Beck’s cognitive triad is one of the most influential theories to determine the root cause of depressive disorders and offer the ways to cope with them.
Before we discuss Beck’s cognitive triad, we should mention that depression is one of the most common emotional disorders. That’s why substantial efforts have been made to determine its causes.
Extreme sadness, loss of interest in living one’s life, negative thoughts and lack of energy and motivation are the main symptoms of depression.
There are many psychological approaches that aim to understand affective disorders, but we will focus on the cognitive outlook. The cognitive theories of depression focus not only on what people do but also on how they see themselves and the world.
Beck’s cognitive triad
Beck’s cognitive triad, one of the most influential cognitive theories, developed by Aaron Beck, derives from his vast therapeutic experience with depressed patients. Beck noticed that his patients assessed events from a negative and self-critical point of view.
Similarly to Beck’s patients, we appreciate and constantly evaluate what happens to us and what we do. Sometimes we are aware of our assessments, but sometimes we are not.
Beck thinks that the negative thoughts of depressed individuals tend to appear quickly and automatically, as a reflex, and are not the subject of a conscious control. Such thoughts often lead to negative emotions, such as sadness, despair, fear, etc.
Beck has classified the negative thoughts of depressed individuals into three categories, which he defined as the cognitive triad:
- Negative thoughts about oneself
- Those about one’s present experiences
- Those about the future
Self-negative thoughts are about convincing oneself of being a worthless individual, unable to adapt/respond to the requests of the world. A depressed person blames every failure or challenge on these personal inadequacies and flaws of theirs. Even in ambiguous situations, where there are more plausible explanations and factors that affected the outcome, the depressed person will still consider themselves guilty.
The negative perspective on the future makes the person feel hopeless. They believe that their flaws will prevent them from ever improving the situation or lifestyle.
Aaron Beck states that the negative thinking pattern (such as “I am worthless”, “I cannot do anything well” or “I cannot be loved“) is formed during childhood or adolescence as a result of poor parenting, social rejection, criticism from parents or teachers, or a series of traumatic events. These negative beliefs pop up whenever a new situation resembles the past experiences.
Beck’s Cognitive Triad and Cognitive Distortions as the Root Cause of Depression
Depressed individuals unwillingly make systematic errors of thinking (cognitive distortions). These lead them to the erroneous perception of reality in a way that contributes to a negative understanding of self.
The cognitive distortions that characterize depressed people are:
Overgeneralization is when a general conclusion is drawn based on a single event. For instance, a woman who has experienced the infidelity of her husband/boyfriend may tend to assume that all men are disloyal or liars.
Selective abstraction is focusing on insignificant details and ignoring the more important aspects of a situation. For example, the boss praises your professional performance and you interpret it as a hidden criticism since their tone is quite harsh.
The amplification and generalization of facts
The amplification and generalization of facts are about amplifying the negative, insignificant events and minimizing the positive, more important ones. An example would be the following situation. After a successful negotiation, an individual finds their car scratched and considers it a catastrophe while completely forgetting about their previous success at work.
Personalization is the mismanagement of the negative external events. For instance, if the rain spoils the depressed person’s mood, they will consider themselves, not the weather, to be the cause of this mood swing.
The arbitrary presentation
The arbitrary presentation is drawing a conclusion when there is little evidence to support it. Check the following example. A man draws the conclusion, based on the sadness of his wife, that she is disappointed by him. But throughout the conversation, he finds out that his wife’s sadness is caused by other reasons, unrelated to him.
In the case of depression, these distortions solidify a person’s self-image as unworthy and responsible for all kinds of failures and negative situations.
How Understanding Beck’s Cognitive Triad Helps You Challenge Your Cognitive Distortions
In therapy, Beck’s cognitive triad aims at modifying automatic thoughts, cognitive patterns and cognitive distortions. Once the changes have begun at this level, many of the behavioral reactions start to dissolve because they no longer make sense to the person in question.
Also, as a result of the cognitive restructuring, a person can make lasting behavioral changes with less effort.
As an example, we will use a fragment from Beck’s treatment session (1976, p. 250):
Client: I have a speech in front of an audience tomorrow, and I’m pretty scared.
Therapist: Why are you afraid?
Client: I think I’m going to fail
Therapist: Suppose it will be … Why is this so bad?
Client: I will never escape this embarrassment.
Therapist: “Never” is a long time … Now imagine that they will ridicule you. Will you die of this?
Client: Of course not.
Therapist: Suppose they decide that you are the worst speaker in the audience that has ever lived … Will ruin your future career?
Client: No … But it would be nice to be a good speaker.
Therapist: Sure, it would be nice. But if you fail, would your parents or your wife reject you?
Client: No … They are very understanding
Therapist: Well, what would be so terrifying about that?
Client: I would feel rather unhappy
Therapist: For how long?
Client: About a day or two.
Therapist: And then what would happen?
Client: Nothing, everything would be back to normal
Therapist: So you worry so much as if your life depends on this speech
As noted in the conversation between Beck and the patient, it is pivotal to understand the difficulty of an issue. How much of it is an actual threat and how much of the emotional tension is a result of your mind’s overthinking? These are the questions you need to ask yourself to challenge the negative thoughts that feed your depression.