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 transtheoretical principles of change, microaggressions and outcomes, interpretations and outcomes.
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
Adding Psychodynamic Therapy to Antidepressant Medications
Dreissen, E., Dekker, J.J.M., Peen, J., Van, H.L., Maiana, G…. Cuijpers, P. (2020). The efficacy of adding short-term psychodynamic psychotherapy to antidepressants in the treatment of depression: A systematic review and meta-analysis of individual participant data. Clinical Psychology Review, 80.
Depression is the single largest contributor to disability worldwide. There are a number of established treatments for depression including antidepressant medications and psychotherapies. One of the psychological treatments that is evidence-based is short-term psychodynamic psychotherapy (STPP). There is evidence in the general psychotherapy research literature that combining psychotherapy with antidepressant medications is more efficacious than providing medications alone. However, no meta-analysis has looked specifically at adding STPP to antidepressant medication. In this meta-analysis Driessen and colleagues analysed data from 7 studies that compare STPP plus medications versus antidepressant medications alone, or that compare STPP plus medications versus supportive therapy plus medications. Although the number of studies was small, the unique aspect of this meta-analysis is that Driessen and colleagues were able to get all of the individual level data from each study, so they were able to analyse data from 482 participants. Typical meta analyses only look at study level data (effects reported from the study as a whole) and not individual level data (effects for each individual who participant in each study). So, the results from Driessen and colleagues’ study provides a more precise and specific analysis of the findings. Combined treatment of STPP and antidepressant medications was significantly more efficacious than antidepressants with and without supportive therapy at post-treatment, but the effects were small (d = 0.26, SE = 0.01, p = .01). At follow up, combined treatment of STPP and antidepressant medications was again more efficacious than antidepressant medications and supportive therapy, but the effects were moderately large (d = 0.50, SE = 0.10). Other findings also suggested that STPP’s specific interventions provided significant added benefit over and above the non-specific effects of supportive therapy. The findings were consistent whether or not analyses were done on studies with complete versus incomplete data, controlling for baseline depression scores, and use or not of a treatment manual. Overall, the quality of the studies was good, and the findings were stable across studies.
People with depression and their clinicians might expect better outcomes in terms of depressive symptoms if they combine STPP and antidepressant medications, rather than receiving medications alone. The benefits might be related to the specific interventions of STPP, which suggests that therapists may need specific training and supervision in order to make the most of STPP’s effectiveness.
Clients of Therapists Who Are Flexible Have Better Outcomes
Clients of Therapists Who Are Flexible Have Better Outcomes
Katz, M., Hilsenroth, M. J., Gold, J. R., Moore, M., Pitman, S. R., Levy, S. R., & Owen, J. (2019). Adherence, flexibility, and outcome in psychodynamic treatment of depression. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 66(1), 94–103.
Psychodynamic and cognitive-behavioral (CB) treatments are quite different in how therapy is delivered, but both are equally effective for depression. Such findings suggest that various types of specific interventions can positively impact client outcomes. A possible mechanisms of therapeutic action is that effective therapists may be particularly responsive to their clients’ behaviors and needs. That is, effective therapists may be flexible in how adherent they are to the techniques of a therapeutic orientation. Therapists who are flexible in their adherence to a therapeutic technique may promote a better therapeutic alliance (i.e., a therapist’s and client’s collaborative agreement on the goals of therapy and what to do in therapy). In this study, Katz and colleagues examined whether the flexible use of some CB techniques by psychodynamic therapists was related to better client outcomes in terms of depressive symptoms. Forty six patients diagnosed with depression were treated by 26 advanced graduate student therapists who were trained to practice psychodynamic therapy. Psychodynamic therapy techniques included: a focus on affect and affect expression, identifying relational patterns and patterns of thoughts and feelings, emphasizing past experiences and interpersonal relationships, working on the therapeutic alliance, and restructuring defense mechanisms. The researchers video recorded two early sessions of therapy which were independently rated to assess the degree to which therapists adhered to psychodynamic therapy principles or to CB therapy principles. Client depression outcomes were assessed pre- and post-therapy. Higher ratings of psychodynamic therapy adherence were related to better patient depression outcomes at post-treatment. In addition, the clients of psychodynamic therapists who used some CB techniques early in therapy had the best outcomes. In other words, the use of psychodynamic techniques was sufficient for clients to improve, but flexible use of some CB techniques by psychodynamic therapists provided added benefit. The CB techniques that were most often integrated by the therapists included: actively initiating topics and therapeutic activities, explaining the rationale of an intervention, focusing on the future, and providing psychoeducation about symptoms.
Clients in this study improved on average from psychodynamic therapy, and psychodynamic interventions were related to better outcomes. However, clients of therapists who flexibly integrated a small amount of CB techniques benefitted more from the psychodynamic techniques. Research is increasingly showing that therapist flexibility in treatment adherence is related to better patient outcomes. For psychodynamic therapists, flexibility in treatment adherence leads to clients being more responsive to the interventions and having better outcomes.
Psychotherapy, Pharmacotherapy, and their Combination for Adult Depression
Cuijpers, P., Noma, H., Karyotaki, E., Vinkers, C.H., Cipriani, A., & Furukawa, T.A. (2020). A network meta‐analysis of the effects of psychotherapies, pharmacotherapies and their combination in the treatment of adult depression. World Psychiatry, 19, 92-107.
Mental disorders represent a significant health burden worldwide, with over 350 million people affected. Depression is the second leading cause of disease burden. There is ample evidence that psychotherapies and pharmacotherapies are effective in the treatment of depression. There is also evidence for the efficacy of different types of psychotherapy (CBT, IPT, PDT), and for different types of antidepressant medications. Some research suggests that combining psychotherapy and medications is better than either intervention alone, but the evidence is inconclusive. Existing meta analyses only compare two existing treatments directly to each other at a time: psychotherapy vs medications, psychotherapy vs combined treatments, medications vs combined treatments. In this meta-analysis, Cuijpers and colleagues use a method called “network meta-analysis” to study the relative impact of medications, psychotherapy, or their combination. Network meta-analysis is controversial because it relies on indirect comparisons to estimate effects. For example, let’s say one study compared medications (A) to psychotherapy (B), and another study compared medication (A) to combination treatment (C), then a network meta-analysis would estimate the effects of psychotherapy vs combination treatment by using the transitive principle (if A = B, and B = C, then A = C). This logic relies on everything being equivalent across studies. However, in treatment trials one cannot assume that the different studies comparing A, B, and C are equivalent in terms of quality and bias (in fact, we know they are not). In any case, Cuijpers and colleagues found that combined treatment was superior to either psychotherapy alone or pharmacotherapy alone in terms of standardized effect sizes (0.30, 95% CI: 0.14-0.45 and 0.33, 95% CI: 0.20-0.47). No significant difference was found between psychotherapy alone and pharmacotherapy alone (0.04, 95% CI: –0.09 to 0.16). Interestingly, acceptability (defined as lower patient drop-out rate and better patient adherence to the treatment) was significantly better for combined treatment compared with pharmacotherapy (RR=1.23, 95% CI:
1.05-1.45), as well as for psychotherapy compared with pharmacotherapy (RR=1.17, 95% CI: 1.02-1.32). In other words, pharmacotherapy alone was less acceptable to patients than another treatment approach that included psychotherapy.
This network meta-analysis by a renowned researcher and in a prestigious journal adds to the controversy around the relative efficacy of psychotherapy vs medications vs their combination. What is clear is that patients find medication alone to be less acceptable as a treatment option, and previous research shows that patients are 4 times more likely to prefer psychotherapy over medications. Unfortunately, most people with depression receive medications without psychotherapy.
Psychotherapy or Pharmacology for the Treatment of PTSD
Merz, J., Schwarzer, G., & Gerger, H. (2019). Comparative efficacy and acceptability of pharmacological, psychotherapeutic, and combination treatments in adults with posttraumatic stress disorder: A network meta-analysis. JAMA Psychiatry, 76, 904-91.
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a highly debilitating disorder characterized by re-experiencing trauma, avoidance of situations related to the trauma, negative mood and cognitions, and hyperarousal. The lifetime prevalence of PTSD in the population is about 8%, and PTSD is associated with a great deal of medical problems, and social and economic burden. Difference between a variety of psychological treatment approaches for PTSD are small and not statistically significant. Some treatment guidelines tend to recommend both psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy to treat PTSD, but other guidelines indicate only psychotherapy as the first-line treatment. Merz and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis to examine comparative outcomes and acceptability of psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy and their combination in adults with PTSD. The authors focused on randomized controlled trials because these designs tend to produce the most reliable evidence. The authors identified 12 published studies with a total of 922 participants. Six of the studies included data on long term outcomes. The meta-analytic procedures that the authors used in this study included network meta-analyses (which some have argued may produce unreliable results) and direct comparison meta-analysis (which is more reliable, but resulted in fewer studies being included here). I report in this blog only results that were consistent between the network and direct comparison analyses. Pharmacological and psychotherapeutic treatments and their combinations were not significantly different in their effectiveness immediately post-treatment. However, at long-term follow-up psychotherapy was significantly more beneficial than pharmacotherapy (SMD, −0.63; 95% CI, −1.18 to −0.09). Combined psychotherapy plus pharmacotherapy was not significantly more effective that pharmacotherapy alone (SMD, −1.02; 95% CI, −2.77 to 0.72), and combined treatment was not more effective that psychotherapy alone (SMD, 0.06; 95% CI, −0.31 to 0.42). There were also no statistically significant differences between psychotherapy, pharmacotherapy, or their combination in the acceptability of treatments to participants as defined by differing rates of dropping out from the studies.
This meta-analysis of a small number of studies suggests that psychotherapy produces better long-term outcomes than pharmacotherapy for PTSD. There is also a suggestion that combining psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy does not improve outcomes compared to either treatment alone. This research area seems to be new and not well developed, but so far, the results seem to favor psychotherapy for longer term outcomes. These findings are similar to those from a larger meta-analysis for depression. In that study, the authors suggested that the long-term benefit of psychotherapy was due to participants learning coping and interpersonal skills that were not gained from receiving pharmacological intervention alone.
Can a Unified Protocol Bring Together Diverse Evidence-Based Treatments?
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.
Effects of Combining Psychotherapy and Pharmacotherapy on Quality of Life in Depression
Kamenov, K., Twomey, C., Cabello, M., Prina, A.M., & Ayuso-Mateos, J.L. (2016). The efficacy of psychotherapy, pharmacotherapy, and their combination on functioning and quality of life in depression: A meta-analysis. Psychological Medicine, doi: 10.1017/S0033291716002774.
Both psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy are efficacious for reducing symptoms of depression. Some studies suggest that functioning (i.e., the ability to engage in work, school, and social activities) and quality of life (i.e., satisfaction with these activities and perception of one’s health) are just as important to depressed patients as is reducing their symptoms. In fact, many patients place greater priority on improving functioning compared to reducing symptoms. In this meta analysis, Kamenov and colleagues assess the relative efficacy of psychotherapy vs pharmacotherapy in improving functioning and quality of life. They also evaluate if combining psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy is efficacious relative to either treatment alone. The meta analysis included k = 153 studies of over 29,000 participants. Psychotherapies often included CBT and interpersonal psychotherapy. Compared to control groups (k = 37 to 52) both psychotherapy (g = 0.35, 95% CI = 0.24, 0.46) and medications (g = 0.27, 95% CI = 0.21, 0.32) significantly improved functioning. Also, compared to controls both psychotherapy (g = 0.35, 95% CI = 0.26, 0.44) and medications (g = 0.31, 95% CI = 0.24, 0.38) significantly improved quality of life in depressed participants. In studies that directly compared psychotherapy and medications, there were no significant differences when it came to improving functioning, but there was a small significant advantage to psychotherapy over medication for improving quality of life (g = 0.21, 95% CI = 0.01, 0.43). Combined psychotherapy and medications (k = 19) was more effective to improve functioning compared to pharmacotherapy alone (g = 0.34, 95% CI = 0.18, 0.50) and compared to psychotherapy alone (g = 0.32, 95% CI = 0.14, 0.49). Combined treatment was also more efficacious for improved quality of life compared to medications alone (g = 0.36, 95% CI = 0.11, 0.62) and to psychotherapy alone (g = 0.39, 95% CI = 0.19, 0.58).
Combined treatment of medications and psychotherapy is more effective than either treatment alone for improving functioning and quality of life. However, most patients prefer psychotherapy to medications, and some studies indicate that many patients choose not to get treated at all rather than receive medications. Further, quality of life can be substantially compromised by medication side effects. Clinicians should take these factors into account when considering monotherapy with antidepressant medications or combined treatment of pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy for depression.