A new type of ‘groundbreaking’ mental health therapy can help teenagers stop overthinking, according to recent research.
Overthinking, also called ruminating, is known to be one of the biggest risk factors for depression and anxiety – which affects roughly 44 per cent of US teenagers, studies show.
These thought patterns involve obsessing over the future, as well as regret about events and behaviors of the past.
The latest study used brain scans to show a specific type of cognitive behavioral therapy can reduce connectivity between parts of the brain associated with obsessive thinking – and break the negative thought loop.
Between 10 and 14 sessions of rumination-focused cognitive behavioral therapy reduced the teenage participants’ focus on negative experiences, which was causing them severe anxiety and distress.
Experts have found strikingly positive outcomes for a new type of cognitive behavioral therapy, which can change connections in the brain to reduce symptoms of depression
The results – produced by psychiatrists from Ohio State University and the University of Utah – expanded on previous research from UK and US scientists that showed the approach benefits adults with depression. These findings were described by the science website Science Daily as ‘groundbreaking’.
Depression affects 21 million American adults and nearly 4 million teenagers. It is among the most expensive conditions to treat as well as the most significant risk factor for suicide, which is the fourth leading cause of death among young adults globally.
Current treatments, which include antidepressant medication and standard cognitive behavioral therapy, only work in between a third and half of teenagers.
An estimated 55 percent adults treated for depression will have recurring episodes.
Nearly a third of all US high schoolers report suffering from poor mental health. Young women suffer the most, with 40 percent reporting emotional or psychiatric difficulties in 2021
Dr Rachel Jacobs, a psychiatry professor at Northwestern University who conducted the first set of studies on this intervention back in 2016 said: ‘As a clinician, I continued to observe that standard CBT tools such as cognitive restructuring didn’t give young people the tools to break out of the painful mental loops that contribute to experiencing depression.’
‘If we could find a way to do that, maybe we could help young people stay well as they transition to adulthood, which has become even more important since we’ve observed the mental health impact of Covid-19.’
The researchers believe that initiating rumination-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (RF-CBT) along with traditional therapy could significantly slash the millions of young people who end up chronically depressed.
They enrolled 76 teenagers aged 14 to 17 with a history of depression and split them into two groups: 39 underwent RF-CBT and 37 did not.
Each participant underwent a brain scan before and after the study, and completed a survey to measure their frequency of overthinking.
At the end of the intervention, 35 out of 39 RF-CBT patients saw their rumination scores fall, with an average decline of about 18 percent.
Meanwhile, 28 out of 36 who received standard depression treatment saw their scores fall and the average decline was far lower – less than two percent.
What’s more, MRI scans showed improvements too.
The study did not, however, measure changes in depression or anxiety scores.
Specifically, researchers noted a reduction in the connection between the left posterior cingulate cortex – responsible for memory, including imagining the future – and two other regions: the right inferior frontal gyrus and right inferior temporal gyrus.
These zones govern several cognitive functions including working memory, impulse control and decision making and our ability to make and store visual memories.
Previous research has suggested that reducing connectivity between these regions reduces the type of repetitive thought processes that drive mental distress.
Dr Ed Watkins, an experimental psychology professor at the University of Exeter who developed RF-CBT, said: ‘For the first time, this paper shows that the version of rumination-focused CBT we have developed at the University of Exeter leads to changes in connectivity in brain regions in adolescents with a history of depression.
The CDC found that one in ten US high schoolers attempted suicide in 2021, up from 8.9 percent a year earlier. Females were struck hardest, with 13.3 percent attempting suicide that year
‘This is exciting, as it suggests this CBT either helps patients to gain more effortless control over rumination or makes it less habitual. We urgently need new ways to reduce rumination in this group in order to improve the mental health of our young people.’
Their findings were published in the journal Biological Psychiatry Global Open Science.
Youth mental health took a nosedive during the pandemic, driven by extended bouts of isolation from school and social activities.
A 2021 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that over a third of high school students reported poor mental health during the pandemic, and 44 percent reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless.
More recent figures reflecting the general population showed the general suicide rate in the US reached an all-time high in 2022 – rising 16 percent since 2011.
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