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
CBT or Antidepressant Medications as the First-Line Treatment for Severe Depression
Weitz, E.S., Hollon, S.D., Twisk, J., van Straten, A., Huibers, M.J.H., David, D., …. Cuijpers, P. (2015). Baseline depression severity as moderator of depression outcomes between cognitive behavioral therapy vs pharmacotherapy: An individual patient data meta-analysis. JAMA Psychiatry. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2015.1516.
The American Psychiatric Association guidelines for the treatment of depression indicates that although psychotherapy is adequate for mild to moderate depression, anti-depressant medications are indicated for the treatment of severe depression in major depressive disorder. These recommendations are mainly based on the findings of the National Institute of Mental Health Treatment of Depression Collaborative Research Program that was published in the mid 1990s. Several authors since then have disputed this claim, but no meta-analyses have been done on the studies of head-to-head patient-level comparisons of psychotherapy vs antidepressant medications for the purpose of evaluating their relative efficacy for severity of depression. In this meta analysis, Weitz and colleagues look at medications vs psychotherapy for depression and then evaluate if initial severity of depressive symptoms helped to explain any differences. The authors looked at all studies that compared cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) against antidepressant medications for depression. They focused on CBT because it was the most often studied of the psychotherapies in this context. A systematic review turned up 24 studies, and they were able to get original patient-level data from the authors of 16 of the 24 studies. This represented over 1,700 participants with major depression. These 16 studies were no different from the 8 studies that did not provide original data. Between 17% and 54% of the 1,700 depressed participants met criteria for severe depression at pre-treatment. There were no significant differences between antidepressant medications and CBT on clinically relevant outcomes in terms of “response” (i.e., improvement) or “remission” (i.e., symptom-free). In total, 63% of patients in the antidepressant medication condition and 58% of patients in the CBT condition responded to treatment, and 51% of patients in the antidepressant medication condition and 47% of patients in the CBT condition met criteria for remission. Most importantly, the effects of CBT and antidepressant medications on response to treatment or remission did not differ based on initial severity of depressive symptoms.
Patients with severe depression were no more likely to require medication to get better than patients with less severe depression. This meta analysis that included the majority of studies that exist on the topic found no evidence to support the guidelines that severe depression should be treated with antidepressant medications over psychotherapy. The authors conclude that CBT may also be a first-line treatment for severe depression.
Psychological Treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Bradley, R., Greene, J., Russ, E., Dutra, L., & Westen, D. (2005). A multidimensional meta-analysis of psychotherapy for PTSD. American Journal of Psychiatry, 162, 214–227.
The psychotherapy research literature on treatment of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has focused on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT, with exposure and/or cognitive restructuring) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). Exposure therapy involves confronting memories of the trauma or cues related to the traumatic event. Other CBT skills include developing skills for anxiety management or challenging distorted cognitions. In EMDR the patient is asked to develop an image of the traumatic event while tracking a bilateral stimulus. Most studies demonstrate the effectiveness of CBT for PTSD in the short term. However, many studies have excluded patients with comorbid conditions. For example, patients with PTSD often also have significant other symptoms like depression, substance abuse, other anxiety disorders, and personality disorders. In this meta analysis, Bradley and colleagues were interested in documenting the overall efficacy of psychological treatments for PTSD. They also wanted to report on any evidence on the long term efficacy of treatments for PTSD, and on evidence of the effects of excluding patients with comorbid disorders. Bradley and colleagues included randomized controlled trials published between 1980 and 2003 (i.e., 26 studies representing 1,535 patients). Also, they looked at outcomes defined in a few ways: change in symptoms as documented by the effect size, proportion of patients no longer meeting diagnostic criteria for PTSD (but who may have residual symptoms), and proportion whose symptoms improved significantly. Across all treatments, the average pre to post effect size was large (d = 1.43), and comparisons to control conditions were also large (d = .83). The results suggested that psychotherapy produced substantial effects for PTSD. Differences between types of therapy (CBT, CBT with exposure, EMDR) were negligible. Fifty six percent of patients no longer met criteria for PTSD, and 65% showed improved symptoms. At follow ups, 62% no longer met diagnostic criteria for PTSD and 32% were deemed improved, but the number of studies with follow up data were small (k = 10) and so the results could be unreliable. Of those who started treatment, 78.9% completed the therapy. Of those who were assessed, 30% were excluded because of suicide risk, drug or alcohol abuse, or “other serious comorbidity”.
Treatment guidelines from the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies list a number of effective treatments for PTSD. The evidence for efficacy is strongest at post treatment, and more research is necessary to demonstrate efficacy in the longer term. There is currently little evidence that any one treatment approach is more effective than another, and some researchers are debating whether specific interventions like exposure is necessary to treat PTSD. Bradley and colleagues argue that we need more research on alternative treatments for PTSD and research on patients with multiple symptoms and comorbidities.
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The Enduring Effects of Psychodynamic Treatments
Kivlighan, D.M., Goldberg, S.B., Abbas, M., Pace, B.T., …Wampold, B.E. (2015). The enduring effects of psychodynamic treatments vis-à-vis alternative treatments: A multilevel longitudinal meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 40, 1-14.
There is a great deal of evidence that indicates uniform efficacy of a variety of psychotherapies for many common disorders. For example, in the July 2014 PPRNet Blog, I reviewed a meta-analysis comparing 7 psychotherapies for depression indicating no differences between the various treatments in terms of patient outcomes. Nevertheless proponents of cognitive behavioural therapy have claimed superiority to alternative treatments for decades. On the other hand proponents of psychodynamic therapies have argued that these treatments focus on personality change rather than symptoms, and so benefits of psychodynamic therapies will be longer lasting. In this meta analysis, Kivlighan and colleagues put these claims to the test. They selected studies in which a psychodynamic therapy was compared to one or more alternative treatment. Both the psychodynamic therapy and the alternative (most often CBT) had to be judged as “bona fide” therapies by independent raters (i.e., they had to be therapies that were delivered in a manner in which they could be expected to be effective by clients and therapists). Outcomes not only included specific symptoms (e.g., depression), but also non-targeted outcomes (e.g., improved self esteem in a study of treatment of anxiety), and personality outcomes. Effect sizes for outcomes were assessed at post-treatment and also at follow-ups. Twenty five studies directly comparing psychodynamic and non-psychodynamic therapies were included, representing 1690 patients. At post treatment, no significant differences were found between psychodynamic and non-psychodynamic treatments on targeted outcomes, non-targeted outcomes, and personality measures (all gs < .10). There was also no significant or meaningful effect of time to follow up on outcomes, indicating no differences between treatment types at any of the follow up periods.
Psychodynamic and non-psychodynamic treatments were equally effective at post treatment and at follow ups for all outcomes, including personality variables. This challenges the belief that psychodynamic treatments uniquely affect personality and have longer lasting effects compared to other treatments. It also challenges the notion that CBT (by far the most common comparison treatment) is a superior therapy for patient outcomes. Pan-theoretical psychotherapy factors (client contributions, expectations, therapeutic alliance) may be more promising factors in understanding the long term benefits of psychotherapy.
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Effects of CBT are Declining
Johnsen, T. J., & Friborg, O. (2015, May 11). The effects of cognitive behavioral therapy as an anti-depressive treatment is falling: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/bul0000015
Depression is a highly debilitating disorder and ranked third in terms of disease burden in the world. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for depression that was introduced over 40 years ago. In part, CBT sees depression as caused by maladaptive thoughts that maintain emotional distress and dysfunctional behavior. Reducing depression is achieved by eliminating the impact of or chancing maladaptive thoughts. CBT is the most researched psychological treatment for depression, and the research goes back several decades. A number of technical variations and new additions have been made over the years to CBT to improve patient outcomes. The volume of research and its history provides a unique opportunity to assess time trends in the effects of CBT. In this meta analysis, Johnsen and Friborg asked: “have the effects of CBT changed over time”? They also looked at whether client factors (e.g., demographics, symptom severity), therapist factors (e.g., age, experience, training), common factors (e.g., therapeutic alliance, client expectancies), and technique factors (e.g., fidelity to a treatment manual) can explain these trends. Johnsen and Friborg reported on 70 studies of 2,426 patients conducted from 1977 to 2014. Males accounted for 30.9% of patients, 43% had comorbid psychiatric conditions, and the average patient was at least moderately depressed. The average effect of CBT in reducing depression was large (g = 1.46 after accounting for publication bias). Women had better outcomes, studies with poorer methodological quality showed larger effects, and patients of more experienced therapists had better outcomes. There were too few studies measuring therapeutic alliance to assess the effect of common factors on outcomes. Most interesting was a significant relationship between effect sizes and year of publication. That is, the effects of CBT declined significantly over the years, though the average effect remained large. Surprisingly, there was a steeper decline for studies that used a treatment manual compared to those that did not. No other variables were reliably associated with this decline.
Women and patients of more experienced therapists appear to benefit most from CBT. Although the effects of CBT declined over time, the treatment remained highly effective. Johnsen and Friborg’s study could not easily explain this decline. The authors suggested that the placebo effect (expectation on the part of patients, researchers, and therapists) is typically stronger for new treatments. However, as time passes the strong initial expectations tend to wane thus reducing the overall effect of the intervention. They also suggested that CBT treatment outcomes may be improved not by technical variations and new additions, but by better ways of integrating common, therapist, and client factors.
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Does Cognitive Therapy Have an Enduring Effect Superior to Keeping Patients on Medication?
Cuijpers, P., Hollon, S. D., van Straten, A., Bockting, C., Berking, M., & Andersson, G. (2013). Does cognitive behaviour therapy have an enduring effect that is superior to keeping patients on continuation pharmacotherapy? A meta-analysis. BMJ open, 3(4).
In another in a series of meta analyses by this primarily Dutch group, Cuijpers and colleagues tackle the question of whether the longer term effects of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT; a short time-limited treatment for depression) outweighs the long term effects of continuation on anti depression medications. CBT is considered an efficacious treatment for depression (see my June 2014 Blog). CBT also has comparable effects as antidepressant medications, but CBT tends to have lower rates of treatment drop outs. What is not clear is whether short term CBT leads to lasting change that is comparable to long term use of medications for depression. One could argue for example, that short term CBT or other comparable psychological interventions teaches patients skills or changes psychological functioning such that future recurrences of depression are less likely. That is, psychological interventions may cause changes that eventually will prevent relapse. Pharmacotherapy on the other hand, may not result in psychological change or acquisition of new skills to forestall a relapse. In fact, patients with chronic depression tend to be kept on medications indefinitely, and patients who recently remit (i.e., no longer have symptoms of depression) are typically kept on pharmacotherapy for another 6 to 12 months to reduce the risk of recurrence. Information about the relative longer term effects of short term treatment with a psychological intervention like CBT versus longer term maintenance on pharmacotherapy can help practitioners and patients decide on the best course of action depending on patient preferences. Cuijpers and colleagues asked: is short term CBT without continuation of treatment as effective as short term treatment of pharmacotherapy with and without long term continuation? They conducted a meta analysis in which the effects of short term CBT were compared to pharmacotherapy in adults diagnosed with depression across follow up periods of 6 to 18 months. Nine studies representing 506 patients were included in the meta analysis. There was a non-significant trend showing that short term CBT outperformed continuation pharmacotherapy at one-year post treatment. On the other hand, CBT resulted in better long term outcomes compared to pharmacotherapy that was discontinued at post treatment. The odds of dropping out of treatment were significantly higher for those receiving pharmacotherapy compared to CBT. There were no differences in any of the findings for type of antidepressant medications.
The findings reaffirm CBT as a first-line treatment of depressive disorders. It also suggests that equally effective other psychological treatments may also have similar enduring effects compared to pharmacotherapy. Patients and providers need to consider all of the evidence when weighing the pros and cons of psychotherapy or medications for the treatment of depression. Although pharmacotherapy might be more widely available to patients through primary care physicians, the research is suggesting that enduring effects and treatment compliance are higher among those who have access to psychological interventions.
Long-Term Outcome of Psychodynamic Therapy and CBT in Social Anxiety Disorder
Leichsenring, F., Salzer, S., Beutel, M.E., Herpertz, S., Hiller, W. et al. (2014). Long-term outcome of psychodynamic therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy in social anxiety disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, Advance online publication: doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2014.13111514.
Social anxiety disorder is a highly prevalent mental disorder, with lifetime prevalence of about 12% in the population. As Leichsenring and colleagues note, the disorder has an early onset and can have a chronic course leading to many psychosocial impairments. Also, social anxiety disorder often is comorbid with depression. There is good evidence for the efficacy of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for social anxiety disorder and some evidence for psychodynamic therapy (PDT), but most studies have only assessed short term outcomes. In this large mulit-center randomized controlled trial comparing CBT and PDT for social phobia, Leichsenring and colleagues report on outcomes up to 2 years post treatment. The study had 416 adult patients randomly assigned to one of the treatments, and 79 randomly assigned to a waiting list. Outcomes were reported at post, 6 months, 12 months, and 24 months post treatment, and included remission of social phobia, depression levels, and interpersonal problem scores. The CBT intervention for social phobia was based on the model by Clark and Wells. The PDT was based on Luborsky’s model but specifically adapted for social phobia. Participants received 25 sessions of individual therapy, and therapists received advanced training in the models. CBT resulted in significantly greater remission of social phobia than PDT at post treatment, but the difference was small. Remission rates at 6, 12, and 24 months post treatment were not different between treatments. At 2 years post treatment 39% of those receiving CBT and 38% of those receiving PDT no longer had clinical symptoms of social phobia. Results were similar for interpersonal problems in which CBT showed an earlier response, but the two treatments were equivalent at each follow up. Depression scores improved for both interventions at post and follow ups.
The findings of this large study suggest that both CBT and PDT are effective treatments for social phobia. Although CBT had a small advantage at post treatment, PDT appeared to have an “incubation effect” in which patients continued to work on interpersonal problems and symptoms of social phobia over the longer term. Despite these positive outcomes, Leichsenring and colleagues suggest that there remains room for improvement in treating social phobia. Those who do not respond to these interventions may require different forms of treatment that is more specific, intense, or of longer duration. Leichsenring and colleagues also suggest integrating elements of the effective treatments within a single protocol. Although intuitively appealing, this integrated approach has not been tested.