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
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.
Mentalizing and Psychotherapy
Luyten, P., Campbell, C., Allisons, E., & Fonagy, P. (2020). The mentalizing approach to psychopathology: State of the art and future directions. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 16, 297-325.
Mentalizing (or reflective functioning) is important to the human ability to understand one’s self and others in terms of mental states like feelings, desires, wishes, attitudes, and goals. Without mentalizing we would not be able to adapt to complex situations including relationships that require high levels of collaboration and cooperation. Mentalizing underlies the capacity for empathy and improves functions like emotion regulation. Parental capacity to mentalize and to provide a secure attachment environment are requirements for children to develop mentalizing capacity. Without that capacity, children and adults are not able to trust that others are reliable sources of social information, which in turn fosters resilience to adversity. In this wide-ranging article, Luyten and colleagues review the research indicating that deficits in mentalizing underlies many mental health problems. For example, non-reflective assumptions about the self and others leads to problems with emotion regulation often seen in those who experienced childhood adversity. For these individuals, caretakers who were hostile and untrustworthy led the child to develop hypervigilant expectations of others as hurtful, critical, and threatening. This hypervigilant stance might have been useful early-on during the adversity, but hypervigilence represents a barrier to psychological and emotional development. Luyten and colleagues also argue that psychological interventions are forms of social learning that increase a patient’s trust in the self and others as sources of knowledge, improve the patient’s capacity to mentalize partly through the therapist’s modeling of mentalizing, and allow the patient to engage in their environment in more adaptive ways. The authors described mentalization-based treatment (MBT) as focused on increasing mentalizing capacity through improving patients’ mental states and emphasizing the active repair of ruptures in the patient-therapist therapeutic alliance. A recent meta-analysis found that MBT is an effective therapy for borderline personality disorder, and recent controlled trials found that patient improvement lasted from 3 years to 8 years post-treatment.
Therapists who model mentalizing can encourage this capacity in their patients. Therapists can take a curious “not knowing” stance that allows patients to reflect on their own and others’ mental states (intentions, feelings, thoughts). As an important reparative experience, psychotherapists must be able to identify an alliance rupture (a subtle or obvious disagreement on goals or tasks of therapy, or a tension in the affective bond with the patient). Once identified, therapists must act to repair the rupture by renegotiating or re-explaining the goals or tasks of therapy, or discuss how the tension in the therapeutic relationship may represent a pattern of relationship problems for the patient.
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.
Ethical Issues in Online Psychotherapy
Stoll, J., Muller, J.A., Trachsel, M. (2020). Ethical issues in online psychotherapy: A narrative review. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 10, 993. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00993
There is emerging evidence that videoconference delivered psychotherapy is as effective as face to face therapy. Providing psychotherapy by telecommunication technologies might be synchronous (real time) or asynchronous (email, chat, internet-based) in nature. During the current COVID-19 pandemic, many psychotherapists have moved to telehealth methods due to necessity rather than by choice. Based on previous survey findings, psychotherapists’ attitudes, and legal-ethical barriers have hampered a wider use of video conferencing methods for delivering psychological interventions. In this narrative review, Stoll and colleagues conduct a broad-based summary of 249 studies touching on the main ethical arguments for and against the provision of online psychotherapy. The top five ethical arguments in favor of online psychotherapy include the following. (1) Increased access and availability: online psychotherapy can improve access to health care services for those living in rural and remote areas. (2) Enhanced communication: online therapy is as effective as face to face therapy and allows for creative approaches to delivering therapy including integrating online materials, websites, and videos into therapy sessions. (3) Client characteristics: some clients who have problems with agoraphobia and severe anxiety may find online therapy a useful first step in treatment. (4) Convenience: research indicates that both patients and therapists judge online therapy to be convenient and comfortable. (5) Economic advantages: online therapy might be more cost-efficient due to reduced overhead and travel costs for therapists and clients. The top five ethical arguments against online psychotherapy include the following. (1) Privacy and confidentiality: related to the use of unsecured websites or unencrypted communication tools. (2) Therapist competence: some therapists may not have technology related competencies including specific ethical and legal requirements. (3) Communication issues: the absence of non-verbal cues may reduce the information that therapists have to work with in a session. (4) Research gaps: there is insufficient research to support online therapy, including no knowledge about which clients can benefit, and the impact on therapeutic processes. (5) Emergency issues: ethical issues may arise as to how to manage emergencies or crises of patients who are in different locations.
The practice of videoconference delivered psychotherapy is here to stay and will be more widespread even after the pandemic. Therapists can take comfort in the many ethical reasons to provide such services, including reaching patients who might not otherwise have access to therapy or who might not be comfortable seeking out face to face therapy. Nevertheless, there are a number of ethical concenrs about the use of online therapy, not the least of which includes questions about privacy and confidentiality and therapist competence. Psychotherapists should follow practice guidelines of their regulatory colleges when considering online therapy.
The Effectiveness of Telepsychology Interventions
The Effectiveness of Telepsychology Interventions
Varker, T., Brand, R. M., Ward, J., Terhaag, S., & Phelps, A. (2019). Efficacy of synchronous telepsychology interventions for people with anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and adjustment disorder: A rapid evidence assessment. Psychological Services, 16(4), 621–635.
The arrival of COVID-19 as a global pandemic has led to public health authorities encouraging physical distancing, including in the context of psychotherapy. Many professional organizations and regulatory colleges have made similar calls, so that psychotherapists and mental health providers have had to come up with creative ways of continuing to provide care to their clients. Many therapists have turned to telepsychology – the provision of psychotherapy through telephone, video conferencing technologies, or internet based chat rooms. But what is the evidence for these modalities of care, is there adequate research to support their use, are they as effective as care as usual? In this rapid evidence assessment, Varker and colleagues review the existing empirical research on the efficacy of telepsychology programs. They only looked at synchronous telepsychology interventions (i.e., those interventions during which therapist and client are interacting in real time), and not asynchronous use of technology (smartphone apps and chat technologies in which therapist and client are not interacting in real time or are not interacting at all). Synchronous telepsychology is most similar to face to face psychotherapy, and likely the option adopted by most therapists during these times. Health care providers initially adopted telepsychology and telehealth to overcome barriers to access to health care and psychotherapy like distance, stigma, and transportation needs. With the global pandemic related to COVID-19, psychotherapists are increasingly using telepsychology to manage physical distancing requirements while providing services. Varker and colleagues focused their review on randomized controlled trials and meta-analyses, which researchers consider to be the highest level of evidence for an intervention. The authors found 24 studies that evaluated telepsychology interventions with clinical populations of adults who had depression, anxiety, or PTSD. They found good quality evidence for telephone-delivered therapy (11 studies) and video teleconference-delivered interventions (12 studies). That means that the studies of these modalities were high quality and so results were likely reliable. The evidence indicated that both of these modes of delivering psychotherapy were as effective as face-to-face or treatment as usual. The evidence for internet delivered text-based treatments was not of high quality (3 studies). There were too few studies of this modality, and their quality was low. And so, the authors determined that the evidence for text-based therapy was unknown.
Research on telepsychology interventions is still quite new with a limited number of quality studies attesting to their efficacy. Nevertheless, the findings were promising for telephone delivered psychotherapy and videoconferencing telepsychology, such that psychotherapists can be reasonably confident in using these methods with clients. Text-based delivery of interventions had limited and poor-quality evidence. Psychotherapists should: first and foremost follow their regulatory college requirements for using telepsychology, check with their liability insurance providers, assess if their telepsychology platform is HIPPA compliant, assess if their clients are suitable for this modality, and follow best practices when using telepsychology.
What do Patients Want from Psychotherapy?
Cuijpers, P. (2020) Measuring success in the treatment of depression: What is most important to patients? Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics, 20, 123-125.
There is lots of evidence now that psychotherapies of various types are efficacious for the treatment of depression. Psychotherapy trials focus largely on depressive symptoms, and define major depression according to psychiatric diagnostic manuals. However, the diagnosis of major depression, for example, is not a unitary construct. That is, it is simply a collection of symptoms and signs that are purported to make up a category of disorder. In fact, people with major depression are quite varied on a whole range of things, like severity, coping style, motivation, attachment style, personality, and extent of comorbidity with other diagnoses. This means that many psychotherapy studies may be focusing on patient outcomes (i.e., reduction of depressive symptoms) that may or may not be important to patients. In this paper, Cuijpers reviews the literature on what patients want from psychotherapy. He found that while symptom reduction was important to patients with depressive disorders, it was not the only outcome they wanted from psychotherapy. Patients also want to have a more fulfilling lives, to return to productive work, to solve conflicts with close loved ones, to learn to live with a chronic disability or disease, to learn to handle the effects of trauma, and other quality of life issues. Fortunately, some studies do report the effects of psychotherapy on quality of life, social functioning, anxiety, hopelessness, and interpersonal problems. However, even these studies treat such outcomes as if they were uniformly important to all patients in the study. Very few studies take a personalized approach to patient outcomes, in which the outcomes of interest are those determined by each patient specific to their own circumstances and wishes.
Psychotherapists who practice from an evidence-informed perspective often try to measure outcomes in their own practices using reliable measurements. However, many of these measurements may be too general for any specific patient, or they may represent outcomes that do not align with what the individual patient wants. Practicing clinicians who assess outcomes in their own practices, may want to consider supplementing standard symptom outcome measures with more personalized assessments for patients.