Nehrig, N., Prout, T.A., & Aafjes-van Doorn, K. (2019). Whose anxiety are we treating, anyway? Journal of Clinical Psychology. Online first publication.
Evidence-based practice (EBP) in psychotherapy is defined by the American Psychological Association as the deliberate integration of: (1) the research evidence, (2) clinician expertise in making treatment decisions, and (3) client characteristics, preferences, and culture. The EBP statement was meant to supplant an older model of prescriptive psychotherapy practice that resulted in the creation of lists of empirically-supported treatments (EST). The ESTs were defined as: (1) manualized therapies, (2) shown to be efficacious in randomized controlled trials, (3) for patients with a specific diagnosed mental disorder. However, manualized therapies are not necessarily more effective than non-manualized treatments, and patients in randomized controlled trials may not represent those typically seen by therapists in everyday practice. Although EBPs are the current standard by which psychotherapists should practice, many therapists and organizations focus almost exclusively on the first of the EBP criteria (the research evidence of ESTs) to the exclusion of the second and third criteria (clinician expertise, and patient characteristics, preferences, and culture). In this review article, Nehrig and colleagues speculated about why this is the case by asking: “whose anxiety are we treating?” They argued that manualized therapies identified as ESTs reduce therapists’ anxiety caused by: uncertainty about treatment outcomes, the emotional toll of providing psychotherapy to people who are suffering, and the negative emotions (anxiety, despair, cynicism) that sometimes arises in therapists from the work. Nehrig and colleagues argued that ESTs provide therapists with a sense of control and certainty, while limiting therapists’ attention on relational challenges in the work of therapy. However, this emphasis on ESTs comes at a cost for therapists and patients. Therapists may not focus on developing skills to manage the relational challenges inherent in providing psychotherapy, greater certainty may reduce therapists’ engagement in sufficient self-reflection, and therapists may attend only to patients’ symptoms and not to the patient as a whole person. Nehrig and colleagues also discuss the preference for ESTs among institutions, insurance companies, and government funders of psychotherapy. ESTs reduce anxiety in these contexts because ESTs are seen by managers as methods to enhance accountability and standardization of treatment, to uphold standards of care, and to reduce potential liability. The short-term nature of most ESTs also assuages economic concerns for institutions and funders who wish to manage costs. However, this emphasis on short term manualized treatment also reduces psychotherapy from a complex interpersonal process with inherent uncertainty to one that resembles a clear-cut medical procedure that encourages top-down decision-making about clinical practice.
Anxiety about the complexity of psychotherapy can cause therapists, institutional managers, and government funders to place greater value on ESTs rather than on clinical expertise of the therapist and patient characteristics. Patient characteristics, preferences, and culture are related to developing the therapeutic alliance and to patient outcomes. Astute therapists can learn to adjust their interventions to these patient characteristics, which may mean using clinical judgement to alter or deviate from a prescriptive manual. An EBP approach that integrates research, clinical expertise, and patient characteristics allows therapists to take into account transtheoretical factors known to affect outcomes like the therapeutic alliance, repairing alliance ruptures, empathy, and to use their clinical expertise to adjust their interpersonal stances to relevant patient characteristics, preferences, and culture.