The Cognitive Triad: The cycle of depressive thoughts

It is said that there is always an underlying cause for depression. If there exists a cause, there will subsequently be its effect. This is clear in theory, but in practice the cause is a lot harder to discover than the effect. In the case of learned helplessness, the source of the issue is buried deep within the subconscious mind, masking it further.

Here, let us take a detailed look at the American psychiatrist Dr. Aaron T. Beck’s explanation for depression. In his famous theory, he sheds much needed light on how our subconscious thought patterns are at fault for our depressive states.

In this article, I will clarify Dr. Beck’s perspectives and outline the best treatment and management strategies for depression.

Bonus content: At the end of the article, there are some fun trivia about depression, and the career and peers of Dr. Beck.


Dr. Aaron T. Beck believes that holding onto negative views can detach an individual’s perception of reality from that which is commonly accepted and understood. The individual in question would not be aware that their perception of reality is so estranged from those of others. These occurrences are known as cognitive distortions.

Cognitive distortions can be understood as the incorrect processing of information. They are automatic and internal, and we do not voice out these thoughts. It is derived from our developing schema that grows based on our past experiences.

Schemas are compositions of our knowledge of the world; they are the culmination of both our thoughts and sensations. Learning new things is thus very important, since we rely less on baseless speculation and more on cold-hard information. Speculation can lead to self-doubt, insecurity and cognitive errors, so a strong basis in reality is important.

A person who experiences intense depressive thoughts tends to shift their focus from the good aspects of a situation to the bad ones. Instead of seeing the good that can potentially arise from a situation, they see only the immediate negative. This creates a pessimistic approach, which in turn degrades the subject’s state of mind.

Breaking the cycle can be hard, and especially so if one holds the misbelief that it is the only way to be. To become a defeatist as a means of coping is as good as to giving up, and ultimately it is not the easiest path through a painful situation.

Understanding the Cognitive Triad

The concept of the cognitive triad is simple to understand. The three ‘corners’ responsible for depression are identified by Dr Beck in an attempt to reconcile our own impressions of worth, identity and purpose.

Here we take a look at these three factors in further detail. By breaking down the diagram above into smaller parts we can better understand the differing aspects of our own psyche.

Negative views on oneself: “I am worthless!”

People see themselves in all different shades, lenses and colours. Unfortunately, ‘filters’ would be a better term since we often exclusively see the bad and ignore the good in all things. Yes, we are just that much biased.

We are the product of our own environments, for better or for worse. At the end of the day, our mental wellbeing comes down to how much we’re willing to let external variables define us.

Sometimes, we can’t help but feel a little down; this is fine, and this is normal. However, it is of the utmost importance to pick yourself up and brush yourself off. If you don’t, your ‘off-day’ can become an ‘off-week’, and the situation can further worsen.

If this continues, you may begin to feel genuinely worthless, unloved, and drowning in despair. That sort of thinking is absolutely not acceptable.

Those are ‘half-truths’, if you will; they are not objectively true, but to the subjective viewpoint of the sufferer, they can seem vividly real. So, break the cycle!

Negative views on the world: “Everyone hates me because I am worthless!”

Is that really so?

Any exposure to highly emotional circumstances has the potential to radically redefine our worldview. This is a learned behaviour that helps us recognise threats and posable dangers in our environment.

However, it only becomes problematic when we generalise the world (or external forces) as a “dangerous” whole. This may mistakenly result in us thinking that the world presents us with trials that are simply insurmountable.

At this point it might seem as if we will never be happy, no matter what we try.

Negative views on the future: “I’ll never be good at anything because everyone hates me!”

This is when we expect failure or rejection even before making any attempt to succeed. This way of thinking makes us set extremely low expectations for any outcome, and ultimately results in us restraining our efforts to succeed.

This links back to the first point about holding negative views on ourselves. When our future is believed to be dark, inescapable, and shrouded in misery, we will incorporate that same misery into our present selves, believing that our lives amount to nothing if there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

It is a toxic and vicious cycle to hold oneself to false, unpromising futures. Every time we set off the cycle of cognitive distortion, the foundation of those beliefs cement. Thus, it becomes part of a much larger paradox.

Treatment and management:

Cognitive restructuring (Beck, 1979)

“Cognitive therapy seeks to alleviate psychological stresses by correcting faulty conceptions and self-signals. By correcting erroneous beliefs we can lower excessive reactions.”

Aaron T. Beck

Let’s break that cycle! Good news: you don’t have to do this part alone, at least for the most part. You’ll be aided by a licensed therapist in one-to-one sessions. This is a ‘talking therapy’, therefore the effectiveness of the treatment is heavily determinant by your commitments to attending the meetings and your determination to get better.

Cognitive restructuring is primarily aimed at gaining entry into a patient’s cognitive organisation. Therefore, questioning a patient’s irrational thinking to identify cognitive distortions is important to changing a patient’s illogical way of thinking.

Here I will outline the process that a psychologist would take to treat someone suffering from depression. Reading the steps you will realise that the process is quite intuitive, and perhaps it is even something you may have tried on yourself.

1. Explaining depression

“Some authors have conceptualised depression as a “depletion syndrome” because of the prominence of fatiguability: they postulate that the patient exhausts his available energy during the period prior to the onset of the depression and that the depressed state represents a kind of hibernation, during which the patient gradually builds up a new story of energy.”

Aaron T. Beck

Psychologists often take the initiative to further clarify the theory of depression, especially to newer patients in their first attempts to seek professional help. 

This is done to make sure that the patient is well aware that what they are suffering is not uncommon, and so they know that admitting to needing help is the first milestone to recovery.

This also helps patients to better understand the way they view themselves, and that the world may be largely responsible for their depressive states.

2. Observing and recording thoughts

“There is more on the surface than what our eyes can see.”

Aaron T. Beck

Before any treatments can be administered, the psychologist must first identify where exactly the cognitive distortions are present. The psychologist does this by conversing naturally with the patient; through evaluating the responses the psychologist can roughly determine the sort of thought processes occurring in their patient’s mind.

Inconsistent, irrational, and inaccurate statements are recorded on a voice recorder or a blank journal by the patient so that during their therapies, they can work together with the psychologist to fix the anomalies.

Recordings are to be made by the patient even outside therapy sessions. The therapist would encourage them to record as soon as the thoughts occur in real-life scenarios.

3. Linking thoughts with behaviour— ‘Reality testing’

“As applied to substance abuse, the cognitive approach helps individuals to come to grips with the problems leading to emotional distress and to gain a broader perspective on their reliance on drugs for pleasure and/or relief from discomfort.”

Aaron T. Beck

Once enough recordings are produced by the patient, the therapist determines how the patient’s dysfunctional thoughts influences their behaviour, and by extension, how those behaviours affect those around them.

Dysfunctional thoughts are to be discussed with the therapist and the psychologist will further discuss their underlying causes. It is important for the psychologist to challenge the patient, since this is likely to dispel incorrect notions about the world.

4. Reattributing— ‘Reality testing’

“If our thinking is bogged down by distorted symbolic meanings, illogical reasonings, and erroneous interpretations, we become, in truth, blind and deaf.”

Aaron T. Beck

The first part of reality testing is purposed to assist patients in noticing negative thoughts for themselves.

The process of reattribution is where the patient and therapist figure out the origins of the existing problems, and whether they are internal or external. 

5. Seeing a reduction in depressive symptoms

“Stop it, and give yourself a better chance.”

Aaron T. Beck

The patient needs to reframe their perspectives on distressing memories and realise that they are not to be blamed for their situations. The patient must accept that it was an unfortunate circumstance.

The therapy sessions will gradually reduce as the patient begins to practice cognitive restructuring independently on themselves, with little help from their therapist. 

Follow-up sessions finally end when the therapist and patient see a reduction in depressive symptoms.


By understanding the three components of the cognitive triad, we can pinpoint the source of our negativity and target it more effectively. Consequently, we can be our own therapists; competent ones at that. Thanks to his work, Aaron T. Beck has helped millions of people with his simple approach to treating depression.

It’s always important to remember that if you are suffering, you can do something about it. Even if it is something as simple as finding someone else to help you, you deserve the credit for reaching out and trying to get better.


  • At an impressive ninety-nine years old, Aaron T. Beck is famously remembered as the father of cognitive therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy. Researching at a time when mental illness was poorly understood, he was truly a pioneer of his field.
  • Among Dr Beck’s more famous works includes his studies on suicide.
  • He is heavily influenced by other famous psychiatrists such as Martin Seligman, Judith S. Beck and David D. Burns, the latter two are also known for their works on cognitive-behavioural therapy.
  • Avoiding overthinking is a good prevention of cognitive distortions.
  • Cognitive therapies work best on articulate, motivated individuals.
  • Cognitive therapies may not be suitable for bipolar patients as they often have little to no control over their symptoms.


[1] Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapy and the emotional disorders. New York: International Universities Press.

[2] Beck, A. T., Rush, A., Shaw, B., & Emery, G. (1979). Cognitive Therapy of Depression. New York: The Guilford Press.

See also:


The Idea of Learned Helplessness

This one goes out to the people at the back. To all those who who struggle in silence but make it out alive against all odds.

2 thoughts on “The Cognitive Triad: The cycle of depressive thoughts

  1. Fadzilah Awang October 1, 2020 / 10:55 am

    It’s empowering!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Gott Kaiser Michael October 14, 2020 / 10:03 am

    Wow !


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