Socratic Questioning Helpful For Those Suffering From Depression

“You can’t do anything right.” You might bristle, and begin mounting a defense, if someone said this to you, but what if this statement is your own voice speaking from inside your head? Should you question it? A new study out of Ohio State University says yes, and with the guidance of a qualified therapist, you may reduce symptoms of depression by examining the logic of your inner critic using Socratic questioning.

Critical self-talk feeds depression

Thoughts spring up in our minds, automatically it seems, and our feelings follow. A continual barrage of negative thoughts can send you on a downward spiral into depression and despair. What we tell ourselves about ourselves determines how we feel throughout the day. For someone suffering clinical depression, that inner critic can be blamed for developing and increasing a sense of worthlessness and hopelessness.

Cognitive behavioral therapy: Identify your thinking distortions

Cognitive behavioral therapy , often abbreviated as CBT, is based on the premise that feelings stem from thoughts. By learning to take control of your thoughts, you can reverse negative feelings and relieve depressive symptoms. When you view one disappointment as a sign you will always be disappointed, you are experiencing a cognitive distortion. In reality, not getting that promotion at work, or having a relationship you invested in fail, does not mean you will never advance in your career or are doomed to spend the rest of your life alone. If your inner voice says differently, you need to question it. CBT methods train you to look objectively at your self-talk and Socratic questioning can help you realize the errors in your negative thinking.

Socrates and the inner demon

While cognitive behavioral therapy is relatively new — it was developed by Aaron Beck in the mid-1960s — it has its roots in ancient Greece. Athenian philosopher Socrates is believed to be the first in Western culture to recognize the importance of inner voices, which he referred to as demons, and how those voices can lead to faulty reasoning. Socrates used a system of questioning to guide his pupils along a path of self-awareness and expanded knowledge. Beck’s CBT includes applying this system of questioning with his patients as a way of helping them “examine the evidence” and determine if the negative view they held of themselves and their lives is realistic.

Testing your assumptions

The Socratic method of questioning eliminates errors in thinking by offering hypotheses and identifying those that don’t hold up to scrutiny. For example, if you believe a failed relationship means you are unlovable, a therapist may ask, “How did you come to this conclusion?” You would then be prompted to verify or disprove your response.

Socratic questioning reduces depressive symptoms

Researchers at Ohio State University sought to discover the effectiveness of the Socratic questioning method with individual depression patients. Their study, Therapist use of Socratic questioning predicts session-to-session symptom change in cognitive therapy for depression, compared session-to-session data for 55 patients who participated in a 16-week course of therapy. They found that the greater a therapist’s use of Socratic questioning, the greater the reduction in the patient’s depressive symptoms.

CBT is an effective treatment for depression. Socratic questioning is one tool CBT therapists use to lead their patients towards recovery. The Ohio State study is the first to provide evidence that use of Socratic questioning is linked to a change in depressive symptoms. While this study did not uncover the mechanism responsible for this change, the authors suspect therapeutic gains are made as Socratic questioning creates changes in a patient’s awareness. It forces them to think outside their dark boxes. Additionally, the authors believe that Socratic questioning allows patients to be more active in their treatment, and the process helps them develop skills emphasized in therapy.