Barlow, D.H., Farchione, T., Bullis, J.R., Gallagher, M.W., Murray-Latin, H.,… Cassiello-Robbins, C. (2017). The unified protocol for transdiagnostic treatment of emotional disorders compared with diagnosis-specific protocols for anxiety disorders: A randomized clinical trial. JAMA Psychiatry. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2017.2164.
One barrier to disseminating and implementing evidence-based treatments is that therapists have to learn to competently apply many different manualized protocols – at least one for each disorder that they treat (depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and others). Barlow and colleagues argue that it is possible to unify many of these protocols under one umbrella, and so they created a unified protocol for this purpose. The unified protocol is an emotion-focused, cognitive-behavioral intervention that targets temperamental characteristics, particularly neuroticism and emotion dysregulation that underly anxiety, depressive, and related disorders. The unified protocol consists of motivational enhancement followed by 5 treatment modules: (1) mindful emotion awareness, (2) cognitive flexibility, (3) identifying and preventing patterns of emotion avoidance, (4) increasing awareness and tolerance of emotion related physical sensations, and (5) emotion-focused exposure. In this trial, 223 participants with an anxiety disorder (generalized anxiety, obsessive compulsive, panic disorder, or social anxiety disorder) were randomly assigned to the unified protocol, or to the evidence-based treatment specific to the disorder, or to a no-treatment wait-list condition. The sample size was large enough to test a hypothesis of equivalent findings between the two treatment conditions. The differences in changes to symptoms between the unified protocol and the specific interventions for each disorder were small and non-significant at post-treatment and at the follow-up assessments. The treatment conditions were significantly more effective than the wait-list control condition. There were no differences between the treatments in drop-out rates or treatment adherence.
It may be possible for therapists to competently learn to apply a single unified evidence-based treatment for a variety of anxiety disorders that has equivalent outcomes to currently recognized but separate treatment approaches. The unified protocol suggests that the temperamental factors underlying anxiety disorders (emotion dysregulation, emotion avoidance, cognitive inflexibility) can be targeted to treat a wide-range of emotional disorders.