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 psychotherapy for borderline personality disorder, capacity to metnalize and therapy resistant depression, and negative effects of psychotherapy
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
Once-Weekly or Twice-Weekly Sessions of Psychotherapy?
Once-Weekly or Twice-Weekly Sessions of Psychotherapy?
Bruijniks, S., Lemmens, L., Hollon, S.D., Peeters, F.P., ….Huibers, M.J. (2020). The effects of once- versus twice-weekly sessions on psychotherapy outcomes in depressed patients. The British Journal of Psychiatry, doi: 10.1192/bjp.2019.265. [Epub ahead of print].
Some research has suggested that the number of sessions per week, not the total number of sessions received, is correlated with patient outcomes. It is possible that higher session frequency per week might lead clients to better recall the content of sessions, which in turn may lead to better treatment outcomes. Or perhaps, higher frequency of sessions might lead to a better therapeutic alliance and higher client motivation thus leading to better outcomes. Although previous research has suggested that more sessions per week is better, no study has ever directly assessed this issue until now. Bruijniks and colleagues conducted a large randomized controlled trial of 200 adults with depression seen across nine specialized clinics in the Netherlands. Researchers randomly assigned clients to receive either cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) for a maximum of 20 sessions. Half of the clients in either type of therapy received the 20 sessions on a twice a week basis, and half of clients in each type of therapy received the 20 sessions on a once a week basis. The therapies were manualized, therapists were trained and supervised, and clients were carefully selected to meet criteria for depression. More patients dropped out of weekly (31%) compared to twice weekly (17%) therapy. There were no differences between CBT and IPT in depression outcomes. However, there was a significant effect of session frequency on patient outcomes in favor of twice weekly sessions (d = 0.55). Using a strict criteria of “recovery” from depression at 6 months post treatment, 19.6% of patients receiving once weekly therapy “recovered” compared to 29.5% of patients receiving twice weekly therapy.
This large multi-site study has intriguing implications for practice. More frequent sessions per week may result in significantly better patient outcomes regardless of the type of therapy offered. Not surprisingly, IPT and CBT were equally effective. However, their effectiveness was limited in that only between 20% to 30% of patients recovered from depression. This finding is similar to the results previous trials, and speaks to the limitations of time-limited manual-based therapies for depression. Nevertheless, it appears that more frequent therapy per week may be a better option for some clients.
Clients of Therapists Who Are Flexible Have Better Outcomes
Clients of Therapists Who Are Flexible Have Better Outcomes
Katz, M., Hilsenroth, M. J., Gold, J. R., Moore, M., Pitman, S. R., Levy, S. R., & Owen, J. (2019). Adherence, flexibility, and outcome in psychodynamic treatment of depression. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 66(1), 94–103.
Psychodynamic and cognitive-behavioral (CB) treatments are quite different in how therapy is delivered, but both are equally effective for depression. Such findings suggest that various types of specific interventions can positively impact client outcomes. A possible mechanisms of therapeutic action is that effective therapists may be particularly responsive to their clients’ behaviors and needs. That is, effective therapists may be flexible in how adherent they are to the techniques of a therapeutic orientation. Therapists who are flexible in their adherence to a therapeutic technique may promote a better therapeutic alliance (i.e., a therapist’s and client’s collaborative agreement on the goals of therapy and what to do in therapy). In this study, Katz and colleagues examined whether the flexible use of some CB techniques by psychodynamic therapists was related to better client outcomes in terms of depressive symptoms. Forty six patients diagnosed with depression were treated by 26 advanced graduate student therapists who were trained to practice psychodynamic therapy. Psychodynamic therapy techniques included: a focus on affect and affect expression, identifying relational patterns and patterns of thoughts and feelings, emphasizing past experiences and interpersonal relationships, working on the therapeutic alliance, and restructuring defense mechanisms. The researchers video recorded two early sessions of therapy which were independently rated to assess the degree to which therapists adhered to psychodynamic therapy principles or to CB therapy principles. Client depression outcomes were assessed pre- and post-therapy. Higher ratings of psychodynamic therapy adherence were related to better patient depression outcomes at post-treatment. In addition, the clients of psychodynamic therapists who used some CB techniques early in therapy had the best outcomes. In other words, the use of psychodynamic techniques was sufficient for clients to improve, but flexible use of some CB techniques by psychodynamic therapists provided added benefit. The CB techniques that were most often integrated by the therapists included: actively initiating topics and therapeutic activities, explaining the rationale of an intervention, focusing on the future, and providing psychoeducation about symptoms.
Clients in this study improved on average from psychodynamic therapy, and psychodynamic interventions were related to better outcomes. However, clients of therapists who flexibly integrated a small amount of CB techniques benefitted more from the psychodynamic techniques. Research is increasingly showing that therapist flexibility in treatment adherence is related to better patient outcomes. For psychodynamic therapists, flexibility in treatment adherence leads to clients being more responsive to the interventions and having better outcomes.
A Critical Look at Some Meta-Analyses of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
Wampold, B.E., Flückiger, C., Del Re, A.C., Yulish, N.E., Frost, N.D., …Hilsenroth, M. (2017) In pursuit of truth: A critical examination of meta-analyses of cognitive behavior therapy, Psychotherapy Research, 27, 14-32.
The vast majority of meta-analyses of studies that compare different brands of psychotherapy for any particular disorder indicate that differences between treatments are quite small and clinically trivial. Meta-analyses are an important way of aggregating effect sizes across studies and of providing reliable estimates of the state of a research field. But meta-analyses are not perfect - they rely on judgements made by the researchers that may bias findings. Despite a large body of evidence to the contrary, three meta-analyses in particular have purported to demonstrate that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is superior to other therapies for some specific disorders. In this paper, Wampold and colleagues critically review these three meta analyses to see if in fact CBT is superior to other psychotherapies. A meta-analysis by Tolin that reported that CBT was more efficacious than other therapies for anxiety and depression was surprising given that it contradicted 5 previous meta-analyses. It turns out that Tolin misclassified some treatments as CBT (including eye movement desensitization and reprocessing [EMDR] and present-centred therapy [PCT]). Further, Tolin made a critical computational error with one of the studies that when corrected wiped out any superiority for CBT. A second meta-analysis by Marcus and colleagues reported small differences in favor of CBT for primary (i.e., target symptoms) outcomes at post-treatment but not at follow up. Wampold and colleagues reported that the small difference at post-treatment was unduly affected by one study in the meta-analysis that showed unusually large effect in favor of CBT (i.e., the study was likely unreliable because its results were so much out of line with all other studies). Further, the purported superiority of CBT disappeared in the longer term. Finally, a meta-analysis by Mayo-Wilson and colleagues published in the prestigious journal Lancet Psychiatry used a network meta-analysis to compare treatments, and reported that CBT was more effective than other psychotherapies. Network meta-analysis relies heavily on indirect comparisons rather than including only studies that directly compared two therapy modalities. For example, if there are only a few studies that compare treatment A to treatment B (AB), one could look at studies of treatment A versus treatment C (AC), and studies of treatment B versus treatment C (BC), and then use the transitive property (remember high school math?) to estimate the effect of AB indirectly from the studies of AC and BC. It turns out that this practice in the context of meta-analysis is unreliable and can grossly over-estimate differences between treatments.
The vast majority of meta-analyses show that bona-fide psychotherapies are effective, and one therapeutic orientation does not seem to be superior to another. The three meta-analyses that run counter to this conclusion are deeply flawed. To claim that one treatment is more effective than another will limit patients’ access to other treatments. This is concerning, since most time-limited treatments result in about half of patients recovering from their mental health problems. And so many patients and their therapists need more therapeutic options to draw upon. Falsely claiming that one treatment is more effective than others may lead insurance companies and government policy makers to make erroneous decisions to fund only one type of therapy.
Psychotherapy for Eating Disorders
Grenon, R., Carlucci, S., Brugnera, A., Schwartze, D., … Tasca, G. A. (2018). Psychotherapy for eating disorders: A meta-analysis of direct comparisons, Psychotherapy Research, DOI: 10.1080/10503307.2018.1489162
Eating disorders can cause a great deal of physical and mental impairment because of the severity of the symptoms and because of comorbid conditions like depression, anxiety, substance use, and others. Anorexia nervosa (AN) occurs in about 0.5% of the population, bulimia nervosa (BN) occurs in about 1.5% of the population, and binge-eating disorder (BED) occurs in about 3.5% of the population. Treatment guidelines include both cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) as front line interventions for BN and BED. However, results from previous meta analyses of psychological treatments for eating disorders were confounded by not focusing exclusively on randomized controlled trials, mixing studies of adult and adolescent samples, combining an array of outcomes rather than separately reporting primary (eating disorder symptoms) and secondary (interpersonal problems, depression) outcomes, and not distinguishing between bona fide psychotherapies (like CBT, IPT, psychodynamic therapy, and others) from non-bona fide treatments (like self help, behavioral weight loss supportive counseling). Grenon and colleagues conducted a meta analysis of psychotherapies for eating disorders to examine if: psychotherapy is effective compared to a wait list, if bona fide psychotherapy and non-bona fide treatment differ in outcomes, and if one type of psychotherapy (i.e., CBT) was more effective than other bona fide psychotherapies (like IPT, behavior therapy, psychodynamic therapy, dialectical behavior therapy). Their meta analysis included 35 randomized controlled trials of direct comparisons. Psychotherapy was significantly more effective than a wait-list control at post treatment, so that 53.89% of patients were abstinent of symptoms after psychotherapy compared to only 8.92% who were abstinent in the wait-list group. Bona fide psychotherapies (51% abstinent) were significantly more effective than non-bona fide treatments (40% abstinent) at post treatment, and dropout in bona fide psychotherapies (17.5%) was significantly lower than in non-bona fide treatment (29.1%). Further, the difference between CBT and other bona fide psychotherapies was not significant.
Psychotherapy for eating disorders are effective for patients with BN or BED. There were too few studies of those with AN to come to any conclusions about their treatment. Patients with BN or BED are best treated with a bona fide psychotherapy that involves face to face psychological therapy like CBT, IPT, psychodynamic therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, or behavior therapy. Non-bona fide treatments like self help, behavioral weight loss, and supportive counseling should only be used as an adjunct to bona fide psychotherapy for eating disorders.
Association Between Insight and Outcome of Psychotherapy
Jennissen, S., Huber, J., Ehrenthal, J.C., Schauenburg, H., & Dinger, U. (2018). Association between insight and outcome of psychotherapy: Systematic review and meta-analysis. The American Journal of Psychiatry. Published Online: https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.2018.17080847
For many authors, one of the purported mechanisms of change in psychotherapy is insight. In fact, the utility of insight for clients with mental health problems was first proposed over 120 years ago by Freud and Breuer. Briefly, insight refers to higher levels of self-understanding that might result in fewer negative automatic reactions to stress and other challenges, more positive emotions, and greater flexibility in cognitive and interpersonal functioning. Although insight is a key factor in some psychodynamic models, it also plays a role in other forms of psychotherapy. Experiential psychotherapy emphasises gaining a new perspective through experiencing, and for CBT insight relates to becoming more aware of automatic thoughts. Jennissen and colleagues defined insight as patients understanding: the relationship between past and present experiences, their typical relationship patterns, and the associations between interpersonal challenges, emotional experiences, and psychological symptoms. In this study, Jennissen and colleagues conducted a systematic review and meta analysis of the insight-outcome relationship, that is the relationship between client self-understanding and symptom reduction. They reviewed studies of adults seeking psychological treatment including individual or group therapy. The predictor variable was an empirical measure of insight assessed during treatment but prior to when final outcomes were evaluated. The outcome was some reliable and empirical measure related to symptom improvement, pre- to post- treatment. The review turned up 22 studies that included over 1100 patients mostly with anxiety or depressive disorders who attended a median of 20 sessions of therapy. The overall effect size of the association between insight and outcome was r = 0.31 (95% CI=0.22–0.40, p < 0.05), which represents a medium effect. Moderator analyses found no effect of type of therapy or diagnosis on this mean effect size, though the power of these analyses was low.
The magnitude of the association between insight and outcome is similar to the effects of other therapeutic factors such as the therapeutic alliance. When gaining insight, patients may achieve a greater self-understanding, which allows them to reduce distorted perceptions of themselves, and better integrate unpleasant experiences into their conscious life. Symptoms may be improved by self-understanding because of the greater sense of control and master that it provides, and by the new solutions and adaptive ways of living that become available to clients.
Author email: Simone.Jennissen@med.uni-heidelberg.de
Is Short-Term Prolonged Exposure Effective to Treat PTSD in Military Personnel?
Foa, E., McLean, C.P., Zang, Y., Rosenfield, D., Yadin, E… Peterson, A. (2018). Effect of prolonged exposure therapy delivered over 2 weeks vs 8 weeks vs present-centered therapy on PTSD symptom severity in military personnel: A randomized clinical trial. Journal of the American Medical Association, 319, 354-364.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can affect 10% to 20% of military personnel returning from combat. PTSD is often chronic and debilitating, and is associated with symptoms that are distressing, that lower quality of life, and that negatively impact family and loved ones. Prolonged exposure therapy (PE) has been tested in the past, and researchers have claimed that it is an efficacious treatment in civilians and veterans. PE is a form of behavior therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy characterized by re-experiencing the most traumatic event through remembering it and engaging with, rather than avoiding reminders of the trauma. In their treatment guidelines, the American Psychological Association (APA) proposed PE as a recommended treatment for PTSD. In this randomized controlled trial, Foa and colleagues assess if providing PE in intensive short time frame (massed exposure; 10 sessions over 2 weeks) was as effective as standard exposure (10 sessions over 8 weeks) for 370 military personnel in the US with PTSD. That is, the authors were interested to see if providing the same amount of therapy based on exposure in a shorter time was just as effective. They also compared the two versions of PE (massed and standard exposure) to two control conditions: present centred therapy (PCT) that is largely supportive therapy that does not rely on exposure to the trauma, and a no treatment control condition. The main outcomes were reductions in level of PTSD symptoms and reductions in PTSD diagnoses at post-treatment and up to 6 months post-treatment. Massed and standard PE were equally effective in reducing symptoms and diagnoses of PTSD compared to no treatment. However, PE was not more effective than PCT in reducing symptoms and diagnoses, and PCT was more effective than no treatment. Overall, reductions in PTSD symptoms and reduction in PTSD diagnoses were modest. Drop out rates were high at about 50% for all conditions.
Drop out rates were high and outcomes were modest for these short-term psychological treatments for PTSD in military personnel, such that over 60% still had a diagnosis of PTSD at 6 months follow up. And PE therapy did no better than a control condition (PCT) that simply provided support with no exposure to the trauma. These findings are similar to other research in this area. Psychotherapy for trauma may require more time to work, and perhaps different models of understanding and treating the disorder. As Shedler recently remarked, it takes at least 20 sessions/weeks before 50% of clients improve. So it may not be surprising that 2 or 8 weeks of therapy had only a small impact on PTSD symptoms.