An Introduction to Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 2 edition



Cognitive therapy’s early success arose largely from the impact of Beck et al.’s (1979) book on depression, coupled with research trials showing the effectiveness of this new approach. In this chapter, we will describe some of the classic CBT strategies for depression. See also Chapter 17 for a brief description of some of the more recent innovations in working with depression, including mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and behavioural activation.

Characteristics of depression

As well as depressed mood, depressive disorders are marked by many other symptoms. In the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (APA, 2000) these other symptoms include: loss of interest or enjoyment in activities; changes in weight and appetite; changes to sleep patterns; being either agitated or slowed up; loss of energy; feeling worthless or guilty; poor concentration; and suicidal thoughts.

The classic Beck model of depression centres on the ‘depressive cognitive triad’, i.e. a pattern of negative thoughts about:


  • oneself (guilt, blame, self-criticism) – ‘I’m useless, inadequate, lazy …’;
  • the world, and current and past experience (selective attention to the negative, anhedonia, etc.) – ‘Nothing is worthwhile, everything works out badly, no one cares about me …’;
  • the future (pessimism, hopelessness) – ‘It will always be like this, I’ll never get better, there’s nothing I can do …’.

Perception, interpretation and recall of events may all be negatively biased, so that depressed people are more likely to notice information that is consistent with their negative view, more likely to interpretany information negatively and more likely to remember negative events. Negative events are typically attributed to stable, global and internal factors and seen as having lasting consequences and implications for self-worth (Abramson et al., 2002) – e.g. ‘This is my fault’, ‘I always mess up like this’, ‘It just shows how useless I am’. Positive events, on the other hand, are attributed to temporary, specific and external factors, with no lasting consequences – ‘That was just a lucky break’, ‘It’s the exception that proves the rule’, ‘It only worked out because my wife helped me’.

The primary symptoms of depression are often exacerbated by secondary negative or self-defeating thoughts about the symptoms of depression, thus giving rise to vicious circles. For example:


  • Loss of energy and interest lead to thoughts such as ‘It’s not worth it, I’ll wait until I feel better’.
  • Poor memory, concentration, etc., may lead the client to think ‘I’m stupid’ or ‘I must be going senile’.
  • Loss of sexual interest and irritability may be interpreted as indicating ‘My marriage has major problems’.

Common maintenance processes

Figure 12.1 shows some of the common maintenance cycles in depressed people (as always, these are possibilities to explore, not rules to force your clients to obey!). First, there is a possible vicious circle linking depressed mood with negative biases and negative interpretations of symptoms, which leads to a negative view of the self, thus maintaining the depressed mood. Second, those negative biases and symptoms of depression may lead to reductions of activity (‘I’m too tired, there’s no point …’), which maintains the low mood because activities that previously gave pleasure or a sense of achievement are lost. Finally, the depressive biases and symptoms may lead to reduced attempts to cope and deal with problems, which leads to increased hopelessness and thus reinforces the depression.

Figure 12.1    Common maintenance processes in depression

It follows from the above account that the goals of CBT for depression will usually include:


  • helping the client to counteract any negative cognitive biases and develop a more balanced view of himself, the world and the future;
  • restoring activity levels, especially activities that bring a sense of pleasure or achievement;
  • increasing active engagement and problem-solving.

As always, your task as therapist is to construct a formulation that makes sense for you and your client and then to devise cognitive behavioural strategies that will help to break maintaining cycles. The main approaches to cognitive strategies and behavioural experiments in depression are broadly similar to the standard approaches outlined in Chapters 8 and 9, and, therefore, this chapter, after an outline of the broad approach to therapy, will focus on the interventions aimed at activity and problem-solving, which are particularly characteristic of treatment for depression.

Course of treatment

CBT for depression usually contains the following elements, although, of course, this list needs adapting to your individual client. For instance, severely depressed clients may need more behavioural strategies, especially early in the course of therapy.


  1. Identify the initial target problem list (i.e. a list of specificproblems, not a general description such as ‘depression’; a problem list might contain items such as ‘Poor sleep’, ‘Difficulties in marital relationship’, ‘Lack of enjoyable activity’ and so on).
  2. Introduce the cognitive model and how it may apply to this client, through building a formulation (as in Chapter 4).
  3. Begin work on reducing the symptoms, through behavioural or simple cognitive strategies.
  4. Focus in the central part of therapy on the main work of identifying and challenging NATs through thought records, discussion and behavioural experiments.
  5. Towards the end of therapy, identify and modify dysfunctional assumptions and/or core beliefs as necessary, with a view to reducing the risk of relapse.

Components of CBT for depression

CBT for depression usually contains the following components:


  • Behavioural strategies, including activity scheduling and graded task assignments.
  • Early cognitive strategies, including distraction and counting thoughts.
  • The main cognitive behavioural work of monitoring and testing NATs.
  • Relapse prevention, including working with dysfunctional assumptions and/or core beliefs, and revising earlier strategies (see Chapter 17’s section on schema-focused work for ideas about how to work with core beliefs).

Beck et al. (1979) prescribed a course of therapy lasting 15–20 sessions, with the first few sessions delivered at the rate of twice a week. Many ordinary clinical settings modify this to a standard weekly pattern and, perhaps, also reduce the total number of sessions. Clinical experience suggests that the protocol is sufficiently robust to withstand such modifications, but it is worth considering whether more frequent sessions are both desirable and feasible in particular cases.

Activity scheduling

Activity scheduling is one of the core therapeutic techniques in CBT for depression (Beck et al., 1979). It is based on the ideas embodied in the ‘Reduction of activity’ vicious circle in Figure 12.1, i.e. the notion that one maintaining factor for low mood is the reduction of activity that commonly accompanies it, which in turn leads to a loss of enjoyment and achievement, thus maintaining the low mood. Activity scheduling was derived from basic behavioural ideas about the need to build up reinforcing activities but has since developed into a sophisticated cognitive strategy. In fact, current conceptions would construe activity scheduling partly as a specialised form of behavioural experiment (see Chapter 9, and Fennell, Bennett-Levy & Westbrook, 2004).

Figure 12.2    The weekly activity schedule (WAS)

The weekly activity schedule (WAS)

The WAS, illustrated in Figure 12.2, is the essential tool for activity scheduling. It is basically a simple timetable grid with hours of the day down one side and days of the week across the top, so that there is a slot for every hour of the day. The version shown here has sufficient hourly slots to accommodate most clients but can be adapted if, for instance, you have a client who has severe early morning waking, so that the grid might need to start at 4 am instead of 6 am. Note also that if you are making a template WAS, it is best to (a) make it much bigger than this, so that there is more space for the client to write (one A4 or letter page is usually sufficient); and (b) leave the days of the week blank so that a client you are seeing, for example, on a Wednesday can start his WAS on that or the following day, filling in the ‘days’ column headings appropriately.

Using the WAS as a record

The first stage of activity scheduling is to use the WAS as a self-monitoring tool, to gather information about the client’s activities. This information may be used in two ways, as in the two approaches to behavioural experiments described in Chapter 9:


  • The WAS may be used in the sense of discovery, simply to find out what is happening, how the client is spending his time and what activities are giving any pleasure or achievement (see below).
  • The WAS may also be used in a spirit of hypothesis-testing. For example, for a client whose negative thoughts lead him to dismiss his efforts at coping as ‘useless’ or ‘pathetic’, the WAS can be used to get a more accurate record of what he is actually doing, in order to test the client’s belief that he is ‘useless’.

In either case, typical guidance for clients using a WAS should contain the following points:


  • Complete the record at the end of each hour, or as close as possible to it (to avoid the effects of negative memory bias if you do it later).
  • Each hour slot should contain:
    a a brief description of how you spent the time during that hour;
    b two numbers, labelled P (for Pleasure) and A (for Achievement).
  • Use these numbers to say how much you enjoyedwhat you did during that hour (Pleasure) and how much you felt you’d managed something it was hard for you to do (Achievement). These numbers can be anywhere from 0 (none at all) to 10 (the most possible). So P1 would mean it was only slightly enjoyable. P8 would mean it was very enjoyable. In rating your Pleasure and Achievement, remember to use your current activity level as the standard. When you are well, it might not be much of an achievement to get up and dressed (it might rate only A0 or A1), but it might well be a considerable achievement when you are depressed (maybe even A8 or A9 on some days).
  • Note that ‘P’ and ‘A’ don’t necessarily go together. Some activities are pleasurable but don’t give much sense of achievement (e.g. eating a bar of chocolate); some are achievements but not necessarily pleasurable (e.g. doing a chore); some activities may give you both (e.g. going to a social occasion when you didn’t feel like it but ending up enjoying it).

Figure 12.3 shows part of a completed WAS.

Figure 12.3    A sample WAS

Using WAS records

There are three main things for you and your client to look for when the completed WAS is returned.


  1. You can get a better picture of how active the client really is. Sometimes it shows that the client is actually doing more than he initially indicated – maybe even overworking. On the other hand, the record may show that indeed he is doing very little (in which case, increasing activity will be useful later).
  2. Second, the record can help you see which activities, if any, give the client at least somesense of achievement and pleasure. When you start to think about changes, these are the activities it may be worth increasing.
  3. Finally, you can use the information to plan changes. What does it suggest needs to change? Is the client spending long periods doing very little except feeling low? Does it look as if there are lots of chores that must be done, but very little enjoyable activity? Are there any activities the client enjoys at least a bit, or which improve his mood even a little and which he might do more of?

In addition to these activity-specific observations, the WAS provides an excellent laboratory in which you and the client can begin to observe NATs, noticing how thoughts and behaviour affect each other and using this to encourage the client to start spotting NATs in action (e.g. NATs that block activity). You can watch out for this kind of thought and work with them via discussion or behavioural experiments. For example, if your client’s attempts to do a particular task are blocked by NATs along the lines of ‘I won’t enjoy it’ or ‘I’ll only make a mess of it’, then you could set up a behavioural experiment to see how true that is.

Maria’s WAS immediately showed that her life was currently divided between hectic activity, almost all of which consisted of necessary but unrewarding chores, followed by what she called ‘collapsing in a heap’, when she would just sit and stare into space (often ruminating about how useless she was). This monitoring helped her and her therapist to identify (a) the need to find some activity that she found pleasant or enjoyable; and (b) the fact that despite her constant chores, she placed no value on this activity and still saw herself as ‘useless’.

Using the WAS as a planning tool

The next step is for you and the client to use what you have learned to plan future activity. There are three common ways to improve mood through activity:


  1. To increase the overall level of activity if it is low.
  2. To focus specifically on doing more of the things that give the client some sense of pleasure and achievement. If nothing is giving much pleasure at the moment, then it is worth thinking about things the client usedto enjoy and plan to restart some of those.
  3. Activity scheduling can be used as a way of doing behavioural experiments to test out negative cognitions about activity. For example, using a WAS to monitor and rate Pleasure and Achievement may enable your client to combat ‘all or nothing’ thinking that tends to see Achievement as being either complete success or complete failure.

During this phase, instead of simply monitoring what he does, the client uses the WAS as a timetable to plan increases in activity and, specifically, activities identified as providing some pleasure or achievement. How much detail is needed, and how much activity should be aimed for, will depend on the individual client: in general, the more depressed the client is, the more detailed planning he may need and the lower the initial goals for activity may need to be. Early on, you may need to be closely involved in planning, but later on the client can take on more of this task for himself.

Figure 12.4    Excerpt from Maria’s activity plan

Maria agreed to construct with her therapist an activity plan (Figure 12.4) that still had time for necessary chores but which also started to build in some time for activities that she used to enjoy, such as watching movies on DVD. An important – although difficult – area for her was re-establishing social contacts. Although she was generally a sociable person who enjoyed contact with others, she had become almost completely socially withdrawn after her years of depression.

Graded task assignment

The best general principle in planning activity is ‘graded tasks’. In other words, aim to build up activity step by step, rather than attempting to go in one jump from no activity at all to being busy all day. Because of the depressed client’s extreme sensitivity to any possibility of failure, it will usually be counterproductive to agree tasks that are too far forward from where the client is now. If he does not manage to complete the task, it will be likely to be counted as a failure and taken as further reason to lose hope. It is usually better to agree a smaller but manageable task. For example, if your client wants to take up reading again after giving up because of concentration difficulties, then it is unlikely that he will be able to read a whole novel by next week. It will usually be better to negotiate a target he believes he can achieve, even if this is only to read one page by next week (but make sure that the target does not get so small that the client sees it as trivial).

Although Maria wanted to get back into social relationships, she was very anxious about how she would manage, and about how others would respond if she tried to make contact. A step-wise programme was therefore agreed, starting with making a brief phone call to her sister, with whom she still had some contact, and working up towards approaching friends with whom she had lost contact and trying to arrange to see them. Only one old contact failed to respond positively to Maria’s approaches, and discussion in session allowed her to keep this in proportion to the many positive reactions she had.


There is some evidence that reasonably high levels of physical exercise may have a significant effect on depression, with some studies finding effects comparable to anti-depressants (Greist & Klein, 1985; Martinsen, Medhus & Sandvik, 1985). Current NICE guidance (2009c) includes a recommendation for structured physical activity as a possible low intensity intervention for people with ‘persistent sub-threshold depressive symptoms or mild to moderate depression’, adding that such activity should:


  • be delivered in groups, with support from a competent practitioner;
  • consist typically of three sessions per week of moderate duration (45–60 minutes) over an average of 12 weeks.

It is therefore worth encouraging clients to make exercise sessions a part of their activity planning (see also Chapter 10). It has been our experience that some clients initially engage more easily with physical activity than with some of the CBT interventions that require more intellectual application. For example, some adolescents might more readily take to physical exercise and become engaged with CBT that way.

Common problems in activity scheduling

Lack of pleasure

It is important to realise that in the early stages of fighting depression, clients are not likely to enjoy anything as much as they did before the depression. It is important to prepare clients for the fact that initially they will probably have to force themselves to do things even though they do not derive much pleasure from them. Persevering should at least give the client some sense of achievement, and, eventually, the enjoyment should return as well. It is also important to convey the idea of pleasure as a continuum, not all or nothing. We are looking for some increase in enjoyment, not an instant return to full enjoyment.

Excessive standards

It is also important that the client recognises that achievements do not have to be at the level of winning the Nobel Prize to be worthwhile. Spending 10 minutes tidying up a messy kitchen drawer can help the client feel he has done something useful today and may be a considerable achievement. It is important to help your client apply realistic standards in evaluating tasks and activities. What was easy when he was well may be difficult (and therefore warrant a higher achievement score) when he is depressed.

Vague planning

When planning activities, it is better to be specific. In other words, try to help the client move from vague goals like ‘I must do more’ to specific activities at specific times, e.g. ‘Go and buy that birthday card on Wednesday morning’. If a goal or target is vague (‘I must do more’) it is all too easy for the depressed person to downgrade achievements or to ‘move the goal posts’: ‘I didn’t really do anything, I bought a few things in town. So what? Anyone can do that.’ If buying the card is set up as a specific task, then there is no doubt that a particular goal has been achieved and it is more difficult to dismiss it.

Jacobson’s dismantling study and the behavioural activation approach

Anyone who might doubt the value of activity scheduling and behavioural methods in treating depression, should read Jacobson et al.’s (1996) fascinating study comparing outcomes between three versions of CBT for depression, based on ‘dismantling’ the classic Beckian therapy. One treatment was normal Beckian therapy, and this was compared with two ‘stripped down’ versions: one in which therapists used only the behavioural components of CBT (including activity scheduling) and one in which they used both behavioural and cognitive methods but only at the level of automatic thoughts, with no direct targeting of assumptions or core beliefs. What they found was that all three treatments produced similar outcomes and also similar changes on measures of negative cognitions. One possible conclusion is that different methods may achieve the same end result of cognitive and emotional change by different pathways. Following on from this study, colleagues of Jacobson’s elaborated their behavioural treatment into a new therapy for depression known as ‘behavioural activation’ (see Chapter 17).

Cognitive strategies in depression

There are two phases of cognitive work in classic CBT for depression. In the first phase the aim is to help the client get some symptom relief by using simple strategies to reduce the impact of NATs on mood (with the useful secondary aim of providing evidence about how thoughts can influence mood). In the second phase, the NATs are confronted more directly, with the aim of helping the client consider them more carefully and, if appropriate, find alternative thoughts through all the methods discussed earlier in this book: finding alternatives, looking for evidence, devising behavioural experiments and so on.

Early cognitive strategies

The goals of these strategies are to distract the client from his NATs, and/or to change his attitude towards them. Other exercises are designed to promote a change of attitude towards NATs. Instead of getting ‘swallowed up’ by them, the aim is to get some distance from them, for the client to see them as ‘just thoughts’ rather than obvious truths about themselves or the world. Counting the thoughts can help – not paying any other attention to them, just counting them, with the same attitude one might have in spotting how many pigeons there are in one’s neighbourhood: ‘There’s one … and another … oh, and there’s another’! One metaphor to describe this approach is to imagine one’s stream of thoughts as a rather dirty and polluted river, with all kinds of sewage and garbage in it. Initially, your client may be like someone who has fallen into the river and is being swept along by it, surrounded by all the garbage. The new attitude is like climbing out of the river and standing on the bank, watching it all go by; the garbage is all still there, but the client is likely to be less affected by it. This is similar to the mindfulness approaches outlined in Chapter 17.

Main cognitive strategies

The bulk of a course of CBT for depression will be taken up with NATs, using the approach outlined in Chapters 8 and 9. That is, sessions will include, in varying proportions according to the stage of therapy and the client’s reaction to therapy:


  • identifying NATs, using self-monitoring, thought records, in-session mood changes, etc.;
  • verbal discussion of the NATs, to examine their accuracy and helpfulness;
  • identifying realistic alternative thoughts;
  • using behavioural experiments to gather evidence that will help the client to test out NATs and the new alternative thoughts.


CBT is, of course, not the only effective treatment for depression, and in particular, anti-depressant medication is helpful for many depressed clients. There is currently less concern about dependence and withdrawal for anti-depressants, compared to anxiolytics, and there is no conflict between pharmaceutical treatment and psychological therapy. In fact, there is some evidence that for people with more severe depression, the combination of both forms of treatment is better than either alone (e.g. Thase et al., 1997; NICE, 2009c).

Dealing with suicidal thoughts

The risk of suicide in depressed clients should not be overestimated – the vast majority of depressed clients do not commit suicide – but it clearly needs to be taken seriously, and you should respond to any sign of suicidal ideation, sometimes even if it means breaking confidentiality. For this reason, you should always be very clear at the outset of treatment that you are bound by law to break confidentiality if you think that your client is a risk to themselves (or others). Do not delay telling your client this; it is less likely to disrupt your therapeutic relationship if you disclose your ethical obligations when you begin therapy.

Professional consensus is that amongst the risk factors for suicide are the following (Peruzzi & Bongar, 1999):


  • Acute suicidal ideation
  • A history of suicide attempts, or family history of suicide
  • The medical seriousness of any previous attempts
  • Severe hopelessness
  • Attraction to death
  • Recent losses or separations
  • Misuse of alcohol.

Management of suicidal clients

You need to have a basic management plan in place so that you can safely continue cognitive therapy. The elements of such a plan might include the following:


  • Make sure that the client is either supervised or has immediate access to support whenever he needs it;
  • Take steps to help the client or others to remove any easily accessible means of suicide (e.g. potentially toxic medication, poisons, ropes, guns, car keys, etc.);
  • Establish ways of managing suicidal crises, should they occur: for example, arranging for the client to contact a friend or family member, or contact a crisis team if one is available. Ensure that plans are specific and clear and, perhaps, have a written copy for your client to carry around.
  • Work on building up the therapeutic relationship so that the client will see you as someone who is trustworthy and understanding and who can offer some credible hope.
  • Consider seeing if the client will agree at least to postpone suicide and not carry it out until a certain time has passed (e.g. not before your next meeting).
  • Use aspects of therapy to ‘play for time’ until the crisis has passed: e.g. encourage engagement in therapy and curiosity about where it is going; ‘build bridges’ from the end of one session to the next session (‘That’s interesting – shall we explore that next time?’).

Exploring and working with reasons for suicide

It is important to give clients a space in which to talk about suicidal thoughts and to approach the topic in a matter-of-fact way that gives the clear message that the topic is not off limits. You will not make someone more likely to commit suicide by asking about their suicidal thoughts, and you may have a chance to prevent suicide if the topic is in the open. Important aspects of this discussion will include:


  • exploring the client’s reason for suicide – there are two common main categories of reason:

a   to escape from an unbearable life, depression etc. (‘It’s the only way out’) – this is probably the most common reason for suicide, and the most dangerous;

b   to solve an external problem (e.g. to hold onto a relationship, take revenge, or elicit care);


  • building up with the client reasons for living versus reasons for dying, including past reasons for living which might become valid again in future;
  • exploring the beliefs leading to hopelessness and using guided discovery to help elicit information that might be inconsistent with those beliefs;
  • working on a problem area that has a high probability of being resolved fairly quickly, so as to decrease hopelessness;
  • using problem-solving for ‘real-life’ problems that are leading to hopelessness (see below).

Structured problem-solving

There is some evidence both that depressed people have deficits in social problem-solving and that teaching structured problem-solving can be an effective therapy for people with depression (see, for example, Nezu, Nezu & Perri, 1989; Mynors-Wallis, Davies, Gray, Barbour & Gath, 1997; Mynors-Wallis, Gath & Baker, 2000). This may be especially useful with clients whose formulation includes something like the poor coping/hopelessness maintenance cycle outlined in Figure 12.1; it may also be helpful in dealing with suicidal ideas as outlined above.

The main steps for your client to follow in doing problem-solving are as follows:


  • Identify the problem he wishes to work on. It is important to be clear about what exactly is the nature of the problem. For example, not just ‘Problems in my marriage’ but something more precise about the nature of those problems, such as ‘My wife and I don’t talk together enough’, or ‘We never have any time to go out together’.
  • Think of as many possible ways of solving this problem as he can.This stage can be difficult, particularly with problems that have been around for a long time. Clients may have an immediate negative response to every solution they think of: ‘That wouldn’t work’, or ‘I’ve tried that’. To overcome this, it can be helpful to start with ‘brainstorming’, in other words the client tries to come up with as many ideas as he can, without any judgement at this stage as to whether they are useful, sensible or even possible. The aim is to generate lots of approaches, no matter how wild or impractical they may seem. The rule is to write down anything that comes into his mind as a possible solution, no matter how daft. The reason for this is that even wild solutions may generate other thoughts which might be useful. With more severely depressed clients, it may also be helpful for the therapist to begin with some suggestions if the client is completely stuck.
  • After generating the list of possible solutions, work out which solution, or combination of solutions, seems to be the best.Again, it is best to structure this process so that your client thinks carefully about each possible solution, without dismissing any of them too early. Only solutions that are clearly unacceptable should be disposed of immediately.
  • A good way to weigh up solutions is to think systematically about the pros and cons of each one, making sure you consider both long- and short-term ones. Take the first possible solution and make a list of what the advantages and disadvantages of that solution would be. Then do the same for the next possible solution, then the next, and so on. Use this list of pros and cons to pick out and rank-order the best few solutions.
  • Pick the solution that seems to offer the most favourable balance.Two problems can arise here. First, it can sometimes be true that no solution emerges as positive overall: they all have more negatives than positives. If that is the case, and you really have gone through every possible solution, then the client needs to accept that he has no choice but to pick the least bad one – it may not be good, but it is still better than the others.
  • Second, you may find that when you go through the list, they all come out pretty much the same, with your client feeling that there is no clear winner. If that is so, and again if you really have gone through all possible solutions, then just pick one solution randomly and try that. Sometimes, the process of doing this will help the client realise that actually he does have a preference for one solution, because he finds himself wishing he had picked that one.
  • When a solution is identified, use the principle of ‘small steps’.As always, small steps are usually better than giant leaps, because they are more likely to be successful and thus generate hope. Ask your client to think about what would be the first step towards carrying out his preferred solution. For instance, if he has decided a solution to a problem would be to find a new job, the first step might be to buy the local paper and look at what kind of job is available at the moment. It is probably much easier to do that first step than to imagine the whole process of ending up with a new job. Take it one step at a time.
  • Put into action whatever is the first step to a solution, and then review how it went.Does this solution seem to be along the right lines? If not, why not? Do you need to modify the initial plan in the light of what has happened? Even solutions that look good on paper may turn out not to work in practice. Don’t worry if this happens. By trying it out, your client will probably have learned something useful which may help him work out a better solution. If some major problem arises when he tries to put his solution into practice, you may need to identify that as a new problem. Then start the whole process again so that you can first find a solution to that problem.
  • Continue this process until the problem is solved or it is clear that there are no possible solutions.You can go round and round the cycle of identifying problems, solutions and steps towards solutions until the problem improves. Of course, some problems may not have any practical solution – but beware of jumping to that conclusion too quickly. If there really is no solution, then you probably need to go back to cognitive strategies to help the client find a different way of reacting to the situation.

Potential problems in treating depressed clients

The nature of depression

It is obvious – but nevertheless important to remember – that the depressed client is often negative in his thinking, lacking in drive and energy, and hopeless about the possibility of change. Depression can also result in a ‘depressing environment’: e.g. your client’s depression leads to his losing his job, or to marital difficulties, which then tend to maintain his low mood. It is therefore hardly surprising that you may find yourself struggling to engage clients. They may find it difficult to take any action, greet every suggestion with ‘That will never work’ and be tempted to give up at every real or imagined ‘failure’.

Therapists too may have difficulties in working with depression. You may find yourself ‘infected’ by the client’s pessimism, silently thinking that he is right and things are indeed as bad as he thinks they are. Of course, that could be an accurate view, but you should be careful about buying into it too easily without a great deal of evidence. Although it may be the case that your client is facing genuine difficulties and at least some of his negative thoughts are accurate, there is usually still room for questioning and looking for alternatives. It may be bad, but it is usually not so bad that 100% of people would feel as the client does, so there must be some room for alternative views. On the other hand, it is also important not to get so bound up with being so sceptical and positive that you come across as unempathic or impatient. Clients need to know that you understand where they’re coming from before you start trying to help them see where they might go to. Kennerley, Mueller and Fennell (2010) have some ideas on managing the impact of such difficulties on yourself. The problems described here may be particularly difficult when working with chronic and severe depression (see Moore & Garland (2003) for a useful guide to such work).

Hopelessness and ‘Yes, buts’

As we have just noted, most depressed clients will inevitably bring to therapy some of the negative thinking that pervades the rest of their lives. They will be hopeless about the possibilities of change and tend to have negative thoughts about therapy, with ‘Yes, but …’ being a common reaction to attempts to broaden their thinking. For you, as a therapist, it is important not to be too influenced by this way of thinking but to remain (realistically) optimistic and to understand that your client’s reactions to therapy are part of the depressive syndrome. Graded task assignments, as discussed earlier in this chapter, are a good way to get small successes that will help to build the client’s confidence. Behavioural experiments are also a good way to drive home verbal discussions so that new ways of thinking are not just vague theoretical possibilities but are tested out in action. Sometimes such ‘Yes buts’ reflect extremely fixed fundamental beliefs, so it may be helpful to consider some of the schema-focused strategies inChapter 17.

Slow pace

Depressed clients may be slowed up in their thinking and behaviour and, even if they are not, the pace of sessions and the speed of change early in treatment is likely to be slow. It is helpful if you are prepared for this, and adapt to it, but do not become discouraged by it. Monitoring progress using some measure such as the BDI (Chapter 4) may also be useful in picking up small but steady changes.

Feedback in sessions

As noted in Chapter 11, asking the client to give you feedback on a session is a standard part of CBT. However, it may be particularly important to encourage the depressed client to do this openly, because his negative bias makes it particularly likely that some words or behaviour on your part may be misinterpreted as being critical or rejecting of him. For the same reason, it is always worth noting and enquiring about any apparent decline in mood during a session: what went through your client’s mind when that happened?


Relapse is a particular problem in depression, with estimates that as many as 50% of depressed clients will relapse within two years of the end of ‘successful’ treatment. It is therefore especially important to develop a relapse plan (see Chapter 6) and perhaps also consider offering ‘continuation’ therapy at lower intensity to help maintain and consolidate gains (Vittengl, Clark & Jarret, 2010).




  • The key feature of cognition in depression is the ‘cognitive triad’, consisting of negative thinking about oneself, the world and the future:

o    perception, interpretation and recall of events all tend to be negatively biased.

  • The main components of CBT for depression may include:

o    behavioural strategies such as activity scheduling

o    early negative thought management strategies such as distraction

o    the main cognitive work of testing negative thoughts through discussion and behavioural experiments

o    relapse prevention, including possible work on dysfunctional assumptions and core beliefs.

  • The weekly activity schedule (WAS) is a valuable tool in monitoring, and later counteracting, the loss of activity that is a common feature of depression, as well as providing useful data about negative thinking.
  • Suicidal thoughts represent a particular challenge in depression and need to be tackled openly and carefully.
  • Structured problem-solving can be helpful in tackling genuinely negative situations.

Learning exercises

Review and reflection:


  • Therapists sometimes find working with severe depression challenging. What are your own reactions to working with depressed clients? What thoughts or beliefs affect your work with this group?
  • Although there are of course significant differences between ordinary low moods and a clinical depression, nevertheless most of us have someexperience of low mood, and the odds are that the high prevalence of depression means that some readers of this book will have experienced that as well. Thinking about your own experience of low mood or depression, what kind of thoughts and behavioural changes were most prominent for you? Did they fit well with the outline in this chapter? Were there any differences and if so, what were they?
  • Some therapists tend not to use activity scheduling much in depression, thinking it is ‘not cognitive enough’ or ‘too simplistic’. What are your thoughts about its value? What are the possible advantages of using it with depressed clients?
  • Have you ever found yourself as a therapist being ‘infected’ by a client’s depression, i.e. becoming convinced that things are just as bad as your client thinks? What effect did this have on the therapy?

Taking it forward:


  • If you have not used activity scheduling or problem-solving much before, what plans can you make to try it out with the next suitable client? How will you evaluate its usefulness with this client?
  • What could you do differently or how would you need to think differently to prevent future ‘depressive infection’?
  • Try to make a point of asking everyclient for feedback at the end of every session, and see what emerges. What kind of feedback do you get from depressed clients? Are there any common themes? What lessons for the future can you take from this?

Further reading

Beck, A.T., Rush, A.J., Shaw, B.F., & Emery, G. (1979). Cognitive therapy of depression. New York: Guilford Press.

As noted in Chapter 1, a classic of cognitive therapy.

Martell, C., Addis, M., & Jacobson, N. (2001). Depression in context: strategies for guided action. New York: Norton.

The seminal book on the approach to depression known as ‘behavioural activation’, which grew out of the Jacobson dismantling study discussed in this chapter (see also Chapter 17 of this book).

Moore, R., & Garland, A. (2003). Cognitive therapy for chronic and persistent depression. Chichester: Wiley.

A very useful guide to adapting standard ‘Beckian’ CBT to the particular challenges of chronic, or treatment-resistant, depression, including helpful clinical examples.