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
Therapists Affect Patient Dropout and Deterioration
Saxon, D., Barkham, M., Foster, A., & Parry, G. (2016). The contribution of therapist effects to patient dropout and deterioration in the psychological therapies. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy. Advanced online publication, DOI: 10.1002/cpp.2028.
Outcomes for patients receiving psychotherapy are generally positive, but not always. For example, patients might drop out of therapy (i.e., unilaterally end therapy). In clinical trials, the average drop out rate is somewhere between 17% and 26% of patients. Also, patients might deteriorate during therapy (i.e., show a reliable negative change in symptoms from pre- to post-therapy). On average, about 8.2% of patients show a reliable deterioration after therapy. In this large study from a practice-based research network in the UK, Saxon and colleagues were interested in estimating the effect that therapists had on patient drop out and deterioration. Therapist effects refer to differences between therapists and the effects of this difference on patient outcomes. The authors were also interested in whether therapist effects predicted negative outcomes after controlling for therapist case-mix (i.e., patient variables like severity of symptoms, risk of self harm). Their study included 85 therapists who treated more than 10,000 adult patients over a 10-year period. Each therapist saw between 30 and 468 patients at one of 14 sites in the UK. About half of patients had moderate to severe depressive symptoms, and/or moderate to severe anxiety symptoms prior to starting therapy. Outcomes were measured with a reliable and valid psychometric instrument at pre- and post-treatment. The proportion of patients who dropped out of therapy was 33.8%. Patients who dropped out attended an average of 2.8 sessions (SD = 1.91), whereas treatment completers attended an average of 6.1 sessions (SD = 2.68). About 23.5% of therapists had drop out rates that were significantly worse than average. These below average therapists (n = 13) had 49% of their patients drop out, whereas above average therapists (n = 20) had only 12% of their patients drop out. Most patients who completed therapy improved (72.2%), but about 7.2% of patients deteriorated to some degree. The average therapist (i.e., 74% of therapists) had 4.6% of their patients who got worse, whereas below average therapists (i.e., 4.7% of therapists) had up to 14.9% of their patients who got worse. That is, almost 3 times as many patients deteriorated with below average therapists.
We know from previous studies that the type and amount of therapist training or theoretical orientation are not predictive of patient outcomes. However, previous research does suggest that therapists’ lack of empathy, negative countertransference, over-use of transference interpretations, and disagreement with patients about therapy process was associated with negative outcomes. Patient safety concerns might necessitate below average therapists to be identified and provided with greater support, supervision, and training.
Transference in Psychotherapy: A Review of the Research
Hoglend, P. (2014). Exploration of the patient-therapist relationship in psychotherapy. American Journal of Psychiatry, 171, 1056-1066.
In this overview of patient-therapist relationship factors, Per Hoglend reviews research on transference in psychotherapy. He argues that transference and transference work is a specific technique that focuses on exploring the patient-therapist relationship. Hoglend takes a broad definition of transference as: the patient’s pattern of feelings, thoughts, perceptions, and behaviors that emerge in the therapeutic relationship and reflect the patient’s personality functioning. Hoglend also defines transference work as any therapist intervention that refers to or explains the patient’s experience of the therapist and their interaction. These interventions include the therapist: (1) addressing transactions in the patient-therapist relationship; (2) encouraging exploration of feelings and thoughts about the therapy or therapist; (3) encouraging the patient to discuss how he or she believes the therapist might feel or think about the patient; (4) including him or herself in interpreting the patient’s dynamics; and (5) interpreting repetitive interpersonal dynamics and linking these to the therapy relationship. More than 30 studies have been published on providing empirical evidence for the relationship between transference work in psychotherapy and positive patient interpersonal outcomes. Effect sizes of the association between transference work and patient outcomes tend to be large. Some of the research indicates that low frequency of transference interventions is useful, but that a higher frequency may lead to negative effects on the patient. Research on transference-focused psychotherapy indicates that it is as effective as dialectical behavior therapy and supportive psychotherapy for borderline personality disorder, but that transference-focused therapy produced better outcomes for attachment related functioning like mentalizing. In the First Experimental Study of Transference Work (FEST), Hoglend found that patients with low quality of object relations (i.e. a poorer ability to maintain close relationships and to regulate affect) benefited most from transference focused therapy. However, those with high quality of object relations did not require the transference work to get better. Also, women responded better to transference work than men. There are some studies of therapeutic approaches like cognitive behavior therapy, in which patients with depression had better outcomes when the patient-therapist relationship was explicitly discussed.
Hoglend argues that transference work in psychotherapy is an active ingredient that can lead to specific change in some patients. Most studies that Hoglend reviewed showed significant and large associations between transference work and interpersonal changes in patients. Exploring the patient-therapist relationship appears to be most useful for female patients, those with difficult interpersonal relationships, and those with more severe personality pathology. Patients with more mature relationships may not benefit as much from transference work. Although generally effective, if transference work is used too frequently in a session it can also lead to negative patient outcomes.
Managing Countertransference: Meta-analytic Evidence
Hayes, J.A., Gelso, C.J., & Hummel, A.M. (2011). Managing countertransference. Psychotherapy, 48, 88-97.
This is another in a series of meta-analyses on relationship factors that work in psychotherapy that appeared also in John Norcross’ book Psychotherapy Relationships That Work. As I mentioned in previous blogs, meta-analyses represent the state of the art in systematically reviewing a research literature. In meta-analyses, the effect sizes from many studies are aggregated into an estimate of an overall effect that is much more reliable than any single study. In these meta-analyses, Hayes and colleagues assessed whether therapist countertransference had a negative effect on patient outcomes, and whether successful management of countertransference is related to better therapy outcomes. Traditionally, countertransference was seen as solely related to therapist unconscious conflicts, and countertransference was to be avoided. Broader conceptualizations view countertransference as representing all of the therapist’s reactions to the client. More interpersonal or relational models view countertransference as therapist reactions that complement a patient’s ways of relating, or see countertransference as mutually constructed by therapist and patient, so that the needs and conflicts of both patient and therapist contribute to the manifestation of countertransference in therapy. Hayes and colleagues argue that the definition of countertransference must include some aspect of therapist unresolved conflicts, and that countertransference in the therapist is potentially useful to understanding patient dynamics and personality style. Countertransference may be reflected in therapist anger, boredom, anxiety, despair, arousal, etc. These feelings range in intensity as well. According to Hayes and colleagues, successful management of countertransference might involve: self-insight (therapist being aware of their own feelings, attitudes, personality, etc.); self integration (therapist’s healthy character structure); anxiety management (therapist’s ability to control and understand own anxiety); empathy (the ability to put one’s self in the other’s shoes in order to focus on the client’s needs); and conceptualizing ability (therapist’s ability to draw on theory to understand the patient’s role in the therapeutic relationship). Hayes’ and colleagues meta-analyses included between 7 to 11 studies of 478 to 1065 participants. The findings showed that countertransference in the therapist was associated with negative patient outcomes, though the effect was small. Successful management of countertransference was associated with better therapy outcomes, and the effect was large.
Successful management of countertransference is a characteristic of effective therapists. Therapists can work on a number of issues to reduce the negative impact of countertransference and to increase its utility in helping to understand certain patients. Therapists can work to gain self-understanding and work on their own psychological health. The research suggests the importance of therapists resolving their own major conflicts through personal therapy and clinical supervision. Having a good grasp of psychological theory and theories of therapy can also help with using countertransference effectively, as long as the theory is not used defensively by the therapist. Further, there is value in therapists admitting mistakes and acknowledging that their own conflict was the source of the error. Although countertransference theory and research focuses on the therapist, Hayes and colleagues acknowledge that some clients evoke greater and more intense countertransference reactions that others.
Therapist Emotional Responses are Associated with Patient Personality
Colli, A., Tanzilli, A., Dimaggio, G., & Lingiardi, V. (2013). Patient personality and therapist response: An empirical investigation. American Journal of Psychiatry.
Therapist emotional responses to patients may refer to emotional reactions or to countertransference. Emotional responses can inform therapeutic interventions if therapists view their responses as informative about the patient’s feelings, perspectives, and relationship patterns. Clinicians have an intuitive sense that specific patient characteristics tend to evoke distinct emotional reactions (i.e., countertransferences) in the therapist. However, there are very few studies that examine the association between patient personality features and therapist emotional responses. A study Colli and colleagues examined this issue. They sampled 203 therapists from two theoretical orientations (psychodynamic = 103; cognitive-behavioral = 100). Among the therapists, 58% were women, mean age was 43 years, average experience was 10 years, average time spent providing psychotherapy was 16 hours per week, and 78% were in private practice. Each therapist was asked to randomly select a patient in their caseload, and complete a validated personality assessment questionnaire about the patient. Three weeks later, and immediately following a therapy session with the patient, the therapist completed a validated therapist emotional response questionnaire. Half of the patients were women (53%), mean age was 34 years, average length of treatment was 5 months (once per week), and 72% were diagnosed with a personality disorder (either comorbid or as a primary diagnosis). Patient paranoid and antisocial features were associated with therapists feeling criticized/mistreated. Patient borderline personality features were associated with therapists feeling helpless/inadequate, overwhelmed/disorganized, and special/overinvolved. Patient narcissistic features were associated with therapists feeling disengaged. Patient dependent personality features were associated with therapists feeling both parental/protective and special/overinvolved. The results were not affected by clinicians’ theoretical orientation. That is, psychodynamic and cognitive-behavioral therapists showed similar emotional responses to each patient personality pattern.
The results do not appear to be an artifact of therapist theoretical orientation, and so the authors argue that patient interpersonal patterns are quite robust in evoking specific therapist countertransference. A therapist’s emotional responses that are not primarily related to the therapist’s own issues could be an important source of information about the patient’s emotional and interpersonal patterns. Therapist emotional responses can also impede the therapist’s work if the responses are not well understood. Therapists who treat those with borderline personality features may avoid their own experience of negative thoughts and feelings during a session and this may unwittingly manifest as a sudden confrontation of the patient. With patients who have narcissistic features, therapists may feel disengaged, unempathic, and emotionally mis-attuned, which could lead to an impasse or premature termination. Therapists who treat patients with dependent features may be overprotective and may avoid exploring the patient’s painful feelings.
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