Feeling depressed and turning to a therapist in search of answers is common, but a new study suggests answering therapists' questions could be key.
Using a technique called 'Socratic questioning', the study is thought to be the first to demonstrate substantial improvements in depressed patients.
It's a form of cognitive therapy employing guided questions that encourage the patient to change his or her perspective and part from negative thought patterns.
"Socratic questioning helps patients examine the validity of their negative thoughts and gain a broader, more realistic perspective," says study co-author Justin Braun, a doctoral student in psychology at Ohio State University (OSU) in the US.
In the study, 55 individuals with depression participated in a 16-week cognitive therapy treatment that used Socratic questioning in some circumstances. At the start of each session, patients' symptoms were assessed using a questionnaire.
Each patient's first three sessions were videotaped for further assessments and researchers concluded that sessions involving Socratic questioning were more likely to lead to patient improvement.
"Patients are learning this process of asking themselves questions and being skeptical of their own negative thoughts," says Braun. "When they do, they tend to see a substantial reduction in their depressive symptoms."
An example of how the method works would be a patient telling his therapist that he feels like a failure because his marriage ended in divorce.
The therapist would then ask a series of Socratic questions such as "Is every divorcee a failure?" and "Can you think of anyone for whom that doesn't apply?"
followed by "How does being divorced make you a failure?" and then "Can you show me evidence that you have succeeded and are therefore not a failure?"
After weaning himself away from therapy, the hope is that the patient will continue to apply the same method himself when he's feeling down.
"They find out that they may be overlooking information that is contrary to their negative thoughts," says co-author Daniel Strunk, an associate professor of psychology at OSU. "They often aren't looking at the whole situation, positive and negative."
The researchers, whose study was published in the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy, are continuing to explore Socratic questioning with more new patients at the Ohio State Depression Treatment and Research Clinic.