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
The Effect of Therapist Empathy on Client Outcomes
Elliott, R., Bohart, A. C., Watson, J. C., & Greenberg, L. S. (2011). Empathy. Psychotherapy, 48(1), 43.
There has been a recent upsurge in interest in empathy in psychotherapy following scientific studies in the field of social neuroscience. This research has focused on activation in areas of the brain associated with emotional stimulation, perspective taking, and emotion regulation. Conceptualizations of the role of empathy in psychotherapy have a rich history in both client-centered and psychodynamic traditions. Carl Rogers defined empathy in part as “...the therapist’s sensitive ability and willingness to understand the client...from the client’s point of view.” Elliott and colleagues indicate three main modes of expressing therapeutic empathy: empathic rapport (compassionate understanding of the client’s experience); communicative attunement (ongoing effort to stay attuned with the client’s experience); and person empathy (experience-near understanding of the client’s world). In this meta-analysis of research on therapeutic empathy, Elliott and colleagues were interested in the strength of the relationship between therapist empathy and client outcome, and factors that might determine this relationship. Their meta analysis included 57 different studies of 3,599 clients. The relationship between therapist empathy and client outcome was medium-sized (r = .31), and in the same order of magnitude as the alliance-outcome relationship. There were no differences between theoretical orientations in the size of the empathy-outcome relationship – in other words, empathy was equally important across types of therapy. Client measures of therapist empathy had the largest relationship to client outcome, whereas therapist ratings of empathy had the smallest association with client outcomes. In other words, if you are interested in therapist empathy, best to ask the client. Also, the empathy-outcome relationship was larger for less experienced (vs more experienced) therapists and for more severely (vs less severely) distressed clients. That is, empathy likely is most important for newer therapists and more distressed clients.
Therapist empathy is essential to any psychotherapy regardless of orientation. Empathic attunement and expression is particularly important for clients of newer therapists, and for more distressed clients. Elliott and colleagues suggest that the empathic therapist’s primary goal is to understand the client’s experience and to communicate this understanding to the client. This can be done through: empathic affirmations (i.e., validating the client’s perspective); empathic evocations (bringing the client’s experience to life with rich, evocative, and concrete language); and empathic conjectures (making explicit what is implicit in the client’s narrative). Empathy can deepen client’s experiences, but therapeutic empathy also involves individualizing responses to the client. For example, some fragile patients may find typical expressions of empathy as too intrusive, whereas other clients may find therapeutic empathy to be too directive or too foreign. Being attuned to the client’s receptiveness to empathy is an important therapeutic skill. Elliott and colleagues emphasize that empathy should be grounded in authentic caring for the client and as part of a healthy therapeutic relationship.
Are Therapists or Clients Most Responsible for the Therapeutic Alliance-Outcome Relationship?
Del Re, A.C., Fluckiger, C., Horvath, A.O., Symonds, D., & Wampold, B.E. (2012). Therapist effects in the therapeutic alliance-outcome relationship: A restricted-maximum likelihood meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 32, 642-649.
The therapeutic alliance, defined as the agreement on tasks and goals and the bond between therapist and patient, is one of the most researched concepts in psychotherapy. A meta-analysis of over 200 studies showed that the association between the therapeutic alliance and patient outcomes is moderate but robust (i.e., consistent across studies, patient types, and therapy types). Some have stated that the importance of the therapeutic alliance as reported in studies is an under-estimate of its real impact on patient outcomes. Del Re and colleagues argue that the main reason for this underestimation is that while the therapist’s effect on the alliance-outcome relationship might be large, the client’s effect might be quite small, and so the average of these two effects (which is what most studies report) will be diminished. Del Re and colleagues conducted the first meta analysis to assess the relative size of therapist versus client effects across many studies. Their strategy was clever. They looked at the ratio of the number of patients to therapists (PTR) within a study as a “predictor” of the alliance-outcome relationship across studies. This allowed them to examine the relative contribution of therapists and clients to the alliance-outcome relationship. Two extreme examples illustrate this ratio. (1) In one study, many patients might have been seen by only one therapist, in which case the alliance-outcome correlation could only be attributed to differences between clients since there was only one therapist. (2) In another study, each client might have been seen by a different therapist (i.e., there were as many therapists as clients), in which case the alliance-outcome correlation could only be attributed to differences between the therapists; that is, there are no differences between clients seen by the same therapist as this did not occur. The patient to therapist ratio (PTR) captures the variability between these two extreme examples across studies. Del Re and colleagues included 69 studies that provided enough information about the number of patients and therapists. The overall correlation between alliance and outcome was moderate, r = .27, which was very similar to what was found in a previous large meta-analysis. PTR was significantly associated with the alliance-outcome relationship even after controlling for a number of possible confounding variables. Patients accounted for almost 0% of the alliance-outcome relationship, whereas the effect of therapists was substantially larger, r = .40, accounting for 16% of the alliance-outcome association.
Therapists’ capacity to develop an alliance with their patients is associated with outcomes. We also know that some therapists demonstrate better patient outcomes than others. So, therapists who consistently are better at forming alliances with patients likely have patients with better treatment outcomes. The quality of the alliance between patients and therapists appears to be the result of what therapists do or bring to the therapy. And so, on average, the therapist’s role in the alliance is most important for achieving good patient outcomes. Del Re and colleagues note that they were not able to look at the interaction between therapist and patient factors. For example, it may be possible that some therapists might form better alliances some types of patients, but not others. Integrating feedback systems so therapists can monitor the therapeutic alliance and patient outcomes may help therapists identify areas in which they need more training or supervision.
Organizational Instability May be Related to Premature Termination from Psychotherapy
Werbarta, A., Andersson, H., & Sandell, R. (2014). Dropout revisited: Patient- and therapist-initiated discontinuation of psychotherapy as a function of organizational instability. Psychotherapy Research, Online first publication: DOI: 10.1080/10503307.2014.883087.
Premature termination of psychotherapy in mental health care is a problem both in terms of patient outcomes and in terms of financial consequences for providers. Drop out rates for psychotherapy in general range from 20% to 75% with an average of 50%. In my April, 2013 blog I reported on a meta analysis by Swift and Greenberg (2012) in which they reported an overall drop out rate of 20% in randomized control trials; but the average drop out rate could be up to 38% in randomized trials depending on how premature termination was defined (failure to complete a treatment, attending less than half of sessions, stopping attending, or therapist judgment). Drop outs are commonly believed to represent therapeutic failures. Much of the research to predict psychotherapy non-completion has focused on patient variables like age, gender, symptom severity and others. This implicitly puts the responsibility for dropping out on the patient. Swift and Greenberg (2012) found that on average young, male, single patients with a personality disorder diagnosis were more likely to drop out. Therapist variables are less frequently studied, and the only therapist variable related to lower drop out was greater experience. Therapeutic orientations were not related to more or less dropping out. Very few studies have examined work conditions or organizational variables as predictors of premature terminations. Werbata and colleagues (2014) conducted a large study in 8 clinics in Sweden with 750 patients treated by 140 therapists. The clinics were three psychiatry outpatient units, three specialized psychotherapy units, one young adult psychotherapy unit, and one primary care setting that provided psychotherapy. Drop out was defined as unilateral termination in which either the patient or therapist discontinued the treatment. Of the patients who started therapy, 66% completed treatment and 34% terminated prematurely (19.7% of patients terminated the therapy, 14.3% were terminated by therapists). On average, clients were in their mid-30s, and most had a psychiatric diagnosis. The most common therapy was psychodynamic (59.1%) followed by integrative (19.0%), and cognitive behavioral (17.1%). The authors looked at patient variables (e.g., symptom severity), therapist variables (e.g., age, gender, etc.), and organizational stability. Ratings of organizational stability of the clinic were based on: the transparency of the clinic structure, the suitability of the organization to provide psychotherapy, the clarity of rules and decision-making policies regarding providing psychotherapy, and the clinic’s financial stability. Client variables such as: older age, greater level of psychopathology, and tendency to act out were moderately predictive of dropping out. Receiving treatment at a less stable clinic made it almost four times more likely for patients to initiate dropping out than to remain in therapy. Organizational instability was more important than patient factors in accounting for premature termination.
Drop outs were almost four times higher in unstable clinics. Instability in organizations can create anxiety, cynicism, and disengagement in staff, which may have consequences for patient care. Financial and political problems within a clinic or institution, internal conflict related to treatment policy or disruptive administrative routines may affect the therapeutic relationship, which is generally more intimate and more important than in other health care contexts. Organizational instability can result in shortened or interrupted treatment, change in therapists, or therapists who are not fully engaged due to clinic stresses. For patients, these terminations may resemble earlier life losses or neglect that may have precipitated their need for therapy in the first place.
Barriers to Conducting CBT for Social Phobia
McAleavey, A.A., Castonguay, L.G., & Goldfried, M.R. (2014). Clinical experiences in conducting cognitive-behavioral therapy for social phobia. Behavior Therapy, 45, 21-35.
It might come as a surprise to some that social phobia (also called social anxiety disorder) is the most commonly diagnosed anxiety disorder, with a lifetime prevalence of about 12%. Symptoms include negative self-view, fear of embarrassment or criticism, and fear and/or avoidance of social situations. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for social phobia with effects as large as pharmacotherapies. Despite this, there are several potential barriers to implementing CBT for social phobia in clinical practice. CBT involves exposure to feared situations (in vivo or simulated), identifying and altering maladaptive thoughts during exposure, producing testable hypotheses, and identifying cognitive errors. CBT is not uniformly effective for all patients with social phobia, exposure techniques are linked to dropping out and failure to initiate treatment, and there can be an increase in missed sessions and non-completion of homework related to avoidance. In this study, McAleavy and colleagues surveyed 276 psychotherapists who provided CBT for social phobia to assess problems or barriers clinicians encountered when applying CBT in practice. Possible barriers listed in the survey were derived from extensive interviews with experts who developed and researched CBT interventions for anxiety disorders. Survey respondents were mostly Ph.D. level clinical psychologists (59%), women (61%), who practiced in outpatient clinics or private practice, and had on average 12 years of post-degree experience. Many therapists reported using behavioral interventions, including developing a fear/avoidance hierarchy, in-session exposures, focusing on behavior in social situations, and specifically focusing on behavioral avoidance. Most also used cognitive homework (i.e., interventions focused on exploring or altering attributions or cognitions). The most frequent therapist endorsed barriers to implementing CBT for social phobia included: patient symptoms (i.e., severity, chronicity, and poor social skills); other patient characteristics (i.e., resistance to directiveness of treatment, inability to work independently between sessions, avoidant personality disorder, limited premorbid functioning, poor interpersonal skills, depressed mood); patient expectations (i.e., that therapist will do all the work; pessimism regarding therapy); patient specific beliefs (i.e., belief that fears are realistic, or that social anxiety is part of their personality); patient motivation (i.e., premature termination, attribution that gains are due to medications); and patient social system (i.e., social system endorses dependency, social isolation). A minority of CBT therapists endorsed a weak therapeutic alliance or aspects of the CBT intervention itself as posing a barrier.
CBT therapists identified a number of barriers, mainly patient related, that might impede the implementation of CBT for social phobia. Given these barriers the authors suggested that therapists: (1) consider more intense, longer, or more specific treatments for more severe cases; (2) incorporate assessment of patient severity to guide decisions; (3) consider tailoring the level of treatment directiveness based on patient characteristics – i.e., more resistant patients may require a less directive approach and more control over the type and pace of interventions; (4) prepare patients on what to expect in the treatment before therapy begins; (5) find a balance between validating/accepting patients’ problematic beliefs that their fears might be realistic with encouragement to change; (6) add motivational interviewing for patients who are less motivated; (6) complete a thorough functional analysis of patients’ social systems at the start of therapy. McAleavey and colleagues noted that while therapeutic alliance difficulties was an infrequently endorsed barrier by therapists, such difficulties remain clinically important, especially in light of findings that indicate that negative reactions to patients are under-reported by therapists. Developing and maintaining a good alliance remains a key aspect of CBT for panic disorder.
Separation Anxiety in Childhood is Related to Adult Panic and Anxiety Disorders
Kossowsky, J., Pfaltz, M., Schneider, S., Taeymans, J., Locher, C., & Gaab, J. (2013). The separation anxiety hypothesis of panic disorder: A meta-analysis. American Journal of Psychiatry, 170, 768-781.
The concept of separation anxiety is intimately tied to attachment theory. Problematic early attachments have negative consequences for adults’ ability to experience and internalize positive relationships which help to develop mental capacities to self sooth, tolerate anxiety, and modulate affect. Separation anxiety is the persistent, excessive, and developmentally inappropriate fear of separation from major attachment figures, like parents. It is one of the most frequently diagnosed childhood anxiety disorders, with a lifetime prevalence of 4.1% to 5.1%. If we knew that separation anxiety is truly related to or causes adult psychopathology, then we would have a better understanding of the development of adult mental disorders and greater reason to quickly and aggressively treat childhood separation anxiety. A meta analysis by Kossowsky and colleagues (2013) begins to address this relationship between separation anxiety and adult disorders. They looked at case-control, prospective, and retrospective studies comparing children with and without separation anxiety disorder with regard to future panic disorder, major depressive disorder, any anxiety disorder, and substance use disorders. The meta analysis included 25 studies of 14, 855 participants. Children with separation anxiety were 3.45 times more likely to develop a panic disorder later on; and 5 studies suggested that children with separation anxiety were 2.19 times more likely to develop future anxiety disorders. Childhood separation anxiety disorder did not increase the risk of future depressive disorders or of future substance use disorders. In a subsequent paper, Milrod and colleagues (2014) reviewed the literature on separation anxiety and psychotherapy outcomes of adult anxiety and mood disorders. Separation anxiety is associated with poor response to treatment of adult anxiety and mood disorders possibly because separation anxiety disrupts the therapeutic relationship. Separation anxiety also predicted non-response to antidepressant medications.
As Kossowsky and colleagues (2013) indicate, it is possible that children suffering from separation anxiety disorder may be hindered early on in developing skills to help cope with anxiety and strong emotions. Nevertheless, the findings draw our attention to the importance of recognizing and treating separation anxiety as early as possible. A few psychological treatment studies show that disorder-specific parent-child cognitive behavioral therapy is successful in treating separation anxiety in children. For adults, poorer treatment response may reflect difficulty forming and maintaining attachments, including the therapeutic relationship. Milrod and colleagues (2014) suggest that psychotherapies that focus on relationships and separation anxiety by using the dyadic therapist-patient relationship to revisit earlier problematic parent-child relationships may benefit adults with separation anxiety.
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.
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