Therapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy "Evidence-Base" Is Exaggerated

Telling clients their problems are "all in their heads" can be invalidating.

Posted Jul 02, 2019

G. Julien Cedias Exploitation_enfants_Angleterre public domain
Source: Wikimedia Commons: G. Julien Cedias Exploitation_enfants_Angleterre public domain

In my post on of November 21, 2011, I discussed how the purveyors of today’s most predominant psychotherapy methodology, cognitive behavioral therapy, grossly exaggerate the strength of their research evidence base in the psychotherapy outcome literature.

My opinion was confirmed in a review of meta-analyses of the CBT literature in the Journal of the American Medical Association, published online September 21, 2017 (“Cognitive Behavioral Therapy the Gold Standard for Psychotherapy:  The Need for Plurality in Treatment and Research” by Falk Leichsenring and Christiane Steinert).

They reported that a recent meta-analysis using criteria of the Cochrane risk of bias tool reported that only 17% (24 of 144) of randomized clinical trials of CBT for anxiety and depressive disorders were of high quality. The “allegiance factor”—study authors were CBT therapists themselves and often designed the studies to make their treatment look better than it was, and opposing treatments look worse than they were—was rarely controlled for.

Compared with "treatment as usual" — letting subjects get whatever other treatments outside of the study treatment that they chose to have, allowing good therapists and bad therapists, and good therapies and bad therapies, to essentially cancel each other out—the sizes of treatment effects were only small to moderate and might eventually even be found to be due to the allegiance effects.

In panic disorder, CBT was not more effective than treatment as usual but only to being on a waiting list.

Even with these biases, for depressive disorders, response rates of about 50% were reported. This was true for anxiety disorders as well. “Response” just meant there was some significant improvement in symptoms, not that the symptoms of the disorders actually went away. Rates for actual remission from the disorders were even smaller. Conclusion: a considerable proportion of patients do not sufficiently benefit from CBT.

Last but certainly not least, there was no clear evidence that CBT was more effective than other psychotherapies, either for depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, personality disorders or specific eating disorders.

Personally, my biggest beef with CBT and other psychotherapy outcome studies has less to do with symptom relief than with actually changing maladaptive interpersonal behavior. The latter is almost never even looked at, let alone measured in these studies.

CBT’ers seem to think anxiety, depression, and self-destructive behavior are in almost every case due to irrational thinking by individuals rather than being normal reactions to stress-inducing environments. In experimental psychology circles, this is known as the fundamental attribution error. Telling people with these particular symptoms that their problems are basically “all in their heads” in this manner can be and often is very invalidating for them.  Ironically, an ‘invalidating environment” is one of the two primary factors these very same therapists cite as the main causes of borderline personality disorder.