A Meta-Analysis of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Kate Sheehan, a senior at Fordham University Rose Hill studying psychology, works as a research assistant on two comprehensive studies addressing anxiety and depression. Recently, I had the chance to talk with her and discuss the research she conducts in Dr. Dean McKay’s lab assisting Ph.D. candidate Lauryn Garner on a meta-analysis of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). Sheehan’s role in Garner’s research is to examine how cognitive behavior therapy can be used to address anxiety and depression. Cognitive behavior therapy is a form of psychotherapy that addresses dysfunctional emotions, behaviors, and thoughts while focusing on solutions that reshape those distorted cognitive patterns.

Sheehan’s presence at Fordham largely centers around finding healthy solutions to anxiety and depression. As a member of the Meditation Club, she advocates for meditation as a possible treatment of some mental health issues. Her advocacy is particularly based on psychological studies that support meditation’s ability to reduce anxiety. She hopes to use her degree and research experience to work towards breaking the stigma of mental health. 

Sheehan described the work she does in Dr. McKay’s lab as a massive literature review. After starting with over 22,000 pieces on the topic, the team is now focusing on about 40 cognitive behavior therapy articles, narrowed down through an exclusion and inclusion criteria process which ensures that each article is applicable to their final analysis. Through this process, they have coded for different variables that either address for whom cognitive behavior therapy works best or how different techniques work. “We were looking at what type of treatment it is (if it’s individual or group), and what disorder it is, such as social anxiety, OCD, social phobia, agoraphobia, etc,” Sheehan reported. The process of parsing out this research helps to decipher how important each variable is to the treatments at large.

Sheehan offered an example of what sort of questions her research is addressing: “part of cognitive behavior therapy for depression might be behavioral activation, which is essentially getting people to do things that they don’t want to do but they might enjoy if they do them. We then look at how cognitive behavioral therapy works for these people and how it might reduce their symptoms, but the question to address is, ‘Is behavioral activation the most important aspect to changing them, or is it different aspects of CBT?’” Some of the mediating factors Sheehan analyzes include “if you give CBT to 100 people, who will respond the best? Is it the people with female therapists, or is it the people with the most self-confidence — what individual differences affect the success of CBT?” After analyzing such work, the greater purpose of their research is to figure out “what does this all say in summary about cognitive behavioral therapy?”

The research will hopefully impact future work of cognitive behavior therapists by providing information on what practices within their discipline yield the most successful outcomes. Patients suffering from anxiety and depression will also benefit from expanded knowledge on the effectiveness of therapy practices.

Sheehan sees the opportunity to research therapy treatments and participate in the conversation of improving mental health solutions as her way to make the world a better place: “With the way that the world is changing, it is fostering more anxiety, and therefore there is more need to understand how and why people act maladaptively, so I think there is going to be a huge necessity for mental health care in the future.” Her participation in both this research, as well as another project in which she studies the way people are in touch with their emotional reactivity, is a testament to her dedication to this goal. Put simply, “we just need more research to know how to treat people best.”

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