I have been interested in depression research since I was in high school, even submitting a proposal to determine its prevalence at my school to the science fair committee (unfortunately, it was rejected!). Given that so many people suffer from depression and anxiety, and a certain amount don’t respond to treatment, it became clear to me that I wanted to dedicate my time to figuring out ways to make mental health treatments more effective and readily available for community settings.
I was recently awarded a Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship, a program designed to increase diversity in academia. As a Latina from Puerto Rico completing a Ph.D. at Indiana University, I will receive research support for three years to shed light on the issue of how and why cognitive behavioral therapy works.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is an established, research-supported psychosocial intervention that can alleviate the suffering caused by depression and anxiety, the two most prevalent mental disorders.
This type of therapy recognizes that there is interconnectedness between thoughts, behaviors, feelings, and sensations, and that targeting any of these systems could lead to improvement in symptoms. It remains unclear exactly how and what components of this technique make it work so effectively, however. Solving this puzzle could potentially increase the potency and efficiency of cognitive behavioral therapy.
Specifically, my research plan for this fellowship centers on investigating how two cognitive behavioral therapy skills impact clients’ changes in symptoms: cognitive restructuring and behavioral activation.
- Cognitive restructuring is a technique used to identify and label dysfunctional thoughts with the goal of developing rational responses that are more useful, allowing the client to interpret situations in a more effective way.
- Behavioral activation seeks to help clients become more engaged in their daily lives with the goal of increasing their self-efficacy, sense of achievement, and pleasure.
Both techniques are used in cognitive behavioral therapy for depression and anxiety, yet their direct relation to symptoms has not been formally tested.
Through my tenure as a Ford Fellow, I will evaluate how cognitive restructuring and behavioral activation are taught to clients, and determine if, when, and how clients are implementing these skills in their daily lives. This type of information will allow us to determine the level of impact these techniques have on client symptom improvement.
Thus, this research has the potential of answering part of why and how cognitive works for depression and anxiety.
In turn, the results from this project will provide information about which therapist behaviors are responsible for symptom reduction, in hopes that it will help maximize treatment efficiency by understanding the optimal timing of therapist application of cognitive behavioral therapy techniques.
Data for this research is being collected at Indiana University’s CBT Research and Training Clinic. If you or anyone you know is experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety, we invite you to contact the clinic for service and referral options.