The Psychotherapy Practice Research Network (PPRNet) blog began in 2013 in response to psychotherapy clinicians, researchers, and educators who expressed interest in receiving regular information about current practice-oriented psychotherapy research. It offers a monthly summary of two or three published psychotherapy research articles. Each summary is authored by Dr. Tasca and highlights practice implications of selected articles. Past blogs are available in the archives. This content is only available in English.
…I blog about CBT, negative effects of psychological interventions, and what people want from therapy.
Type of Research
- ALL Topics (clear)
- Alliance and Therapeutic Relationship
- Anxiety Disorders
- Attendance, Attrition, and Drop-Out
- Client Factors
- Client Preferences
- Cognitive Therapy (CT) and Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
- Combination Therapy
- Common Factors
- Depression and Depressive Symptoms
- Efficacy of Treatments
- Feedback and Progress Monitoring
- Group Psychotherapy
- Illness and Medical Comorbidities
- Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT)
- Long-term Outcomes
- Neuroscience and Brain
- Outcomes and Deterioration
- Personality Disorders
- Placebo Effect
- Practice-Based Research and Practice Research Networks
- Psychodynamic Therapy (PDT)
- Resistance and Reactance
- Self-Reflection and Awareness
- Suicide and Crisis Intervention
- Therapist Factors
- Transference and Countertransference
- Trauma and/or PTSD
- Treatment Length and Frequency
Mentalizing May be a Protective Factor for Therapist’s Well-Being
Brugnera, A., Zarbo, C., Compare, A., Talia, A., Tasca, G.A., … & Lo Coco, G. (2020). Self-reported reflective functioning mediates the association between attachment insecurity and well-being among psychotherapists, Psychotherapy Research, https://doi.org/10.1080/10503307.2020.1762946.
Therapeutic work can be emotionally demanding for the therapist and can affect levels of personal well-being. But little is known about what can foster greater well-being among psychotherapists. Therapist well-being affects their relationships and effectiveness with clients. In recent research, therapists who reported a more satisfying personal life tended to rate higher therapeutic alliances to their clients, and therapeutic alliance is associated with better client outcomes. Two factors that affect therapist well-being include attachment insecurity and mentalizing. Attachment insecurity can be characterized as attachment avoidance (over self-reliance and downregulation of emotions) and attachment anxiety (preoccupation with relationship loss and up-regulation of emotions). High attachment anxiety and avoidance are related to interpersonal problems, maladaptive emotion regulation, and lower self-esteem. Mentalizing is the capacity to understand one’s own and other’s behaviors in terms of mental states (intentions, feelings, thoughts, desires), and so it forms the basis for humans’ capacity for empathy, cooperation, and social learning. In this survey of 416 psychotherapists in Italy, Brugnera and colleagues asked therapists to complete questionnaires that assessed their own attachment insecurity, reflective functioning (or mentalizing), and subjective well-being. Not surprisingly, greater attachment insecurity and lower reflective functioning were associated with lower well-being among therapists. Using a statistical mediation model, their study tested a theory in which mentalizing explained why attachment insecurity led to lower well-being. They found a significant indirect effect of both attachment avoidance and attachment anxiety on well-being that was explained by reduced reflective functioning. That is, higher attachment insecurity led to lower capacity to mentalize, which in turn led to lower well-being.
Previous research showed a well-documented link between attachment insecurity and lower well-being among psychotherapists. This study is unique in that it helps to explain why this is the case. Even for those therapists who have higher attachment insecurity, a greater capacity to mentalize may buffer them from the negative impact on well-being. Recent research shows that novice therapists who receive specific training can improve their capacity to mentalize by: learning to identify their own reactions that distract them from understanding the client, distinguishing reactions they have that might provide useful information to understand the client, and taking a reflective stance to better understand the client based on their own personal reactions.
Supervision in Psychotherapy: The Impact of Attachment on Burnout
Hiebler-Rager, M., Nausner, L., Blaha, A., Grimmer, K., Korlath, S., Mernyi, M., & Unterrainer, H.F. (2020). The supervisory relationship from an attachment perspective: Connections to burnout and sense of coherence in health professionals. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, Online First Publication: https://doi.org/10.1002/cpp.2494.
Health professionals including psychotherapists are susceptible to burnout due to the emotional challenges of the work. There is some research indicating that with good supervision trainees and experienced therapists might be less susceptible to burnout (i.e., exhaustion, inefficiency, cynicism) and might gain a greater sense of personal coherence (i.e., that stressful events encountered in life are predictable and manageable, and that managing these events is personally meaningful). Supervision involves a senior qualified practitioner providing an intensive relationship-based education and training focused on supporting, guiding, and teaching a trainee or colleague. One can argue that the supervisory relationship provides the supervisee with a secure base from which to learn and grow as a professional. This secure base functions similar to an attachment relationship, which means that the bond, trust, agreement, and clarity of supervisory goals are key. That is, when a critical incident occurs in the therapy, the supervisee experiences stressful emotions and seeks support and security from the supervisor. One factor that may affect this process is the pre-existing level of attachment insecurity in the trainee (i.e., being too preoccupied with relationships or being too dismissing of relationships). Greater attachment insecurity may make it more difficult for supervisees to experience supervision as a safe environment. In this study, Hiebler-Rager and colleagues assessed if the quality of the supervisory relationship reported by supervisees predicted their level of burnout and of cohesion, and also if supervisees’ level of attachment insecurity also predicted these outcomes over and above the effects of supervision. The sample included 346 supervisees with a wide range of experience (0 to 50 years), ages (23 to 80 years), and professions who completed questionnaires about the supervisory relationship, attachment, burnout, and cohesion. Even after controlling for number of supervision sessions and supervisees’ clinical experience, lower quality of the supervisory relationship was related higher levels of burnout (β = −.31) and a lower sense of coherence (β = .31; both p < .01) in the supervisee. Higher levels of insecure attachment of the supervisee also predicted higher burnout (attachment anxiety: β = .30, p < .01) and lower coherence (attachment anxiety: β = −.40, p < .01; attachment avoidance:β = −.17, p < .01), even after controlling for the effects of number of supervisions sessions, experience, and the quality of the supervisory relationship. Adding attachment insecurity was associated with a medium to large incremental effect over and above the quality of the supervisory experience (R-square change = 0.13 for burnout, and 0.24 for coherence).
Supervision is a key manner in which psychotherapists are trained, and in which many participate in continuing education. A good quality supervisory relationship (secure and supportive) can help professionals mitigate the risk of burnout and to have a greater sense of personal coherence. However, some of the utility of supervision may depend to some extent on the supervisee’s own level of attachment insecurity. If a supervisee experiences an insecure attachment generally, they may require personal therapy to work on their sense of security in relationships and their ability to manage theirs and others’ emotions.
Therapist Reflective Functioning and Client Outcomes
Cologan, J., Schweiter, R.D., & Nolte, T. (2017). Therapist reflective functioning, therapist attachment style, and therapist effectiveness. Administration Policy and Mental Health, DOI: 10.1007/s10488-017-0790-5.
Differences between therapists account for about 8% of patient outcomes, which is a moderate effect and therefore an important factor. Constructs such as therapist personality characteristics and facilitative interpersonal skills may play a key role in how effective therapists can be with their clients. An important therapist quality might be reflective functioning, or mentalization. Reflective functioning refers to the ability to conceptualize, identify, and understand mental states in oneself and in others, and how mental states affect behaviour and functioning. For example, reflective functioning is the basis for predicting others’ behaviors, understanding social nuances and others’ intentions, and also one’s own behaviors and internal experiences. Fundamentally for a therapist, reflective functioning is necessary for empathy, which is a key therapeutic quality. Another key issue for therapists might be their own attachment security, or their characteristic ways of relating to others in interpersonal relationships. Securely attached therapists (those who have a positive view of self and others in relationships) may be able to develop a better therapeutic alliance with clients. Insecurely attached therapists (those who are avoidant in relationships or who are preoccupied in relationships), may struggle to a greater extent with developing and maintaining an alliance. In this study, Cologan and colleagues assessed reflective functioning and attachment security in 25 therapists from different theoretical orientations who treated 1001 adult clients who mostly had problems with depression or anxiety. Client outcomes were measured pre and post treatment. On average clients experienced a reduction in their symptoms after psychotherapy. Clients of therapists with higher levels of reflective functioning experienced better outcomes. Therapist attachment insecurity did not have a direct effect on client outcomes.
As with other studies, therapists in this study varied in their outcomes, so that some had better outcomes than others. Level of therapist reflective functioning (ability to mentalize) accounted for a large proportion of this difference. Therapists who had greater skills with understanding their own and clients’ behaviors in terms of mental states (intentions, motivations, psychological and emotional needs, internal conflicts) likely were better able to empathize and develop an alliance with their clients. These are skills that therapists can learn with practice, consultation, personal therapy, and training.
The Long Reach of Nurturing Family Environments
Waldinger, R.J. & Schulz, M.S. (2016). The long reach of nurturing family environments: Links with midlife emotion-regulatory styles and late-life security in intimate relationships. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797616661556.
Although, not a psychotherapy study, this research has important implications for psychological treatment of adults, including older adults. This research, drawn from the original Grant study, is extraordinary because the sample is from a 78-year long study of 81 men. The original cohort of over 200 men were first assessed as adolescents and young adults between 1939 and 1942. At that time, the original authors conducted intensive interviews of the adolescents` family experiences and current life situations. These men were re-interviewed in mid-life in the 1960s (aged between 45 and 50 years), which included interviews and assessments of challenges in relationships, work functioning, and physical health. Waldinger and Schulz recently re-interviewed these men and their current partner in late-life (aged between 75 and 85 years), with interviews focusing on their current partner relationship. Raters reviewed audio recordings and notes from all the interviews and coded for: (a) quality of family environment in childhood (distant, hostile vs cohesive, warm) - taken from the first interview; (b) style of regulating emotions (suppressive, maladaptive vs engaged, adaptive) – taken from the midlife interview; and (c) security of attachment with their current partner (secure, comforting vs insecure, anxious) – taken from the late-life interview. The authors found that more nurturing early family environments were significantly linked with late-life attachment security with a partner (r = .23, 95% CI = .01, .45), and early family environment was significantly related to midlife adaptive emotion regulation strategies (r = .29, 95% CI = .06, .50). Also, adaptive emotion regulation strategies in midlife were significantly correlated with greater late-life attachment security (r = .23, 95% CI = .05, .51). These are medium-sized correlations, but they are remarkable because they represent associations between variables that were assessed decades apart. Through a statistical mediation analysis, the authors also reported that adaptiveness of emotion-regulation strategies partially explained why positive childhood family environments may lead to late-life attachment security (accounting for 6% of the variance).
This compelling study adds to the argument that early family environment shapes the way adults regulate their emotions, which in turn affects how they experience relationships in old age. More securely attached adults were better able to meet two challenges associated with aging: accepting vulnerability in depending on a partner, and accepting the responsibility of being depended upon by that partner. The early family environment indeed has a long reach. Psychotherapy directed at reducing the effects of childhood adversity takes on a heightened meaning in the context of these findings. Treatment for adults who struggle with the consequences of non-nurturing early environments should include improving emotion regulation strategies.
Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy Reduces Threat Response in the Brain
Johnson, S.M, Burgess Moser, M., Beckes, L., Smith, A., Dalgliesh… Coan, J.A. (2013). Soothing the threatened brain: Leveraging contact comfort with emotionally focused therapy. PLoS ONE 8(11): e79314. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0079314.
Attachment theory argues that a felt sense of connection to others provides a secure base and safe haven, thus increasing one’s tolerance for uncertainty and threat. Improved access to and experience of social resources likely help us regulate negative emotions thus reducing our perception of threat. In a previous study, women in a couple were confronted with a threat (the possibility of a shock to the ankle) while their brain was scanned by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). These women were either holding the hand of their spouse or the hand of a stranger. Women with the highest quality relationships showed lower threat response in the brain especially while they held the hand of their spouse. Holding the hand of a spouse with whom they had a loving relationship reduced the fear response in these women measured directly in the brain by fMRI. In the study by Johnson and colleagues (2013) the authors wanted to see if improving attachment relationship between couples following Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) would result reduced responses to threat measured in the brain. Twenty-three couples completed a course of EFT (23 sessions on average) with experienced therapists. EFT is an evidence based couples treatment that conceptualizes couple distress as caused by unmet attachment needs. When feeling emotionally disconnected, partners in a couple may be anxiously blaming or withdrawing, and this pattern exacerbates relationship distress and threat. EFT focuses on repairing attachment bonds between spouses. In this trial, EFT significantly improved couples’ self reported distress from pre to post therapy. The brain of the female member of the couple was scanned in an fMRI before and after EFT. An electrode was fixed to her ankle, and she was threatened with a mild shock. This procedure took place while she was on her own and while she held her partner’s hand. Threat response was measured by activity in the prefrontal cortex and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, both of which are associated with processing threat cues and negative affect. EFT resulted in a decrease activity in these areas of the brain from pre to post couples treatment, and these results were especially prominent during hand holding with the partner.
There is emerging evidence that the effects of psychotherapy like EFT for couples, has a direct impact on the brain that correlates with patients’ self report. In addition, EFT appears to increase the attachment bond between couples and this helps them to regulate their emotions and to moderate their reactions to threat. This study by Johnson and colleagues (2013) also supports some fundamental tenets of attachment theory – that increasing attachment security is possible with psychotherapy and doing so improves affect regulation as measured in the brain. This has broad implications because strong social and attachment bonds help us live longer and enjoy better health.
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