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
How Does Therapy Harm?
Curran, J., Parry, G.D., Hardy, G.E., Darling, J., Mason, A-M., Chambers, E. (2019). How Does therapy harm? A model of adverse process using task analysis in the meta-synthesis of service users’ experience. Frontiers in Psychology, 10:347. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00347
Forty to 60% of patients do not recover after a course of psychotherapy, and approximately 5% to 8.2% are worse off. In the National Health Service in the UK, 5% of patients reported lasting bad effects of therapy. Although these appear to be small percentages, they represent a large number of patients. In Canada for example, over 1 million Canadians use psychotherapy each year, so 5% would represent 50,000 individuals. Therapists, for their part are poor at identifying patients who deteriorate in therapy. In this meta-synthesis of qualitative research, Curren and colleagues aimed to derive a model based on patients’ experiences of the factors that lead to negative outcomes. They conducted a narrative review of qualitative research findings and of patients’ testimony from a number of sources. They noted eight domains identified by patients that are associated with adverse events in psychotherapy. First, contextual factors refer organizational issues that affect access to or choice of therapy, cultural validity of the therapy, and lack of information about services. Second, pre-therapy factors refer to poor pre-therapy contracting between therapist and patient, and therapists that focus on symptoms rather than the client as a person. Third, therapist factors refer to therapist inflexibility, and therapists’ financial interests that influence their decisions about therapy. Fourth, client factors refer to client lack of understanding of therapy, fear, and demoralization. Fifth, relationship factors refer to a poor relational fit between therapist and patient, therapists perceived as shaming, therapists misusing power, and clients not feeling heard or understood. Sixth, therapist behaviors refer to boundary violations, rigidly applying techniques, therapist acting out, and therapist passivity. Seventh, therapy process refers to the type of therapy offered not matching patient needs, and patients not agreeing with the techniques. Eighth, endings refer to short term therapies that “open a can of worms” without resolution, and the client feeling abandoned.
Therapists would do well to ensure that the patient’s voice is heard when it comes to preferences and cultural validity of the treatment. In particular, therapists should not rigidly apply techniques focused exclusively on symptom reduction. Instead, therapists should see patients’ problems within their interpersonal and cultural context and focus on outcomes related to the quality of life of patients. Therapists must attend to developing and maintaining the therapeutic alliance (agreement on tasks and goals of the therapy, and the relational bond with patients). Any signs of disruptions or tensions in the alliance should be identified and repaired. Patients require information about the therapy, what it entails, and how it will end before signing on to a course of treatment. Organizations must remove barriers to accessing treatment and provide therapies that represent a range of orientations and foci to meet patients’ needs.
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.
The Reciprocal Relationship Between the Alliance and Outcomes
Flückiger, C., Rubel, J., Del Re, A. C., Horvath, A. O., Wampold, B. E., Crits-Christoph, P., Atzil-Slonim, D., . . . Barber, J. P. (2020). The reciprocal relationship between alliance and early treatment symptoms: A two-stage individual participant data meta-analysis. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 88(9), 829–843.
The therapeutic alliance (patient and therapist agreement on tasks and goals of therapy and their emotional bond) is the most researched concept in psychotherapy. The research clearly indicates that a positive alliance reliably predicts patient outcomes in terms of reduced symptoms. However, researchers still debate whether the alliance is at all necessary. That is, some argue that the alliance is the result of patients feeling better early in therapy, and so the alliance is only an outcome of early symptom reduction. If that is the case, then the alliance is an artifact of symptom reduction, and clinicians need not pay much attention to it. In this meta-analysis, Fluckiger and colleagues collected 17 studies representing over 5000 patients that evaluated whether alliance in a previous session predicted outcomes in a subsequent therapy session, and vice versa. In other words, they looked at all studies that evaluated if change in alliance preceded change in symptoms and if change in symptoms preceded change in the alliance. What is unique about this meta-analysis is that they gathered patient-level data from the original studies. That allowed them to test the therapeutic alliance theory for each individual patient on a session by session basis for the first 7 sessions of therapy. (For the stats geeks out there, the authors analysed within-person [between-session] effects using multilevel time-lagged models). Their analyses found that high alliance at a preceding session was related to lower symptoms at the subsequent session (B adjusted = -.065 (95% CI [-.092, -.038]; p < .0001)), and higher symptoms at the start of a session was related to lower post session alliance (B adjusted = -.148 (95% CI [-.215, -.081]; p < .0001). They also found that patients who generally reported high alliance scores showed a stronger alliance – outcome relationship, and those with greater symptoms had a weaker alliance - outcome relationship.
This meta-analysis is another indication of the importance of therapists and patients coming to a collaborative agreement on the tasks of therapy (what is done during sessions) and the goals of therapy (what issues to work on), and of their relational bond. The alliance is not always easy to establish – especially with regard to agreeing on goals. Also, the alliance should not be forgotten once established – alliance ruptures or tensions occur frequently and can have a negative effect on patients’ mental health outcomes. Patients of psychotherapists who repair alliance tensions generally have better mental health outcomes.
Psychotherapists’ Multicultural Orientation in Working With Racial and Ethnic Minority Clients
Davis, D. E., DeBlaere, C., Owen, J., Hook, J. N., Rivera, D. P., Choe, E., Van Tongeren, D. R., Worthington, E. L., Jr., & Placeres, V. (2018). The multicultural orientation framework: A narrative review. Psychotherapy, 55(1), 89–100.
Studies have shown that many therapists have better outcomes with White clients than with racial and ethnic minority (REM) clients. Also the prevalence of racial/ethnic microaggressions in therapy is high, with as many as 81% of REM clients reporting at least one experience in which a therapist said or did something that was insensitive or offensive. Microaggressions can be understood as instances of therapeutic alliance ruptures that if unrepaired could lead to poor client outcomes. In this practice review of the existing research, Davis and colleagues consider the multicultural orientation framework to help therapists to be more sensitive and effective when working with REM clients. A key feature of the multicultural orientation framework is cultural humility, which refers to a therapist’s interpersonal stance that is open in relation to aspects of cultural identity that are important to the client. Another important concept is cultural opportunities, or the events in therapy in which the client’s cultural beliefs, values, and identity can be explored. Finally, cultural comfort refers to the therapist’s thoughts and feelings that emerge as a result of conversations about the client’s cultural identity. The review found two large and well-designed studies that looked at the association between a multicultural orientation and client outcomes. Therapist cultural humility predicted better therapy outcomes, and lower therapist cultural comfort resulted in client premature termination from therapy. In separate studies, cultural humility was associated with higher therapeutic alliance and fewer microaggressions by therapists. Finally, missed opportunities to discuss cultural identity was associated with more negative therapy outcomes for clients.
Repairing alliance ruptures caused by microaggressions involves therapists: identifying the event, validating the client’s perspective, discussing the microaggression with appropriate humility, taking responsibility and making amends, and asking the client to inform the therapist about the best way forward. One study showed that the therapeutic alliance improved substantially after therapists and clients discussed and repaired a microaggression. A multicultural orientation involves therapists creating a culturally inclusive setting by overtly discussing the importance of culture and what might cause ruptures.
Psychotherapist Professional Self-Doubt in Using Video Therapy
Aajes-van Doorn, K., Bekes, V., & Prout, T. (2020). Grappling with our therapeutic relationship and professional self-doubt during COVID-19: Will we use video therapy again? Counselling Psychology Quarterly, DOI: 10.1080/09515070.2020.1773404
Social restrictions caused by COVID-19 required many therapists to use video therapy to provide treatment to patients remotely. Video therapy offers many benefits like allowing for real-time (synchronous) interactions with patients who would otherwise not have access to mental health care. However most therapists have no training or experience in this modality, and previous surveys suggest that therapists believe video therapy to be less effective than face to face therapy. And some evidence suggests that the level of the working alliance in video therapy is lower than in face to face therapy. In this small survey of 141 therapists about video therapy, Aajes-van Doorn and colleagues examined psychotherapists’ view of the working alliance, therapists’ level of confidence in providing video therapy, and their intentions to use video therapy in the future. Psychotherapists were from the US, Canada, and Europe who treated adult patients in private practice. One third of therapists previously attended a webinar on how to use video conferencing for psychotherapy. The most frequently reported challenges for therapists concerned technical difficulties (61.0% of therapists), having a suitable space for therapy (48.2%), risk of patient or therapist getting distracted (41.1%), and difficulty feeling or expressing empathy to the client (20.6%). On a standardized scale, therapists responded feeling less connected to their patients during video therapy sessions, but they nevertheless reported a good therapeutic alliance compared to published norms. On two other measures, therapists providing video therapy felt more professional self-doubt, less competent, and less confident than levels reported in a previous study of therapists providing face to face therapy. Although therapists’ views of video therapy became more positive since the start of the pandemic, therapists still perceived video therapy to be less effective than face to face treatment. Therapists on average were undecided as to whether they would continue using video therapy in the future, and those who were more likely to continue using had prior experience with the modality.
Although this is a small survey, it does provide a window into therapists’ experiences with video therapy. The study highlights the added stressors upon therapists in conducting video therapy including higher self-doubt and lower competence and confidence. Also, although the therapeutic alliance in video therapy was good, it seemed to be lower than reported in previous studies of face to face therapy. Therapists may benefit from more clinical training and support in managing the various technical and clinical challenges of video therapy. With the permission of their patients and following appropriate ethical guidelines, therapists might consider video recording their sessions and reviewing these recordings in consultation/supervision to improve their work with clients in a virtual setting.
Is the Therapeutic Alliance Diminished by Videoconferencing Psychotherapy?
Norwood, C., Moghaddam, N.G., Malins, S., & Sabin-Farrell, R. (2018). Working alliance and outcome effectiveness in videoconferencing psychotherapy: A systematic review and noninferiority meta‐analysis. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 25, 797-808.
The working alliance is the collaboration between client and therapist on the tasks and goals of therapy, and it also includes the emotional bond. The alliance is the most researched concept in psychotherapy, and it is reliably related to good client outcomes. However, the alliance has been rarely studied in the context of videoconferencing psychotherapy (VCP). Delivering psychotherapy remotely was already gaining popularity prior to COVID-19 because of its potential to improve access to mental health care especially for people who live in remote areas. Some argue that face to face therapy might result in a higher therapeutic alliance because of the rich interpersonal cues, like eye contact and body posture that may facilitate collaboration and the bond. There is emerging evidence that VCP can be effective and that it may have comparable outcomes to face-to-face therapy. But what about the working alliance – does it develop in VCP similarly to face to face therapy? In this meta-analysis, Norwood and colleagues conducted a systematic review of the existing research on the working alliance in VCP. They found only 4 direct comparison randomized controlled studies on the topic, and on average VCP resulted in a lower working alliance compared to face to face therapy, but the difference was not statistically significant (n = 4; SMD = -0.30; 95% CI: -0.67, 0.07; p = 0.11). People who received treatment via VCP had similar levels of symptom reduction compared to those who received face to face therapy (n = 4; SMD = −0.03; 95% CI [−0.45, 0.40], p = 0.90).
With only four direct comparison randomized trials to draw from, the results of this meta-analysis remained ambiguous with regard to the therapeutic alliance. Although the difference between VCP and face to face therapy was not statistically significant, it was not ignorable – an effect size of SMD = -0.30 suggests a small advantage for face to face therapy when it comes to the alliance. However, symptom outcomes were comparable between face to face and VCP. The results suggest that therapists who use VCP during a pandemic, must pay particular attention to developing and maintaining a therapeutic alliance by collaboratively agreeing on goals and tasks of therapy, and by focusing on establishing an affective bond with patients despite the limited nonverbal cues available with online psychotherapy.