move away from the source of negative thoughts or negative thoughts themselves. Thus, a person under MBCT knows what negative thoughts are and has ways to deal with them properly.
Self-Compassion versus Chronic Depression
Recently, a team of psychiatrists led by Radboud University Medical Center conducted a study to determine the effects of self-compassion on chronic or recurrent depression. The study was designed in two parts to assess the performance of MBCT in controlled and uncontrolled settings. The team recruited 122 patients, diagnosed with chronic depression, between July 2013 and December 2014. Participants were divided into two groups based on their therapies: 61 individuals previously received MBCT and the other 61 people only received treatment as usual (TAU).
In the first part, psychiatrists compared the effects of MBCT and TAU to the effects of TAU alone on depressive symptoms. They assessed the effects using various factors, including the severity of symptoms, possible mediators, and moderators of the outcome. In the second part, an uncontrolled trial of MBCT and TAU interventions was compared to a control group, and effects were followed for six months after the interventions.
Results showed that participants who received MBCT and TAU showed improvement in their symptoms, compared to those who only received TAU. The improvement in their symptoms persisted six months after receiving the interventions. Psychiatrists concluded that MBCT seemed to be effective in reducing symptoms of chronic or recurrent depression. They suggested that developing one's self-compassion could prevent sufferers from falling into the grasp of depression. Due to compassion skills developed by MBCT, sufferers managed to avoid self-criticism and low-esteem, preventing their downward spiral into negativity.
The study supported the findings of previous research published in 2017. The earlier study also exposed the feasibility and effectiveness of MBCT on recurrent depression. A total of 17 patients were recruited for an uncontrolled trial that involved MBCT in two groups. The first group was comprised of 14 participants who were beginners of compassion training, while the second group was comprised of 13 participants, in which 10 were from the first group and the other three were newbies. Results showed a reduction in depressive symptoms in the second group, but not in the first group. Though, compassion skills were exhibited by members in both groups.
Dr. Marlynn Wei, a Harvard and Yale board-certified psychiatrist, revealed the weaknesses of MBCT that hindered its application in treating depressive symptoms. These weaknesses are the lack of concise structure of sessions, the lack of time to practice self-compassion skills, and the presence of the backdraft effect, a potentially dangerous consequence of self-compassion training. The effect is similar to the scientific version wherein a rapid reintroduction of oxygen in an oxygen-depleted environment can cause major combustion.
For the unprepared, self-compassion has to tackle the root causes of depression. During compassion training directed to oneself, the training touches the very elements that craved and cried for recognition and affection. Upon touch, self-compassion triggers self-criticism to allow the elements to be expressed freely. But for the person, it means reliving the horrors stored in emotional memories. Reliving those moments reintroduces huge waves of negative emotions, leading to the backdraft effect.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the US Department of Health and Human Services, severe depressive symptoms were common among adults and adolescents in the US in 2018. About one in every seven adolescents, aged 12 to 17 years, had at least one major depressive episode (MDE) in the past year, while one in every 10 adolescents of the same age had MDE and severe impairment in their major life functions. The ratios represented about 3.5 million teenagers with MDE and 2.4 million teenagers with MDE and severe impairment in the past year. Among adults, the estimated MDE sufferers were 7.2% or 17.7 million adults in the past year, while approximately 4.7% or 11.5 million adults had MDE and severe impairment to major life functions.
The introduction of self-compassion does not cause painful thoughts and emotions. It just so happens that becoming compassionate to oneself can cause old wounds to surface, which need to be healed properly. Instead of bottling it all up, bringing them back to the surface allows the emotional memories to finally receive the recognition they deserve.