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
Evidence for Psychotherapy of PTSD in Adults Who Experienced Childhood Abuse
Ehring, T., Welboren, R., Morina, N., Wicherts, J.M., Freitag, J., & Emmelkamp, P.M.G (2014). Meta-analysis of psychological treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder in adult survivors of childhood abuse. Clinical Psychology Review, 34, 645-657.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs at a very high frequency among those who experienced childhood physical and/or sexual abuse. As adults these individuals often request mental health services. Previous meta analyses of psychotherapies for PTSD have combined samples of those with PTSD due to childhood maltreatment and those due to trauma in adulthood. This meta analysis by Ehring and colleagues is the first specifically to look at treatment of PTSD in those with childhood abuse. Some argue that PTSD due to childhood abuse is different because of the high level of complex symptoms like emotion regulation problems, impulsivity, depression, dissociation, substance abuse, and others. And so treatments for PTSD related to childhood abuse may require different characteristics and may have different outcomes. Further, there is a long standing debate about whether trauma-focused treatments are appropriate for those with PTSD who have high levels of complex symptoms. There is concern for example that the focus on trauma memories may exacerbate symptoms like dissociation. Previous reviews showed that treatments targeting the trauma memory (i.e., focus on processing the memory and its meaning) had the largest effect on PTSD outcomes. This is likely because of the impact that memory processes (i.e., re-accessing memories, maladaptive attributions of memories) have on the maintenance of the disorder. Would these large treatment effects also be found in PTSD that resulted specifically from childhood abuse? (A note about meta analyses: meta analyses are the best way to synthesize a research area because this method combines the effect sizes from multiple studies into a single effect size. The findings of meta analyses are much more reliable than findings from any single study. See my November 2013 blog). Ehrling and colleagues conducted a meta analysis of 16 studies that included over 1200 participants with PTSD due to childhood abuse. Treatments included: trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), non-trauma-focused CBT, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and others. Psychological interventions were effective for PTSD related to childhood abuse, and the effects were large for both PTSD symptom severity and for other symptoms (i.e., depression, anxiety, dissociation). Psychological interventions were more effective that control conditions (i.e., wait lists or treatments as usual), and these effects were moderate. Effects remained large or moderate well into post-treatment follow-ups. Trauma focused treatments were more effective than non-trauma-focused treatments, and individual interventions were more effective than group-based interventions.
Psychological interventions for PTSD in adults who experienced childhood abuse are effective in reducing symptom severity with moderate to large effects. Other symptoms like anxiety, depression, and dissociation also showed large positive changes in these individuals. Research shows that trauma-focused treatments are under-used in routine practice. This may be due to the concern that trauma-focused treatments may not be safe in some individuals with complex symptoms. Trauma-focused treatments may lead to higher effects than non-trauma focused treatments, indicating the potential importance of processing the trauma memory.
Psychological Therapy After a Suicide Attempt: A Nationwide Study
Erlangsen, A., Lind, B. D., Stuart, E. A., Qin, P., Stenager, E., Larsen, K. J., ... & Nordentoft, M. (2014). Short-term and long-term effects of psychosocial therapy for people after deliberate self-harm: A register-based, nationwide multicentre study using propensity score matching. The Lancet Psychiatry. Early Online Publication: doi:10.1016/S2215-0366(14)00083-2.
Between 9 million and 35 million suicide attempts occur yearly in the world, and suicide accounts for over 800,000 deaths every year worldwide. Suicide attempts are associated with future attempts and with mortality. Within the first year, 16% of people attempt suicide again. Despite the occurrence of suicide attempts and its effects, there has been inconclusive evidence of the effectiveness of interventions to reduce future attempts and death. That is why this Danish nationwide study by Erlangsen is so important. Another impressive aspect of this study is its size and scope. Since 1992, psychological therapies have been offered to people at risk of suicide in specialized clinics throughout Denmark. The aim of Erlangsen and colleagues’ study was to assess if those who received these psychological interventions had a reduced risk of suicidal behavior and mortality compared to people who did not receive the interventions. The authors collected data from 1992 to 2010 from Danish national health registries. This procedure was possible in Denmark because the health system is nationally coordinated and each individual has a traceable national health ID. In order to be included in the study, those who were offered specialized psychological interventions had to receive at least one session of treatment. Therapy included cognitive behavioral therapy, problem solving therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, psychodynamic therapy, systemic therapy and others. The interventions consisted of up to 8 to 10 individual outpatient sessions. The comparison group received “standard care” that consisted of admission to hospital, referral to a general practitioner, or discharge with no referral. The primary outcomes were: repeated self-harm, death by suicide, and death by any other cause. Of the people receiving psychotherapy, 5,678 had useable data. The “standard care” sample was much larger and consisted of 58,281 individuals who were matched to the psychological intervention group on many variables including sex, age, education, antidepressant medications, and psychiatric diagnosis. For those receiving psychotherapy, the rate of repeated suicide attempts in the first year was 6.7% and 15.5% at 10 years. For those receiving standard care, rate of repeated suicide attempts in the first year was 9.0% and 18.4% at 10 years. The odds of another suicide attempt one year post treatment was 73% lower among those receiving psychotherapy. Death by any other cause at the 10 year mark was also significantly lower in the psychological therapy group (5.3%) versus the no-therapy group (7.9%). The authors estimated that over the 20 year span of their data, psychological therapy: prevented repeated suicide attempts in 145 people, prevented deaths by any other cause in 153 people, and prevented 30 suicide deaths. Psychosocial interventions were associated with fewer repeated suicide attempts in women but not in men, and adolescents and young adults benefited most from psychological therapies.
This is the largest long term follow up study ever of psychological interventions after a suicide attempt. Psychotherapy was associated with reduced risk of self-harm and mortality in the short and long term. This was especially true for women and in adolescents and young adults. Those receiving psychotherapy might have been a select group resulting in biased results. However, the extensive matching of the psychotherapy group to the no-therapy control group reduced the likelihood that factors other than psychotherapy influenced the findings. The study indicates strong support for providing psychological interventions to people at risk of suicide.
Rate of Drop-Out From Psychotherapy Differs by Treatment Type, but Only for Some Disorders
Swift, J. K., & Greenberg, R. P. (2014). A treatment by disorder meta-analysis of dropout from psychotherapy. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 24(3), 193-207.
In one of my first PPRNet Blogs I reported on a meta analysis by Swift and Greenberg (2012) in which they found that almost 1 in 5 patients in clinical trials dropped out of therapy. There were no differences between therapeutic orientations in the drop out rates. However, the authors did report that those with eating disorders (23.9%) and personality disorders (25.6%) dropped out at a higher rate than other disorders. Premature termination from therapy is an important problem in that those who drop out are less satisfied and have poorer outcomes than treatment completers. In this follow up to their meta analysis, Swift and Greenberg ask the interesting question of whether premature termination differs across therapy orientations for any of the specific disorders. They compared the drop out rates of different treatment approaches for each of 12 separate disorders. The studies defined drop out in various ways, including: unilateral termination, not attending a set number of sessions, not achieving clinically significant change, etc. Treatment orientations, included: behavior therapy, cognitive–behavioral therapies, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), psychodynamic psychotherapies, solution-focused therapy, interpersonal psychotherapy, humanistic/existential/supportive psychotherapies, and integrative approaches. Primary diagnoses included: depression, eating disorders, borderline personality disorder, other personality disorder, somatoform disorder, bereavement, obsessive compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), psychotic disorders, and social phobia. The authors conducted 12 meta analyses, one for each disorder to compare the therapy approaches. Overall, they included 587 studies. There were no differences in drop out rates among therapy approaches for 9 of the 12 disorders. For depression, integrative therapy had significantly lower drop out rates than other approaches (10.9% vs 19.2%), and for PTSD integrative therapy also had the lowest drop out rate compared to other treatments (8.8% vs 21.0%). Also, for PTSD, exposure based interventions had the highest drop out rates (up to 28.5%). For eating disorders, DBT had the lowest drop out rates compared to other approaches (5.9% vs 24.2%), but this was largely explained by older patient samples and shorter duration of treatment in DBT.
There were no differences between treatments in drop out rates for 9 of 12 disorders. Swift and Greenberg argued that for these disorders, other factors (e.g., therapeutic alliance, client expectations) rather than specific techniques were enough to keep clients in therapy. For depression and PTSD, integrative treatments resulted in the lowest drop out rates. This suggests that therapists might consider incorporating techniques from other orientations that increase the acceptability of therapy for their clients with depression and PTSD. Use of exposure based interventions for PTSD may require a significant amount of work to prepare clients in order to reduce higher drop out rates.
Does Cognitive Therapy Have an Enduring Effect Superior to Keeping Patients on Medication?
Cuijpers, P., Hollon, S. D., van Straten, A., Bockting, C., Berking, M., & Andersson, G. (2013). Does cognitive behaviour therapy have an enduring effect that is superior to keeping patients on continuation pharmacotherapy? A meta-analysis. BMJ open, 3(4).
In another in a series of meta analyses by this primarily Dutch group, Cuijpers and colleagues tackle the question of whether the longer term effects of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT; a short time-limited treatment for depression) outweighs the long term effects of continuation on anti depression medications. CBT is considered an efficacious treatment for depression (see my June 2014 Blog). CBT also has comparable effects as antidepressant medications, but CBT tends to have lower rates of treatment drop outs. What is not clear is whether short term CBT leads to lasting change that is comparable to long term use of medications for depression. One could argue for example, that short term CBT or other comparable psychological interventions teaches patients skills or changes psychological functioning such that future recurrences of depression are less likely. That is, psychological interventions may cause changes that eventually will prevent relapse. Pharmacotherapy on the other hand, may not result in psychological change or acquisition of new skills to forestall a relapse. In fact, patients with chronic depression tend to be kept on medications indefinitely, and patients who recently remit (i.e., no longer have symptoms of depression) are typically kept on pharmacotherapy for another 6 to 12 months to reduce the risk of recurrence. Information about the relative longer term effects of short term treatment with a psychological intervention like CBT versus longer term maintenance on pharmacotherapy can help practitioners and patients decide on the best course of action depending on patient preferences. Cuijpers and colleagues asked: is short term CBT without continuation of treatment as effective as short term treatment of pharmacotherapy with and without long term continuation? They conducted a meta analysis in which the effects of short term CBT were compared to pharmacotherapy in adults diagnosed with depression across follow up periods of 6 to 18 months. Nine studies representing 506 patients were included in the meta analysis. There was a non-significant trend showing that short term CBT outperformed continuation pharmacotherapy at one-year post treatment. On the other hand, CBT resulted in better long term outcomes compared to pharmacotherapy that was discontinued at post treatment. The odds of dropping out of treatment were significantly higher for those receiving pharmacotherapy compared to CBT. There were no differences in any of the findings for type of antidepressant medications.
The findings reaffirm CBT as a first-line treatment of depressive disorders. It also suggests that equally effective other psychological treatments may also have similar enduring effects compared to pharmacotherapy. Patients and providers need to consider all of the evidence when weighing the pros and cons of psychotherapy or medications for the treatment of depression. Although pharmacotherapy might be more widely available to patients through primary care physicians, the research is suggesting that enduring effects and treatment compliance are higher among those who have access to psychological interventions.
Are Humanistic-Experiential Therapies Effective? Review and Meta-Analyses
Elliott, R.E., Greenberg, L.S., Watson, J. Timulak, L., & Briere, E. (2013). Research on humanistic-experiential psychotherapies. In M.E. Lambert (Ed.), Bergin and Garfield’s Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change, 6th Edition (pp. 495-538). New York: Wiley.
Humanistic or experiential psychotherapies (HEP) include: person centred therapy, gestalt therapy, emotion-focused therapy, existential psychotherapy, and others. Elliott and colleagues argue that each of these approaches share the characteristic of valuing the centrality of an empathic and therapeutic relationship. That is, an authentic relationship between patient and therapist provides the client with a new and emotionally validating experience. HEP methods that deepen client emotional experiences occur within an empathic relationship, and interpersonal safety is key to enhancing a client’s attention for self awareness and exploration. Despite the long history of research in HEP, these treatments are often used as “control” conditions in outcome studies of psychotherapies – that is, to control for “non-specific” or relationship factors. Elliott and colleagues conducted meta analyses on the effectiveness of humanistic-experiential therapies. Overall, they included 199 studies of over 14,000 patients. Pre to post treatment effect sizes were large (d = .95), indicating a positive effect HEP across a wide range of clients. (A note on effect sizes: Cohen’s d < .20 represents a negligible effect; d = .20 to .49 is a small effect; d = .50 to .79 is a moderate effect; and d > .80 is a large effect). Compared to a wait-list control (62 studies), the positive effect of HEP was significant with a moderate effect size for the difference (d = .76). There were 135 studies that compared HEP to other active forms of psychotherapy. The difference between HEP and non-HEP therapies were trivial and non significant (d = .01). In the 76 studies that compared HEP to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), those who received CBT had better outcomes, but the effects were negligible (d = .13). The authors reported that there is enough evidence to indicate that HEP are efficacious for depressive disorders, substance misuse, and relationship problems; and HEP are probably efficacious for anxiety and psychotic disorders.
The research on outcomes of humanistic-existential psychotherapies (HEP) provides support for the effectiveness of these therapies for a variety of disorders, and provides further support for the importance of the facilitative and relationship factors that help patients get better. Empathy, genuineness, positive regard each comes with research support to indicate their importance to patient outcomes. Elliot and colleagues conclude that the education of psychotherapists is incomplete without greater emphasis on HEP and its facilitative components.
Psychological Interventions for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Gerger, H., Munder, T., Gemperli, E., Nuesch, E., Trelle, S., Juni, P., & Barth, J. (2014). Integrating fragmented evidence by network meta-analysis. Relative effectiveness of psychological interventions for adults with post-traumatic stress disorder. Psychological Medicine, doi:10.1017/S0033291714000853.
Gerger and colleagues conducted a network meta-analysis to summarize the evidence on the effectiveness of psychological interventions for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Psychological trauma is common in the population (between 40% and 90% lifetime prevalence), and many people develop symptoms following the trauma that may turn into PTSD. For example people may re-experience the traumatic event, avoid stimuli related to the traumatic event, or experience increased arousal. Even those who do not meet DSM-IV criteria for PTSD may still have severe impairment and chronic symptoms. Specific interventions for PTSD include exposure to trauma related stimuli or working through cognitions related to the trauma. Non-specific interventions might include supportive therapy or relaxation treatments. As I mentioned in previous blogs, meta-analyses are the best way to summarize the evidence of existing research in order to make clinical decisions about practice. Meta-analyses allow us to pool the effect sizes from individual studies of many patients into an average effect. This method provides the most reliable estimates of the effects of treatments – no single study can be as reliable. Network meta-analysis is a relatively new method that not only allows one to accumulate results from trials that directly compare the same two treatments, but it also allows indirect comparisons of a treatment and another treatment that was tested in a different study. In their network meta-analysis, Gerger and colleagues included 66 studies representing 4,196 patients. Specific treatments included cognitive behavioral therapies (CBT), eye movement disensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and exposure based therapy (ET). Non-specific interventions included stress management (SM) and supportive therapy (ST). The positive effect of specific interventions (CBT, EMDR, and ET) compared to a wait-list control was large. The positive effect of non-specific interventions (SM, ST) compared to a wait-list control was moderate. There were no differences in effectiveness among the psychological interventions, except EMDR outperformed ST. However, this difference disappeared when only the large scale trials were considered (results from large scale trials tend to be more reliable). Patients with a formal diagnosis of PTSD appear to benefit more from psychological interventions than those with sub-clinical PTSD, though both groups improved.
Different specific interventions for PTSD (CBT, EMDR, ET) appear to have similar positive benefits with large effects. Indirect interventions show moderately positive effects. Supportive therapy (ST) may be beneficial, but the authors indicated that it is too early to conclude that ST is as effective as direct specific interventions. All patients benefit from psychological interventions, though those with more severe symptoms stand to gain the most. Given the similar outcomes of interventions and the number of effective interventions, researchers are now arguing that factors such as access, acceptability, and patient preference should influence the choice of treatment.