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
Is the Alliance Really Therapeutic?
Zilcha-Mano, S. (2017). Is the alliance really therapeutic? Revisiting this question in light of recent methodological advances. American Psychologist, 72, 311-325.
The therapeutic alliance is often defined as the agreement between the client and therapist on the goals and tasks of treatment within the context of an affective bond. The alliance is associated with good treatment outcomes regardless of how it is measured, who measures it, when it is measured, and what type of therapy is offered. But researchers and theorists debate the causal role of the alliance in therapy. Is the therapeutic alliance simply a byproduct of an effective treatment (i.e. people begin feel better in therapy and therefore experience a better alliance)? Or is the alliance a client trait which is a necessary factor that enables effective treatments to work (i.e., some clients are better at developing an alliance which is required for therapeutic interventions to take hold). Or is the alliance a state-like factor that fluctuates over time and is therapeutic in and of itself (i.e., the growth in the alliance by itself is sufficient to induce symptom change). In this review of recent advanced methods to research the alliance, Zilcha-Mano provides an overview of statistics that model the session to session dynamic fluctuations and impacts of growth in the therapeutic alliance. She argues convincingly that for the most part, the alliance is not a byproduct of symptom improvement. Using this advanced methodology research indicates that session by session change in symptoms do not precede change in the alliance. The research supporting trait-like aspects of the alliance indicates that some clients are more adept than others at developing an alliance with their therapists. Therefore an early alliance in therapy indicates a client trait that provides a necessary context for effective therapies to do their work. However, research also shows that the alliance changes dynamically over the course of treatment, and that change in the alliance from a preceding session predicts change in symptoms in subsequent sessions. This indicates that alliance also has state-like elements that dynamically fluctuate and influence outcomes, which provides evidence that this aspect of the alliance is therapeutic in and of itself.
The accumulating research evidence indicate that the therapeutic alliance is a key aspect of successful therapies. New research is showing how to best manage the alliance, like how to repair alliance ruptures. The research also indicates that the role of the alliance may differ according to client characteristics. Those clients who arrive for treatment with better trait-like characteristics (more adaptive representations of self, more adaptive relationships with others) may be better able to create a strong alliance early. For these clients, the alliance may not be highly therapeutic in itself, but rather set the context for therapy interventions to work. However, some clients find it difficult to maintain satisfying relationships with others including the therapist. For these clients, state-like changes in the alliance may be essential for treatment – that is, developing a strong alliance over the course of treatment may be therapeutic in itself to improve their interpersonal relationships outside of therapy.
Lying in Psychotherapy: What Clients Don’t Tell Their Therapist
Blanchard, M. & Farber, B.A. (2016). Lying in psychotherapy: Why and what clients don’t tell their therapist about therapy and their relationship, Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 29, 90-112.
Clients’ disclosure of their thoughts and feelings are key aspects of psychotherapy, and trust is at the heart of the therapeutic relationship. However clients are not always honest with their therapist. Clients may keep secrets, hide negative reactions to interventions, minimize, spin, or tell outright lies. In this study, Blanchard and Farber asked: “what do clients lie about in therapy and why”. The authors used a broad definition of dishonesty that included: consciously twisting the facts, minimizing, exaggerating, omitting, and pretending to agree with the therapist. The authors excluded delusions, repression, denial, and other forms of unconscious deception. Blanchard and Farber were particularly interested in client dishonesty about therapy itself and about the therapist. The authors conducted an online survey of psychotherapy clients recruited from a community sample in a U.S. city, and 547 adult clients responded. The sample was surprisingly similar to a therapy-using population reported in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Most clients were women (78%), White (80%), saw a female therapist (71%), received CBT (35.4%) or psychodynamic therapy (18%), and were treated for depression (64%) and/or anxiety (49%) disorders. The survey asked about a wide range of possible topics for dishonesty such as use of drugs or alcohol, desire for revenge, pretending to agree with the therapist, etc. With this broad definition of conscious dishonesty, 93% of clients reported lying to their therapist, in which the average number of topics lied about per client was 8.4 (SD = 6.6). Those who lied more often also reported a general tendency in their lives to conceal negative personal information (r = .45). Only 6.8% of clients reported having told zero lies in therapy. Some topics were highly endorsed by clients – for example, 54% endorsed lying about “how badly I really feel – I minimized”, 25% did not disclose “my thoughts about suicide” and “my use of drugs or alcohol”. Other topics (endorsed by 5% to 25% of clients) included lies about eating habits, self-harm, infidelity, violent fantasies, experiences of physical or sexual abuse, and religious beliefs. About 72.6% of clients lied about at least one therapy-related topic, including: “pretending to like my therapist’s comments or suggestions” (29%), “reason for missing an appointment” (29%), “pretending to find therapy more effective than I do” (28%), “pretending to do the homework” (26%), “my real opinion of the therapist (19%), “not saying I want to end therapy (16%), and “my therapist makes me feel uncomfortable” (13%). Other items were relatively rare in the sample including “my romantic or sexual feeling about my therapist” (5%). Survey respondents were then asked why they were dishonest. Reasons why clients were dishonest included: “wanting to be polite”, “I didn’t want my therapist to feel he was bad at his job”, “I didn’t want to look bad or feel embarrassed”, “I would feel bad if I told her it really didn’t help me”, “wanting to avoid my therapist’s disapproval”, and “wanting to avoid upsetting my therapist”.
Using a broad definition of dishonesty, this study found that 93% of clients did not tell the truth in one way or another to their therapist. Concern about self-judgments (i.e., embarrassment) or external judgments (i.e., avoiding therapist’s disapproval) may lead most clients to be less than honest at some times. Over 70% of clients reported lying about an aspect of therapy itself or of the therapeutic relationship. Clients appear to be particularly sensitive to upsetting or disappointing their therapist. This suggests the importance of therapists monitoring the level of emotional safety, trust, and alliance in the therapeutic relationship. Therapists may have to accept a certain level of dissimulation by clients in the therapy. Engaging in empathy, positive regard, and a focused attention on the therapeutic relationship may be important for therapists in order to overcome a level of fear or distrust among some clients about their self-judgement or the therapist`s judgment. These findings suggest that clients may benefit from therapists who receive training in identifying and resolving therapeutic alliance ruptures.
Do All Therapists Do That When Saying Goodbye?
Norcross, J.C., Zimmerman, B.E., Greenberg, R.P., & Swift, J.K. (2017). Do all therapists say that when saying goodbye? A study of commonalities in termination behaviors. Psychotherapy, 54, 66-75.
One of the things common to all psychotherapy relationships is that they come to an end. The endings may be premature or planned. They may be well managed or poorly managed. In this article by Norcross and colleagues, the authors ask: what do expert therapists typically do when there is a planned termination with a client? A planned termination is “an intentional process that occurs over time when a client has achieved most of the goals of treatment, and/or when psychotherapy must end for other reasons”. By contrast, premature termination occurs when the client ends treatment unilaterally. In successful cases the client and therapist typically predetermine the end date and have time to work toward the ending. Different theoretical orientations write about different aspects of termination. For example, from a psychodynamic perspective, therapists focus on clients’ old and new methods of coping, feelings related to the impending loss of the relationship, review gains, and work to equalize the relationship. From an experiential perspective, therapists might recognize that clients continue to change after therapy, help clients work through feelings of loss and separation of the therapeutic relationship, and consolidate new meanings. Cognitive-behavioral therapists might help clients to maintain gains made in therapy, review new skills, and prevent relapse. Do therapists who practice these and other theoretical approaches differ in terms of how they manage termination in psychotherapy? Norcross and colleagues surveyed 65 nominated experts representing six theoretical orientations of psychotherapy (psychodynamic, humanistic, CBT, interpersonal, multicultural, and integrative). Each orientation was represented by at least 10 expert therapists. The survey included 80 items related to termination that were drawn from books, chapters, and treatment manuals. The experts indicated the frequency with which they engaged in each behavior or the task related to termination. Therapist behaviors or tasks that received very strong consensus (>90% of therapists reporting “frequently” or “almost always” doing these) included: supporting the client’s progress, helping to consolidate gains made in therapy, following ethical practice (e.g., avoiding abandonment), attributing gains to the client’s effort, talking about what helped or went well, and collaborating with the client to set a date and pace of termination. Strong consensus (80% to 90% of therapists reported frequently doing these) behaviors or tasks included: focus on processing feelings around termination, having the client practice new skills, normalizing the probability of relapse, and prompting the client to think of a future without therapy. Of the 80 Items, 27 did not reach consensus among the therapists (i.e., only 21% to 59% of therapists agreed on these items). Out of the 80 items, only 8 (10% of items) showed significant differences between theoretical orientations (e.g., compared to other orientations, CBT therapists tended to do more of: preparing clients for relapse, and systematically assessing client outcomes near termination).
This survey of 65 experts of varying psychotherapy orientations highlighted a wide range of commonalities in terms of how they managed termination with clients. While there was some uniqueness among orientations, most therapists tended to: process feelings about termination and the relationship with clients, discuss future functioning and coping, helped clients to use new skills, framed the client’s personal development as ongoing beyond therapy, prepared explicitly for termination, and reflected on the client’s gains.
The Importance of Psychosocial Factors in Mental Health Treatment
Greenberg, R.P. (2016). The rebirth of psychosocial importance in a drug-filled world. American Psychologist, 71, 781-791.
In this thoughtful piece, Greenberg reviews the research on psychosocial factors that affect mental health treatment outcomes – including for medications and in psychotherapy. There has been an important shift in the last few decades to view mental disorders, including depression, as biologically based. For example, surveys indicate that the public’s belief in biological causes of mental illness rose from 77% to 88% during a 10 year period. During the same period the belief in the primacy of biological treatment for mental disorders rose from 48% to 60%. Further, 20% of women and 15% of men in the US are currently taking antidepressant medications. Some of these trends are due to direct to consumer marketing of medications by the pharmaceutical industry, which saw a 300% increase in sales in antidepressants. Some of these trends are also due to Federal agencies like the National Institute of Mental Health that vigorously pursued an agenda of biological research. But what is the evidence for a purely biological view of mental health? Greenberg notes that the evidence is poor. For example, no one has been able to demonstrate that a chemical imbalance actually exists to explain depressive symptoms – which undermines the reason for using medications to treat depression. Further, research on the efficacy of antidepressant medications shows that they perform only slightly better than a placebo pill, prompting a former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine to declare that this difference is unlikely to be clinically meaningful. The placebo effect is essentially a psychosocial effect. It refers to: the patient’s experience of a caring relationship with a credible professional, and the patient’s expectations and hopes of getting better. Placebo is a very real phenomenon that also has an impact on purely medical interventions like surgeries. In psychotherapy trials, relational/contextual factors like therapeutic alliance, expectations, therapist empathy, and countertransference likely account for more of the client’s outcomes than the particular therapeutic technique that is used. In both psychotherapy and medication treatments for depression, it appears that the more patients perceived their doctors as caring, empathic, open, and sincere, the greater their symptom improvement. There is also good evidence that psychotherapy is as effective and antidepressants for mild to moderate depression, and that antidepressants are slightly superior for chronic depression. However, even the latter should be interpreted carefully and within the context that patients prefer psychotherapy, their adherence to medications is poorer, side effects are worse for medications, and drop out rates are lower for psychotherapy.
Patients benefit from antidepressant medications, but perhaps not exactly for the reasons that they are told. Psychosocial factors likely account for a large proportion of the effects of many medically-based interventions for mental disorders. Psychosocial factors are actively used in many psychotherapies, and therapists’ qualities like their ability to establish an alliance, empathy, and professionalism account for a moderate to large proportion of why patients get better.
Comparing Three Psychotherapies for Adolescents with Major Depression
Goodyear, I.M., Reynolds, S., Barrett, B., Byford, S., Dubicka, B., ….Fonagy, P. (2016). Cognitive behavioural therapy and short-term psychoanalytical psychotherapy versus a brief psychosocial intervention in adolescents with unipolar major depressive disorder (IMPACT): A multicentre, pragmatic, observer-blind, randomised controlled superiority trial. Lancet Psychiatry, Online first publication: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(16)30378-9.
Major depression affects a large proportion of adolescents worldwide. The Global Burden of Disease Study Found that depressive disorders accounted for over 40% of disease burden caused by all mental and substance use disorders, with the highest burden occurring for those between the ages of 10 and 29. Although there is good evidence for cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to treat depression in adolescents, data is scarce for long term outcomes – which is an important issue because maintaining treatment gains reduces the risk for relapse. There is also little research on alternative treatments to CBT and their long term effects. In this large study, Goodyear and colleagues (2016) randomly assigned 470 adolescents with major depression to receive CBT, short-term psychoanalytical therapy (STPT), or a brief psychosocial intervention (BPI). CBT was based on a commonly used model but adapted to include parents and emphasized behavioural techniques. The STPT model emphasized the child – therapist relationship in which the therapist emphasized understanding feelings and difficulties in ones life. STPT also included some family meeting. BPI on the other hand focused on psychoeducation about depression, was task and goal oriented, and emphasized interpersonal activities. The study also compared cost-effectiveness of the three treatments – that is, whether the treatments’ costs relative to their effectiveness were different. There were some advantages in terms of reduced depression to both CBT and STPT compared to BPI at 36 weeks and 52 weeks post treatment, but these advantages disappeared by 86 weeks follow-up. Across all three treatments, about 77% of adolescents with depression were in remission (i.e., no longer depressed) by 86 weeks post-treatment. There were no differences between the three treatments in terms of cost-effectiveness.
This is one of those rare studies that is large enough to adequately compare the efficacy of alternative treatments for adolescents with major depression. CBT, STPT, and BPI were all associated with reduced depression in adolescents, and with maintenance of these improvements 1 year after the start of treatment. Both BPI and STPT provide alternative choices to CBT for patients and therapists.
Cultural Adaptation of Psychotherapy
Hall, G.C.N., Ibarak, A.Y., Huang, E.R., Marti, C.N., & Stice, E. (2016). A meta-analysis of cultural adaptations of psychological interventions. Behavior Therapy.
Cultural adaptation of psychological interventions involves identifying cultural contexts of behaviors and developing constructs of mental health functioning relevant to the cultural context. Most cultural adaptation of psychotherapies involves taking existing treatments originally developed for those of European ancestry and adapting them for another specific cultural group or context. However, a few efforts exist in which new treatments were developed within a particular culture to address culture-specific concerns. Eight dimensions along which interventions could be culturally adapted include: language, people, metaphors, content, concepts, goals, methods, and context. Some researchers have expressed concern that cultural adaptation could distance an intervention from its evidence-base, and reduce its effectiveness. In this meta analysis by Hall and colleagues, the researchers look closely at the effects all culturally adapted treatments and prevention methods. They reviewed 78 studies that included nearly 14,000 participants. All studies included culturally adapted interventions for individuals of non-European ancestry. For example, these included studies that adapted CBT interventions for various disorders (mainly depression and anxiety disorders), or studies that match therapist to client in terms of ethnicity. Only 5% of studies created a new intervention developed within a particular culture, whereas the vast majority of studies adapted an existing treatment initially developed for clients of European ancestry. The average effect size was g = .67 (confidence intervals not reported), indicating that culturally adapted interventions produced better outcomes than comparison conditions. Culturally adapted interventions were also more likely to result in better outcomes than the same interventions that were not adapted (g = .52). Effect sizes for cultural adaptation in treatment studies (g = .72) were larger than for prevention studies (g = .25), likely because participants in treatment studies had higher levels of initial psychopathology. There was little evidence that matching therapist and client on ethnicity was helpful.
This meta analysis provides compelling evidence that cultural adaptation of existing treatments can result in more positive outcomes compared to not adapting the same treatment. The effect sizes may even underestimate the true effects of cultural adaptation because the outcome variables like measures of depression were rarely adapted to a specific culture (e.g., depression among Chinese participants may be expressed differently than depression among European participants, and most depression measures were created by and for Europeans).