Beutler, L.E., Kimpara, S., Edwards, C.J., & Miller, K.D. (2018). Fitting psychotherapy to patient coping style: A meta‐analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 74, 1980 – 1995.
This is another in a series of meta-analyses that assess client factors and their impact on outcomes. Researchers have been studying the impact of coping style in a number of different areas in social and clinical psychology for decades. Coping styles refers to characteristic ways of behaving in order to reduce discomfort and to adapt to changing circumstances. Everybody has preferred methods of coping, however when a coping style becomes extreme or rigid, then it can be pathological. Broadly speaking, researchers and clinicians categorize coping styles as internalizing or externalizing in nature and function. Those who primarily use internalizing coping tend to face change, distress, or threat by becoming internally focused, inner-blaming, inhibited, socially withdrawn, anxious, worrying, or working out issues by thinking them through. Those who primarily use externalizing coping tend to deal with stress by being externally focused, acting out, blaming others, confronting others, or using their social environment and support to manage their distress. Also, generally, one can define theories and practices of psychotherapy as those that are insight-oriented versus symptom-focused. Insight-oriented approaches emphasize that patients re-experience repressed emotions and develop self-understanding as a means of creating change. Symptom-focused approaches generally require patients to engage in new behaviors, new learning, or new perceptions followed and reinforced by social rewards. In this meta-analysis, Beutler and colleagues assess if patients with internalizing or externalizing coping styles achieve better outcomes if they received insight-oriented vs symptom-focused psychotherapy. That is, they assessed if patients matched to therapy focus based on their coping style might achieve better outcomes. They reviewed 18 studies including 57 types of treatment and almost 2,000 patients. Beutler and colleagues found that the mean therapy focus by coping style interaction was d = .60 for all studies (SE = 0.10; p < 0.001; CI 95% = 0.44–0.76). This suggests a medium to large effect in which matching therapy to coping style accounting for 23% of the variance in patient outcomes. Patients who use internalizing coping tend to do better in insight-oriented psychotherapy whereas those who use externalizing coping tend to do better in symptom-focused interventions.
The results of this meta-analysis suggested that psychotherapists would do well to assess patients’ coping style during the intake assessment process and modify their treatments and interpersonal stances accordingly. Symptom-focused interventions, like those seen in behavioral or cognitive-behavioral therapies may work better for those with externalizing coping styles. On the other hand, insight or relationship-oriented interventions, like those seen in interpersonal or psychodynamic therapies, may be more apt for patients with internalizing coping styles. Despite this general rule, therapists should also be aware that client preferences, culture, and other transdiagnostic factors can effectively guide treatments and therapist stances.
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