McAleavey, A.A., Castonguay, L.G., & Goldfried, M.R. (2014). Clinical experiences in conducting cognitive-behavioral therapy for social phobia. Behavior Therapy, 45, 21-35.
It might come as a surprise to some that social phobia (also called social anxiety disorder) is the most commonly diagnosed anxiety disorder, with a lifetime prevalence of about 12%. Symptoms include negative self-view, fear of embarrassment or criticism, and fear and/or avoidance of social situations. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for social phobia with effects as large as pharmacotherapies. Despite this, there are several potential barriers to implementing CBT for social phobia in clinical practice. CBT involves exposure to feared situations (in vivo or simulated), identifying and altering maladaptive thoughts during exposure, producing testable hypotheses, and identifying cognitive errors. CBT is not uniformly effective for all patients with social phobia, exposure techniques are linked to dropping out and failure to initiate treatment, and there can be an increase in missed sessions and non-completion of homework related to avoidance. In this study, McAleavy and colleagues surveyed 276 psychotherapists who provided CBT for social phobia to assess problems or barriers clinicians encountered when applying CBT in practice. Possible barriers listed in the survey were derived from extensive interviews with experts who developed and researched CBT interventions for anxiety disorders. Survey respondents were mostly Ph.D. level clinical psychologists (59%), women (61%), who practiced in outpatient clinics or private practice, and had on average 12 years of post-degree experience. Many therapists reported using behavioral interventions, including developing a fear/avoidance hierarchy, in-session exposures, focusing on behavior in social situations, and specifically focusing on behavioral avoidance. Most also used cognitive homework (i.e., interventions focused on exploring or altering attributions or cognitions). The most frequent therapist endorsed barriers to implementing CBT for social phobia included: patient symptoms (i.e., severity, chronicity, and poor social skills); other patient characteristics (i.e., resistance to directiveness of treatment, inability to work independently between sessions, avoidant personality disorder, limited premorbid functioning, poor interpersonal skills, depressed mood); patient expectations (i.e., that therapist will do all the work; pessimism regarding therapy); patient specific beliefs (i.e., belief that fears are realistic, or that social anxiety is part of their personality); patient motivation (i.e., premature termination, attribution that gains are due to medications); and patient social system (i.e., social system endorses dependency, social isolation). A minority of CBT therapists endorsed a weak therapeutic alliance or aspects of the CBT intervention itself as posing a barrier.
CBT therapists identified a number of barriers, mainly patient related, that might impede the implementation of CBT for social phobia. Given these barriers the authors suggested that therapists: (1) consider more intense, longer, or more specific treatments for more severe cases; (2) incorporate assessment of patient severity to guide decisions; (3) consider tailoring the level of treatment directiveness based on patient characteristics – i.e., more resistant patients may require a less directive approach and more control over the type and pace of interventions; (4) prepare patients on what to expect in the treatment before therapy begins; (5) find a balance between validating/accepting patients’ problematic beliefs that their fears might be realistic with encouragement to change; (6) add motivational interviewing for patients who are less motivated; (6) complete a thorough functional analysis of patients’ social systems at the start of therapy. McAleavey and colleagues noted that while therapeutic alliance difficulties was an infrequently endorsed barrier by therapists, such difficulties remain clinically important, especially in light of findings that indicate that negative reactions to patients are under-reported by therapists. Developing and maintaining a good alliance remains a key aspect of CBT for panic disorder.