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
Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy Reduces Threat Response in the Brain
Johnson, S.M, Burgess Moser, M., Beckes, L., Smith, A., Dalgliesh… Coan, J.A. (2013). Soothing the threatened brain: Leveraging contact comfort with emotionally focused therapy. PLoS ONE 8(11): e79314. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0079314.
Attachment theory argues that a felt sense of connection to others provides a secure base and safe haven, thus increasing one’s tolerance for uncertainty and threat. Improved access to and experience of social resources likely help us regulate negative emotions thus reducing our perception of threat. In a previous study, women in a couple were confronted with a threat (the possibility of a shock to the ankle) while their brain was scanned by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). These women were either holding the hand of their spouse or the hand of a stranger. Women with the highest quality relationships showed lower threat response in the brain especially while they held the hand of their spouse. Holding the hand of a spouse with whom they had a loving relationship reduced the fear response in these women measured directly in the brain by fMRI. In the study by Johnson and colleagues (2013) the authors wanted to see if improving attachment relationship between couples following Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) would result reduced responses to threat measured in the brain. Twenty-three couples completed a course of EFT (23 sessions on average) with experienced therapists. EFT is an evidence based couples treatment that conceptualizes couple distress as caused by unmet attachment needs. When feeling emotionally disconnected, partners in a couple may be anxiously blaming or withdrawing, and this pattern exacerbates relationship distress and threat. EFT focuses on repairing attachment bonds between spouses. In this trial, EFT significantly improved couples’ self reported distress from pre to post therapy. The brain of the female member of the couple was scanned in an fMRI before and after EFT. An electrode was fixed to her ankle, and she was threatened with a mild shock. This procedure took place while she was on her own and while she held her partner’s hand. Threat response was measured by activity in the prefrontal cortex and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, both of which are associated with processing threat cues and negative affect. EFT resulted in a decrease activity in these areas of the brain from pre to post couples treatment, and these results were especially prominent during hand holding with the partner.
There is emerging evidence that the effects of psychotherapy like EFT for couples, has a direct impact on the brain that correlates with patients’ self report. In addition, EFT appears to increase the attachment bond between couples and this helps them to regulate their emotions and to moderate their reactions to threat. This study by Johnson and colleagues (2013) also supports some fundamental tenets of attachment theory – that increasing attachment security is possible with psychotherapy and doing so improves affect regulation as measured in the brain. This has broad implications because strong social and attachment bonds help us live longer and enjoy better health.
Author email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Client Severity, Comorbidity, and Motivation to Change
Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change: Starting in March 2013 I will review one chapter a month from the Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change in addition to reviewing psychotherapy research articles. Book chapters have more restrictive copy right rules than journal articles, so I will not provide author email addresses for these chapters. If you are interested, you can read the Handbook table of content and sections of the book on Google Books.
Bohart, A.C. & Wade, A.G. (2013). The client in psychotherapy. In M. Lambert (Ed.) Bergin and Garfield’s handbook of psychotherapy and behavior change (6th ed.), pp. 219-257. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Last month I blogged about the section in Bohart and Wade’s (2013) chapter that focused on client attachment. This month I focus on other factors like severity of distress and comorbidity, and level of motivation. Some authors argue that client factors predict 30% of variance in outcomes. That accounts for more of psychotherapy outcome than therapist effects and therapeutic techniques combined. Severity of symptoms of anxiety and depression and functional impairment caused by this distress leads to poorer client prognosis. Further, individuals with more severe symptoms need more sessions to show improvement. Some research shows that those with greater symptoms change more than those with fewer symptoms. However, even though those with higher levels of distress show the most change, they are less likely to achieve recovery in which they return to a normal level of functioning. In most cases, clients with comorbid problems are less likely to do well. For example, comorbidity for personality disorder or substance abuse negatively impact outcome. Client motivation is also related to psychotherapy outcomes. Motivation can be internal (those that arise from the individual’s intrinsic interests or values) or external (those that arise from external rewards or punishments). Generally, internal motives (i.e., greater readiness to change) are better predictors of sustained behaviour change. The stages of change model describes readiness to change as occurring in progressive stages that include: (1) precontemplation, in which clients are not internally motivated; (2) contemplation in which clients move to the next stage where they recognize a problem but are not ready to take action; and (3) preparation for action in which clients are more internally motivated to change. The next two stages of the model do not speak to motivation but to action and maintenance of change. Norcross looked at clients’ readiness to change prior to therapy and its relationship to outcome. Greater readiness to change was moderately and significantly associated with better treatment outcomes.
The results on severity and comorbidity suggest that providers and policy makers must consider increasing the number of treatment sessions to take into account clients who have greater initial severity and comorbidities, especially for those with comorbid personality disorders. Results related to motivation indicate that when client motivation to work in therapy comes from within and they show progress in their readiness to change, they are more likely to do well. Therapists need to find ways of mobilizing clients’ internal reasons for change. Motivational interviewing may be one means of doing so.
Do Psychotherapists with Different Orientations Stereotype Each Other?
Larsson, B. P., Broberg, A. G., & Kaldo, V. (2013). Do psychotherapists with different theoretical orientations stereotype or prejudge each other? Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 1-10.
A remarkable difference between the field of psychotherapy and other health care or scientific areas is that psychotherapy is organized in different and somewhat competing theoretical orientations or schools. Leading thinkers of psychotherapy integration, have emphasized how this division presents an obstacle to integration and therefore to progress within the practice and science of psychotherapy. One of these obstacles could be persistent stereotypes that psychotherapists might have about other therapists who practice from a different theoretical orientation. Social psychologists have long known that people in one group (e.g., an in-group) may misjudge or stereotype people in other groups (e.g., out-groups). Stereotypes may be negative if members of an in-group hold a positive bias toward their in-group coupled with antagonism toward members of an out-group. Do psychotherapists stereotype other therapists who practice from a different theoretical orientation? A recent study by Larsson and colleagues addressed this question. They surveyed 416 therapists divided into four ‘pure’ self-reported schools: 161 psychodynamic therapists, 93 cognitive therapists, 95 behavioural therapists, and 67 integrative/eclectic therapists. Most were women (76%), mean age was in the mid 50s, mean experience was 5 to 10 years, and they represented a variety of disciplines including psychology, psychiatry, social work, and nursing. In the first section of the survey, therapists indicated what focus they deemed most important to their own psychotherapeutic work, including: (1) therapeutic relationship, (2) patient’s thoughts, (3) patient’s feelings, (4) patient’s behaviour, or (5) connection between the patient’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Therapists then estimated how they thought psychotherapists from other orientations would rate each of these foci. In the second section of the survey, therapists completed scales about what they deemed were important aspects of psychodynamic, cognitive, behavioral, and eclectic/integrative therapy, respectively. Once again, they rated how they thought therapists from the other orientations would respond. Self-ratings of therapists within each orientation indicated the ‘true’ (i.e., prototypical) opinions of each orientation. The differences between ‘true’ opinions of the in-group versus the in-group’s ratings of therapists from other orientations (i.e. of the out-group) indicated the level of misjudgement or stereotyping. Of the 18 areas on which out-groups were rated, 11 were significantly misjudged by the in-group. Eclectic/integrative therapists were much less likely to stereotype therapists of cognitive or psychodynamic orientations, who were equally likely to stereotype others. The belief that one’s own orientation compared to others is better characterized as an applied science (a belief endorsed most often by cognitive therapists) was a statistically stronger predictor of stereotyping than orientation per se.
Some researchers argue that different orientations are more similar in their practice of psychotherapy than theory would predict. Furthermore, research about common factors in psychotherapy suggests that these factors may be more important than techniques specific to a school of psychotherapy. However, as long as there are different therapeutic orientations there will likely remain a tendency among some psychotherapists to search for differences rather than to look for similarities between their own and other orientations. This may lead to stereotyping (i.e., an inaccurate opinion about therapists of other orientations), and perhaps negative stereotyping. Psychotherapists and researchers may want to keep in mind the tendency to stereotype clinicians from other orientations when talking to or about other psychotherapists. Such stereotyping is likely an impediment to good client care and research.
Author email: email@example.com
Does Medicalization of Psychological Problems Reduce Stigma?
Kvaale, E. P., Haslam, N., & Gottdiener, W. H. (2013). The ‘side effects’ of medicalization: A meta-analytic review of how biogenetic explanations affect stigma. Clinical Psychology Review, 33, 782-794.
Psychotherapists may wonder how best to explain a psychological problem to their clients and their family members. Will their explanation help to reduce stigma and increase hope? Laypeople, clinicians, and researchers increasingly understand psychological problems in biomedical terms. Further, some anti-stigma campaigns describe mental health problems, including depression, as biological, medical illnesses. Reducing stigma is important to improve uptake of therapy, reduce an internalized sense of defectiveness, and increase hope and self esteem. Some argue that understanding psychological problems as biologically based will combat stigma by reducing blame and punitive treatment. Kvaale and colleagues asked whether there is a cost to medicalization of psychological problems by unwittingly promoting the stereotype that those with a mental illness have a deep seated, fixed, and defining essence. Proponents of medicalization hope that such an approach will reduce blame for a mental illness, and will result in less desire for social distance from the mentally ill. However, medicalization might also result in: an increased belief that those with psychological problems are dangerous; and greater pessimism and hopelessness about the prognosis (i.e., a belief that the problem can not be improved). A meta-analysis by Kvaale and colleagues looked at experimental studies of student and community based samples in which explanations for a psychological problem was manipulated to include biomedical explanations versus psychological explanations or no explanations. The meta-analysis aimed to examine the causal effects of biogenetic explanations for psychological problems on: blame, perceived dangerousness, social distance, and prognostic pessimism. Regarding blame, the authors reviewed 14 studies that included 2326 participants and found that biogenetic explanations were associated with a decreased tendency to blame individuals with psychological problems. Regarding perceived dangerousness, the authors reviewed 10 studies with 1207 participants, and found that biogenetic explanations were associated with an increase in perceiving those with psychological problems as dangerous. However this result is tentative because publication bias may have resulted in an over estimation of the association (see my May 2013 blog on publication bias [“Are the Effects of Psychotherapy for Depression Overestimated?”]). Regarding social distance, the authors reviewed 16 studies with 2692 participants, but found no relationship between biogenetic explanations and reduced social distance. Regarding prognostic pessimism, the authors reviewed 16 studies with 3469 participants, and found that biogenetic explanations were associated with greater pessimism about the prognosis of a psychological problem.
The meta analysis by Kvaale and colleagues found that biomedical explanations for psychological problems typically decrease blame, but increase prognostic pessimism and perceptions of dangerousness, although the latter conclusion is somewhat tentative. The findings lead one to be skeptical of the view that stigma will be reduced by promoting an understanding of psychological problems as biogenetic diseases. Kvaale and colleagues suggest that the affected individual, family members and mental health professionals could be more pessimistic about change because of a biomedical explanation, thus impeding the patient’s recovery process. Psychotherapists should share information about the biogenetic factors of psychological problems. However, this must be done with caution. Kvaale and colleagues conclude that explanations that invoke biomedical factors may reduce blame but also may have unintended side-effects. Biogenetic explanations should not be promoted at the expense of psychosocial explanations, which may have more optimistic implications.
Author email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Does Focus on Retelling Trauma Increase Drop-out From Treatments For Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Imel, Z. E., Laska, K., Jakupcak, M., & Simpson, T. L. (2013). Meta-analysis of dropout in treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 81, 394–404.
There are now a number of psychotherapies that the Society of Clinical Psychology list as effective psychotherapies available for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Approaches include prolonged exposure (PE), and cognitive processing therapy (CPT) among others (click here for examples). Therapies for PTSD also vary in how much they focus on retelling the trauma. Some treatments like trauma-focused CBT place a higher level of focus on retelling the trauma event, whereas Present Centred Therapy (PCT), which was originally conceived as a control condition, largely avoids the trauma. Patients may begin a treatment and find some aspect of it distressing resulting in discontinuation. There is ongoing debate regarding the belief that exposure-based treatments, which require the patient to retell traumatic events in detail to his or her therapist, are especially unacceptable or poorly tolerated by patients. Drop out rate is a common metric used to assess tolerability of a treatment. In the April 2013 blog I reported on a meta analysis that found that the average drop out rate in randomized controlled trials of adult psychotherapy was 19.7%. However drop out rates for PTSD in the community can be as high as 56%. Imel and colleagues conducted a meta analysis of drop out rates in randomized controlled trials of treatments for PTSD. They also assessed if drop out rates differed by the amount the therapy focused on retelling the trauma. In the meta analysis, 42 studies were included representing 1,850 patients; 17 of the studies directly compared two or more treatments. The aggregated drop out rates across all studies was 18.28%, which is not different from the rate in randomized trials of adult psychotherapy in general, but is much lower than reported in regular clinical practice. Group treatment was associated with a 12% increase in drop outs compared to individual treatment. In general, an increase in trauma focus was not associated with greater drop out rates. However, when trauma focused treatments were directly compared to PCT (a trauma avoidant intervention) in the same study, trauma-specific treatments were associated with a twofold increase in the odds of dropping out.
Many have been concerned that exposure-based therapies can lead to symptom exacerbation and result in dropout. The findings of Imel and colleagues’ meta analysis suggest that dropout rates are not significantly different among active treatments. However, PCT may be an exception to this general pattern of no differences among active treatments. Perhaps PCT should be considered a first line treatment for those who do not prefer a trauma focused treatment. In addition, providing treatment for PTSD in groups was associated with greater drop out rates possibly due to shame related to public disclosure of the trauma. The authors suggest mimicking research trial procedures in community practice in order to reduce drop out rates, such as: providing therapist training, support, and supervision; careful patient screening; regular assessment of patient progress; and ongoing contact with assistants that may promote session attendance.
Author email: email@example.com
Helpful and Hindering Events in Psychotherapy
Castonguay, L.G., Boswell, J.F., Zack, S., Baker, S., Boutselis, M., Chiswick, N., Damer, D., Hemmelstein, N., Jackson, J., Morford, M., Ragusea, S., Roper, G., Spayd, C., Weiszer, T., Borkovec, T.D., & Grosse Holtforth,, M. (2010). Helpful and hindering events in psychotherapy: A practice research network study. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, and Training, 47, 327-344.
There are many reasons why I like this paper, and one reason is that it is a psychotherapy practice research network study (most of the co-authors are independent practice clinicians). This group of clinicians and researchers met on a number of occasions to define the research questions, including: “what do psychotherapists and clients find most and least helpful in a psychotherapy session?”; and “do psychotherapists and clients agree on what was most and least helpful?” The clinicians and researchers also discussed and agreed on the method for collecting and analysing the data. Thirteen independent practice clinicians participated (6 CBT, 4 psychodynamic, and 3 experiental/humanistic). For a period of 18 months, all new clients were invited to participate so that 121 clients with a variety of disorders enrolled in the study. Clients and therapists filled out (on an index card) parts of the Helpful Aspects of Therapy (HAT) measure, which asked them to report, describe, and rate particularly helpful and hindering events from the session they had just completed. For example clients and therapists were asked: “Did anything particularly helpful happen during this session?”; and “Did anything happen during this session which might have been hindering?” When participants answered “Yes” to either of these questions, they were asked to briefly describe the event(s), and then rate them on a scale from 1 to 4 for level of helpfulness or level of hindrance. Both clients and therapists did so at the end of every therapy session. Close to 1500 therapeutic events were recorded by the clients and therapists. The events were then coded and categorized according to type of event by independent raters using an established coding system. Clients rated self-awareness, problem clarification, and problem solution as the most helpful type of events, although self-awareness was significantly the most identified of all helpful events by clients. Therapists rated self-awareness, alliance strengthening, and problem clarification as the most helpful type of events. Therapists identified self-awareness and alliance strengthening significantly more often than any other helpful events. Hindering events were identified much less frequently by clients and therapists. Client identified poor fit (e.g., therapist tried something that didn’t fit the client’s experience) as the most frequent hindering event category. Therapists identified therapist omissions (i.e., failure to provide support or an intervention) as the most frequent hindering event category. Overall, with the exception of self-awareness, therapists and clients did not agree on what were the most helpful or hindering events in therapy.
Results regarding self awareness indicate that providing clients with opportunities to achieve a clearer sense of their experience (e.g., emotions, behaviors, and perceptions of self) is frequently reported as beneficial by both clients and therapists. The events that therapists most frequently reported as detrimental were those in which they failed to be attuned to their clients’ needs. This may reflect therapists’ concerns with potential alliance ruptures. The overall lack of agreement between therapists and clients on helpful and hindering events raises the question about whether therapists are not aware enough of clients’ experiences, or whether clients are not knowledgeable about what is in fact therapeutic. Perhaps client and therapist ratings of events represent complementary perspectives on what works or does not work in psychotherapy. Regarding participating in research, these independent practice therapists reported that the procedure of writing down helpful and harmful events and reading what their clients wrote after each session had a positive impact on their practice. That is, the process of data collection became immediately relevant to their clinical work.
Author email: firstname.lastname@example.org