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.
Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy for Psychiatric Conditions
Lilliengren, P., Johansson, R., Lindqvist, K., Mechler, J., & Andersson, G. (2016). Efficacy of experiential dynamic therapy for psychiatric conditions: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Psychotherapy, 53(1), 90-104.
There is growing research support for the efficacy of short-term psychodynamic psychotherapies to treat common mental health problems. A subtype of short-term psychodynamic psychotherapies is called experiential-dynamic therapy (EDT), which goes by a number of different names such as Fosha’s accelerated experiential-dynamic psychotherapy, and McCullough’s affect phobia therapy. A fundamental assumption of EDT is that conditions like depression, anxiety and personality disorders are by-products of an individual’s attempts to regulate strong emotions associated with adverse experiences in attachment relationships during childhood. When the attachment system and associated affects are re-awakened in current relationships, the individual may engage in maladaptive coping that leads to difficulties in relationships. While EDTs may focus on helping patients to understand how their attachment difficulties lead to inhibitory affects and maladaptive defenses, the treatment favors interventions that facilitate direct experience of underlying emotions in the here and now of the therapy. In this meta-analysis, Lilliengren and colleagues reviewed 28 studies with 1,782 adult patients who had a mood, anxiety, personality, or mixed disorder. Compared to inactive controls, EDT showed a moderate and significant effect at post-treatment (range: d = .39 to .65) and at follow-up assessments (range: d = .26 to .62), with largest effects for depression and anxiety. When researchers compared EDT to cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) in five studies, there were no significant effects at post-treatment (d = .02, 95% CI: -.24, .28) or follow-up (d = .07, 95% CI: -.22, .36). The average quality of EDT studies was good. In fact, studies with larger samples, that used blind randomization and assessments, and appropriate statistical tests showed larger effects for EDT. Drop-out rates for EDT (16.3%) were similar to other treatments.
Experiential-dynamic therapy (EDT), which is a variant of short-term psychodynamic psychotherapy, was more effective than no-treatment and just as effective as evidence-based treatments like CBT. The findings are similar to those reported in many comparative outcome studies in which any bona-fide psychotherapy is effective for many disorders. The average quality of the EDT studies was quite good, suggesting that the findings were reliable and valid, and perhaps underestimating the true effects of EDT.
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Adult Attachment as a Predictor of Psychotherapy Outcomes: A Meta Analysis
Levy, K.N., Kivity, Y., Johnson, B.N., & Gooch, C.V. (2018). Adult attachment as a predictor and moderator of psychotherapy outcome: A meta‐analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology. Online first publication, DOI: 10.1002/jclp.22685.
Adult attachment refers to characteristic ways people manage their emotions and relationship styles. Securely attached individuals adaptively and flexibly experience emotions and they are able to give and receive love and support to others. Insecure attachment can be sub-categorized as avoidant or anxious attachment. Those who are anxiously attached tend to up-regulate their feelings so that they may feel easily overwhelmed, and they tend to be preoccupied with relationship loss. Those with avoidant attachment styles tend to down-regulate their emotions so that they have difficulty experiencing or expressing feelings, and they might dismiss the importance of relationships as a means of protecting themselves. John Bowlby, the founder of attachment theory, argued that psychotherapy had the potential to serve as a secure base from which individuals might explore themselves and relationships. He also described the therapist as a temporary attachment figure with which the patient might develop an emotional bond to promote change and for a corrective experience. In this meta-analysis, Levy and colleagues looked at whether attachment dimensions can change in psychotherapy and whether they can predict improvement in patient symptoms pre- to post-therapy. (A note on meta analysis. It is a method of systematically reviewing a research literature, combining the effect sizes in that literature, and summarizing these effects. Because meta analyses usually contain many studies, their results are much more reliable than the results of any single study, and so they provide the most solid basis for making practice recommendations). In this meta analysis, Levy and colleagues included 36 studies, totaling 3,158 clients. Higher client attachment security (or lower attachment insecurity) at the start of therapy was associated with better outcomes by post-treatment (r = 0.17, p < 0.001, 95% CI = [0.13, 0.22], k = 32). Also, greater improvement in attachment security (change in attachment security from pre- to post-treatment) predicted better outcomes (r = 0.16, p < 0.001, 95% CI = [0.07, 0.25], k = 15). When looked at separately, higher levels of either attachment anxiety or attachment avoidance were associated with poorer outcomes, and change in either type of attachment insecurity was associated with better outcomes. These effects appeared to be consistent regardless of the type of therapy (non-interpersonal vs interpersonal therapies).
Although attachment insecurity is associated with poorer outcomes, change in attachment insecurity is possible with psychotherapy and this change is associated with better symptom outcomes. Therapists should expect longer and more challenging treatment with patients who are anxiously attached. Anxiously attached individuals may appear engaged early in therapy, but they are quick to anger, feel rejected, and become overwhelmed. Such individuals may benefit from help to contain their emotional experiences by repeating the treatment frame and increasing structure. They may also benefit from interpersonally-oriented therapy focused on reducing their preoccupation with relationship loss. Avoidantly attached individuals may appear aloof, but they may be easily overwhelmed by demands for closeness. Therapists may have to carefully balance the amount of interpersonal space or demands in treatment with these clients so that they remain in therapy.
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 Effect of Therapists’ Internalized Models of Relationships
Steel, C., Macdonald, J., & Schroder, T. (2017). A systematic review of the effect of therapists’ internalized models of relationships on the quality of the therapeutic relationship. Journal of Clinical Psychology. Advance online publication.
Therapists likely respond differently to different clients, due to their own personal characteristics and unconscious processes.Relational theory suggests that the therapist’s particular qualities combine with the client’s particular qualities to form a unique interpersonal context. The interpersonal context of therapy may be influenced by client and therapist internalized patterns of relating which are likely formed in early childhood. The attachment theory concept of internal working models is one way to understand therapists’ internalized patterns of relating. Internal working models are like templates that help one to predict how relationships with others work. Internal working models of self indicate the quality of one’s self-concept. In this systematic review, Steel and colleagues examined a total 22 studies and asked: do therapists’ secure attachments and positive internal working models affect the quality of the therapeutic relationship with clients? There were too few studies on the specific concepts to conduct meta analyses to aggregate effect sizes, so the authors simply reviewed the literature. Eighteen of 22 studies showed an association between therapist internalized relational models/attachment security/self concept and the therapeutic relationship. Three of four studies that looked specifically at therapist attachment found that therapist secure attachment was associated with a more positive therapeutic relationship. Among these studies, all forms of therapist attachment insecurity were associated with poorer relationship quality with clients and with lower levels of therapist empathy. Four of five studies that examined the effects of internal working models of self indicated that greater therapist negative self-concepts (i.e., self-criticism, neglecting of self, hostility towards self) was associated with a poorer therapeutic alliance with clients.
Therapist effects (i.e., the differences between therapists) are emerging as important predictors of client outcomes. It is possible that therapists’ views of others and of self (i.e., internal working models) contribute to these differences. However, there are relatively few studies that examine psychotherapists’ views of self and of others and the impact on therapy. The research that does exist suggests important issues for therapists to consider. Therapists that are insecurely attached (i.e., are dismissive of the importance of relationships or are overly preoccupied with relationships) may have problems in developing positive therapeutic relationships and may be perceived as less empathic by clients. Therapists who have an overly negative view of their self (i.e., self critical, self neglecting) may struggle with developing a therapeutic alliance with clients. The findings suggest that clinicians need to be aware of their internalized relational models. The process of recognizing, reflecting on, and extricating from maladaptive interpersonal patterns and self-concepts may require supervision and/or personal therapy.
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