Digital Health

Which Components of CBT Actually Drive Outcomes?

JAMA Psychiatry

“Cognitive behavioral therapy for X” is the backbone of many mental health startups and digital therapeutics, yet it’s unclear which individual components of CBT actually drive outcomes.

A recent study in JAMA Psychiatry attempted to tackle that question, randomizing 767 adults with depression into cohorts that received some, but not all, of the seven individual components of internet-delivered CBT.

  • Those include: activity scheduling, functional analysis, thought challenging, relaxation, concreteness training, absorption training, and self-compassion training

While internet-delivered CBT resulted in reduced depression at six months (mean follow-up difference in PHQ-9 score: -8.63), the researchers were surprised to find that none of the factors appeared to drive an impact independent of the others.

  • The one exception? Absorption training.

The absorption training module taught individuals to become immersed in what they are doing in the present moment to “improve their direct connection with experience and enhance contact with positive reinforcers.”

  • Patients completed a behavioral experiment where they compared memories of being absorbed versus not absorbed in a task, learned about flow states, and identified activities that make them feel absorbed. 
  • Although statistically significant, the effect of adding this module was still only one-fifth of a PHQ-9 point.

The Takeaway

At least within this study, none of the components of CBT – with the exception of absorption training – significantly reduced depression symptoms relative to their absence, despite an overall average reduction in symptoms. The findings suggest that treatment benefit from CBT probably accrues from factors common to all CBT components (e.g. structure, making active plans), and non-specific therapy factors (e.g. positive expectancy).

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