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
Psychotherapy at a Distance
Markowitz, J.C., Milrod B., Heckman, T.G., Bergman, M., Amsalem, D., Zalman, H., Ballas, T., Neria, Y. (2020). Psychotherapy at a distance. American Journal of Psychiatry, doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2020.20050557.
Teletherapy was once seen as an adjunctive therapy mainly reserved for patients who lived in remote locations and who could not otherwise access psychotherapy. Now, due to public health restrictions related to COVID-19, teletherapy has become standard care. Conscientious psychotherapists who want to practice based on the best available evidence have looked to the research for some guidance. Previous PPRNet Blogs (see the May, June, and July 2020 Blogs at www.pprnet.ca) have highlighted some of the research related to teletherapy and videoconferencing psychotherapy. In this meta-review, Markowitz and colleagues in part assess the quality of some of these findings, that is – how good is this research. Quality of research often hinges on a number of factors: is the sample size large enough to make solid conclusions, are the methods used appropriate and robust (like randomized controlled trials), is there a sufficient quantity of research that can be summarized, and are patient samples in the studies similar to those typically see in clinical practice. There are thousands of studies of face to face psychotherapy for depression, but by comparison the number of studies of teletherapy are relatively sparse. Many studies of teletherapy are not randomized controlled trials in the typical sense, but rather they are a hodgepodge of studies of different interventions, patients, settings, and outcomes. Nevertheless, the outcomes are generally encouraging in terms of the efficacy of teletherapy. In a recent meta analysis, effects of videoconferenced psychotherapy appear to be equivalent to face to face therapy, but there were only 11 studies in all, only 5 of the studies were considered high quality, and 4 of the high quality studies were with military veterans with PTSD in the Veterans Administration System in the US. Regarding specific orientations, Markowitz and colleagues reported three rigorous trials showing CBT or interpersonal psychotherapy reduced depressive symptoms. There are six randomized trials of group therapy by videoconferencing or telephone, but most are of low quality and often specifically focused on patients with HIV.
Videoconferenced and telephone delivered psychotherapy are likely here to stay in some form, even after the COVID-19 pandemic. Teletherapy greatly expands access for some, though some patients including homeless, poorer, or the elderly individuals still may not have adequate access. The research evidence for the efficacy of remote therapy is encouraging, but also problematic. Most research trials are too small to draw meaningful conclusions, and few studies focus on therapeutic factors. Anecdotal reports suggest that those who are socially anxious or avoidant may prefer remote care, however it is also possible that teletherapy may exacerbate problematic avoidance behaviors among some patients. At the moment, the research lags far behind the rapid transition to remote care that has occurred in the past months.
Videotherapy and the Therapeutic Alliance
Simpson, S., Richardson, L., Pietrabissa, G., Castelnuovo, G., Reid, C. (2020). Videotherapy and therapeutic alliance in the age of COVID-19. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, https://doi.org/10.1002/cpp.2521
The therapeutic alliance is one of the most robust predictors of patient outcomes in psychotherapy. The alliance refers to the patient’s and therapist’s agreement on the goals of therapy (what the patient wants for an outcome), the tasks of therapy (what to do in therapy to achieve these goals), and the relational bond between the patient and therapist. Despite the importance of the therapeutic alliance, psychotherapists tend to rate it lower in videoconferenced psychotherapy compared to face to face therapy. That is, psychotherapists are skeptical that one can develop and maintain the same quality of alliance in videoconferenced psychotherapy compared to face to face therapy. In this review, Simpson and colleagues evaluate the research on the alliance in videoconferenced psychotherapy. The authors argue that videoconference psychotherapy provides greater access for some patients, and also creates therapeutic opportunities that are not possible in face to face therapy. For example, those with PTSD, agoraphobia, social avoidance, and severe anxiety may find engaging in videoconferenced psychotherapy to be easier. Younger individuals who feel more at home with social interactions on a video screen may also engage better with videoconferenced psychotherapy. Simpson and colleagues reviewed 24 studies that examined the therapeutic alliance in the context of video therapy. There was a wide range of technologies and clinical groups, thus making meaningful comparisons difficult. Generally, both clients and therapists rated the alliance highly. There is some evidence that for a few patients, like those concerned with privacy and stigma, videoconferenced psychotherapy may be less threatening. However, it must be noted that most of these studies were surveys, analogue studies not including real therapeutic contexts, or single case reports. Currently, there appears to be no high quality randomized controlled trial comparing videoconferenced versus face to face therapy on the quality of the alliance.
As is the case with treatment efficacy studies, high quality trials looking at the therapeutic alliance in videoconferenced psychotherapy lag far behind practice. As a result, the research provides little guidance to therapists. Small studies and anecdotal reports suggest that the alliance may be as good in videoconferenced psychotherapy as in face to face therapy, and that some patient, especially those with high levels of avoidance and anxiety, may find videotherapy to be less threatening. Given the ubiquitous nature of technology, and the likelihood that videoconferenced psychotherapy will continue well into the future, it is important that researchers turn to examining what works in videotherapy and for whom.
Therapist and Client Emotional Expression: A Meta-Analysis
Peluso, P. R., & Freund, R. R. (2018). Therapist and client emotional expression and psychotherapy outcomes: A meta-analysis. Psychotherapy, 55(4), 461–472.
Emotions and emotional experiences are key to being human, and therefore are key to psychotherapy processes and outcomes. Emotion-focused therapy, for example, emphasizing helping clients to overcome their avoidance of emotions by exploring emotions in therapy in order to achieve change. Nevertheless, many therapeutic orientations focus on emotional expression, avoidance of emotions, emotional experiences, and understanding emotions as a means of helping clients to change and to have a better existence. Therapists of all stripes tend to work at creating a therapeutic context so that patients can have a corrective emotional experience. Primary emotions are universal and include happiness, sadness, fear, surprise, disgust, and anger. Secondary emotions are influenced by context and include embarrassment, guilt, and pride. All emotions and their experiences are influenced by cultural contexts, attitudes, and rules. A key aspect of psychotherapy includes helping clients to organize or make meaning of their emotions, and such therapeutic work is associated with positive client outcomes. In this meta-analysis, Peluso and colleagues evaluated the research on therapist and client emotional expression in psychotherapy, and its relationship to client outcomes. Thirteen studies found the effects of therapists’ expression of affect during therapy on client outcomes after the end of therapy had a mean effect size of r = .28 (95% CI: .17, .35), which was statistically significant and moderately large. The 42 studies that looked at client expression of affect during therapy and how it related to client outcomes after therapy found an average effect size of r = .40 (95% CI: .32, .48), which was also statistically significant moderately large.
This meta analysis emphasizes that emotions matter in psychotherapy. The capacity of therapists to judiciously express emotions, and to help clients to experience and make meaning of their emotions is an important therapeutic skill. Therapists need to focus on and validate clients’ emotions, and therapists should encourage clients to understand and process (i.e., make meaning of) their emotions. This work must occur in the context of a safe, trusting therapeutic relationship. Meaning making and emotional resolution should be considered as key therapeutic goals for most therapies.
Physiological Synchronization in the Psychotherapy Relationship
Kleinbub, J. R., Talia, A., & Palmieri, A. (2020). Physiological synchronization in the clinical process: A research primer. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 67(4), 420–437.
When two people interact, their hearts tend to beat at a coordinated rate and breathing rhythms become similar. In addition, people tend to engage in nonverbal behavior synchronization (harmonized facial expression, body posture, vocal tone, etc.). Due to technological developments in video software and in physiological measurement devices, research into synchronization between psychotherapists and patients may soon become common and may begin to inform clinical practice. In this article, Kleinbub and colleagues review the existing research on physiological synchronization and its implications for research and psychotherapy practice. One important finding in the field is that physiological synchronization is related to positive qualities of the therapist, like empathy. That is, therapists whose skin conductance levels (an index of physiological arousal) matched those of their patients, were perceived by their patients as more empathic. In other studies, physiological synchronization between patient and therapist was associated with higher levels of the therapeutic alliance. There is also interesting research showing that therapists with higher attachment security showed greater physiological synchronization in simulated role-plays of clinical interviews. That is, a greater experience of attachment security and a capacity to mentalize appeared to translate into therapists’ capacity to synchronize with their patients at a physiological level. Although one might expect that more physiological synchronization between patients and therapists is better, various studies point to a more nuanced view. Research in romantic couples and with mother-infant dyads suggest that there is an optimal balance between moments of rupture and synchronization. Reporting on their own research, Kelenbub and colleagues suggested that changes in topic and expressions of disagreement between patient and therapist (an indication of a therapeutic alliance rupture) were associated with lower physiological synchronization. Although not yet formally tested, the authors speculated that when therapists and patients repair alliance ruptures, they might return to a heightened state of physiological synchronization.
Research and interest in patient-therapist synchronization has been around since the late 1950s. However, with recent technological advances, researchers now have the capacity to unobtrusively and inexpensively assess physiological markers in patients and therapists on a moment to moment basis and correlate these with psychotherapy processes. There are no direct practice implications yet from this research. However, the research does point to the need for therapists to improve their capacity to mentalize (i.e., capacity to understand one’s own and others’ mental states) and to empathize, and to acquire skills to develop a therapeutic alliance and repair alliance ruptures when they occur.
What are Patients’ Experiences of Psychological Therapy?
McPherson, S., Wicks, C. & Tercelli, I. (2020). Patient experiences of psychological therapy for depression: A qualitative metasynthesis. BMC Psychiatry, 20, 313. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-020-02682-1
Many times, researchers choose what to study in psychotherapy trials without really consulting patients who are receiving the care. For example, researchers are often primarily interested in how well psychotherapies reduce symptoms in patients with a particular disorder, or researchers might be interested in certain constructs that might affect patient outcomes (e.g., therapeutic alliance, therapist empathy). But are these the things that patients are really interested in when they seek psychological therapy? Although many treatment guidelines emphasize patient choice and experience, none of them take research of patient experiences into account to develop the guidelines. When presented with findings from randomized controlled trials of psychotherapy, patients reported that the research was of limited value in helping them make an informed choice about therapy. In this metasynthesis of qualitative studies, McPherson and colleagues aimed to bring together qualitative evidence concerning adult patients’ experiences of psychotherapy for depression. Qualitative research typically involves interviewing patients and systematically categorizing their responses into meaningful themes. The authors found 38 qualitative studies involving patient interviews of their experiences in receiving psychotherapy for depression. Several key themes emerged from the analysis. First, many people who receive remote therapy primarily from a computer program felt dissatisfied because of the lack of or limited contact with a real person therapist. Most patients did not feel connected to the computerized therapy and so their motivation waned quickly. Second, patients found psychological models and techniques to be less relevant than their need for help with their immediate family or social problems that likely triggered their depressive symptoms. This points to the primary importance of quality of life and of the social and cultural context for patients, despite that many psychological therapies tend to focus on symptoms almost exclusively. Third, this metasynthesis pointed to reports of negative effects of therapy, in which some therapeutic techniques like body scans induced flashbacks in some patients. Other patients had mixed or sometimes negative feelings about requirements for homework, which sometimes felt overwhelming, culturally out of step, or irrelevant.
This metasynthesis of patient experiences in psychotherapy point to the importance of asking patients about their goals, expectations, and preferences in therapy. The findings highlight the importance of some common factors across therapies (e.g., therapist warmth and humanness, collaborative agreement on tasks and goals, and patient factors like culture and individual differences). Patients prefer human connection with therapists, and they tend to place less value on techniques of therapy. Patients also tend to value outcomes related to quality of life, social connection, and they want therapy consistent with their cultural values. Patients should be fully involved in a collaborative discussion about which therapy you offer them, how you provide the therapy, and what they want to achieve in therapy.
Group Therapy for Mood Disorders: A Meta-Analysis
Janis, R.A., Burlingame, G.M., Svien, H., Jensen, J. & Lundgreen, R. (2020): Group therapy for mood disorders: A meta-analysis, Psychotherapy Research, DOI: 10.1080/10503307.2020.1817603
Mood disorders are common mental health problems, with a 12-month prevalence of 7% in the population for major depressive disorder (MDD). Researchers have tested group therapy as a treatment for MDD and bipolar disorder. Recently, the American Psychological Association added group therapy as a specialty, attesting to the empirical evidence of group therapy’s efficacy and also the need for specialized education and training. Despite this, some treatment guidelines do not list group therapy as a first line therapy for major depression. Over the past 10 years, an international group of researchers have conducted a number of meta-analyses on the efficacy of group therapy for many disorders. In this particular meta-analysis, Janis and colleagues assessed the efficacy of group therapy to treat mood disorders by looking at randomized controlled trials of group therapy compared to waitlist controls, treatment as usual, and anti-depressant medications. They identified 42 randomized controlled trials of group therapy for mood disorders that included almost 3,000 patients. Treatment orientations included CBT, DBT, psychodynamic, and interpersonal therapies. For primary outcome measures of depressive symptoms at post treatment, the effect of group therapy versus waitlist controls was large and significant (g = .86, 95% CI [.66, 1.06], p < .001, k = 9), and those receiving group treatment were 6.81 times more likely to recover compared to those waiting for treatment (95% CI [3.70, 12.55]). Group therapy also resulted in better outcomes than treatment as usual on primary outcome measures of depression at post treatment with a medium sized effect (g = 0.46, 95% CI [0.22, 0.87], p < .001, k = 11), and those receiving group therapy were 2.75 times more likely to recover than those receiving treatment as usual (95% CI [1.59, 4.72]). Finally, there was no significant difference between group therapy and medications on rate of change in depressive symptoms or on rates of recovery.
Overall, group therapy was more effective than no treatment and treatment as usual for major depression symptoms. Group therapy was as effective as anti-depressant medications. Group therapy is likely more cost effective because it is a multi-person treatment. Many patients do not respond to medications or they struggle with medication adherence because of unpleasant side effects. And most patients prefer psychotherapy to medications if given the choice. And so, group therapy provides a cost-effective alternative and should be considered as a first line treatment for depression. As indicated by the American Psychological Association’s recognition of group therapy as a specialty, providing group therapy requires specialized education and training in order to offer effective care. Continuing education opportunities exist with the Society of Group Psychology and Group Psychotherapy and with the American Group Psychotherapy Association.