How Empathy Works And How To Improve It

What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand another’s state of mind or emotions. It is also is being able to feel, understand and share with someone else in what they are saying, their meaning of life, their motivations and values.

In research there are 3 types of empathy that are commonly described: cognitive, affective, and compassionate.

Cognitive empathy

Cognitive empathy is also known as perspective taking, and it can help someone understand another’s personal experience. It also tends to reduce interpersonal aggression. Cognitive empathy is exactly what it sounds like—cognitively understanding someone’s situation, emotions, and motivations. When we understand someone else, we are more likely to view their behavior as similar to our own.

  • One study of Asperger syndrome showed they had lower cognitive empathy but NOT affective empathy. (Dziobek, 2008)

Affective empathy

Affective empathy is about a shared emotional experience, one of feeling together. It uses the mirror neuron system, which I will discuss later on in the article. Affective empathy forms powerful emotional relationships.

  • Boys with higher aggression had ½ the affective empathy, but the same level of cognitive empathy, as the non aggressive control group (Schechtman, 2002)

Compassionate empathy

The third form of empathy is compassionate empathy, which is also called empathic motivation, prosocial concern, or sympathy. This is when you feel moved to help another from how to experience their reality.  

The science of empathy

Mirror Neurons are sharing neurons

Our brain has neurons solely designed to mirror other people. From birth, when we focus on another's movements, emotions and intentions, our brain lights up automatically, and largely unconsciously, around 10% the same way. Our own body-state can be derived from someone else outside of us. We can therefore understand and map out the mind of others by placing ourselves in a comparable body state. This process is important for empathy, intuition, transference, countertransference, enactment, projection, internalization and intersubjectivity.    

The discovery of mirror neurons:

In 1992, while studying a monkey's brain with electrodes attached to the motor area (the area that lights up when movements by the body are made), researchers accidentally discovered that not only would the neurons become activated by the monkey reaching out to pick up a piece of food, but also when the researchers made a similar movement. Later, the same team published a paper that showed that there were mirror neurons responding to mouth actions and facial expressions. Further studies confirmed that around 10% of neurons in certain areas of a monkey's brain had mirror abilities. Later, these studies were expanded to humans.  

Current research:

A recent study summarizing the data of 125 fMRI studies of humans (brain imaging that shows what is active), found that there were many areas of the brain with this capacity. (Molenberghs, 2012) Beyond seeing actions performed by others and having them represented in our brain, there are 3 other areas of the brain that are activated in a similar fashion:

  • Ever wonder why watching people embrace enthusiastically at an airport is fun? When you observe someone being touched, a similar area in your brain (the secondary somatosensory cortex) activates in a similar way as the person being touched.  (Keysers, 2004)

  • When you only hear something, like someone cracking open a peanut, how do you know what is occurring? Another study showed that there was a similar brain circuit firing in both doing the action and hearing it, and just hearing it. This study also showed that those with higher scores on perspective taking (ability to slip into another's shoes) had stronger activation of mirror areas! (Gazzola, 2006)   

  • When we watch someone grieve at a funeral, ever wonder why we feel their sadness?  When you feel emotion, you experience the emotion in your brain, like they are to a lesser extent.  (Gaag, 2007)

    • When normal college students looked at photographs depicting emotions, out of their awareness their own face muscles depicted the same emotion on an EMG.  

    • “We are hard-wired to feel what other experience as if it were happening to us.” (Marco Lacoboni)

    • We used to say, metaphorically, that ‘I can feel another’s pain.’ But now we know that my mirror neurons can literally feel your pain.

    • “Mirror neurons dissolve the barrier between you and someone else.” (Vilayanur Ramachandran)

Now researchers are saying that the mirror neuron system is involved with:

  • Understanding another's actions and intentions

  • Neural basis for the human capacity of empathy

  • Learning new skills by imitation and rehearsing

Non-empathic types—the Dark Triad

The “Dark Triad” refers to three types of disorders that cause people to have low empathy for others. The big common denominator for these people is a deficit in affective empathy, but after matching for primary psychopathy, the others are no longer predictors of low affective empathy (Wai 2012). The Dark Triad consists of: narcissists, Machiavellians and psychopaths. People who have narcissistic traits and machiavellian traits often have some primary psychopathy traits as well.  

Individuals high in narcissism had positive feelings when looking at sad faces and were accurate at recognizing anger (higher cognitive empathy may be bias at grandiose self reporting). Individuals higher in primary psychopathy (they can usually maintain cool composure and carefully execute planned behaviors with a lack of morality, whereas those with secondary psychopathy respond to their negative emotion when they harm others) felt positive when looking at sad, angry or fearful images and more negative when looking at happy images, and were rather inaccurate at identifying all emotions.

Machiavellians felt negatively with happy images and positively with sad images, while they tended to inaccurately identify happy or sad emotions.

Empathy and the medical field

  • Studies show that empathy declines in third year of medical school (both for men and women, but women are higher in empathy in general)  (Hojat, 2009) but that doctors can also increase their empathy through certain practices. (Riess, 2012)

  • In a study of 20,961 patients, primary care providers with high empathy have been shown to have lower rates of metabolic complications compared to moderate to low scores (4.0 per 1,000 patients vs 7.1 and 6.5 respectively) (Canale, 2012).  

  • There have been many studies that show both cognitive and affective empathies ability to change patient care when high and low empathy are demonstrated. For example, there is a correlation to a doctor’s ability to more accurately diagnose depression and anxiety, understanding interactions, more positive patient outcomes, increased therapeutic alliance, more patient satisfaction, and fewer malpractice claims. Doctors who showed higher empathy were more likely to have their HIV patients take their medications (Flichinger 2015).

Research on “Therapist Effect”

  • Some doctors or therapists have better outcomes. Empathy seems to be important in therapist effectiveness and can be increased.  

  • Different studies show outcomes vary between patients, of which 5-12% can be attributed to a particular therapist.   

  • One study of 91 therapists over 2.5 years: the best therapist showed a change of 10 times the average mean, the worst showed the an average increase in symptoms.  (Okiishi, 2003)

  • Higher interpersonal skills has been linked to better outcomes when studying therapist effect. (Anderson, 2009)

  • Higher-empathy therapists have higher success regardless of theoretical orientation. Lower-empathy therapists linked to higher dropout rates, relapse rates, and weaker therapeutic alliance. Empathy was shown to have an effect size of 1.22-1.43 when independent observers rated empathy for substance use outcomes. (Moyers, 2013)

  • In a big study on therapist effect (69 therapists, 4,580 patients), they found that years of experience, gender, age, profession, highest qualifications, caseload, degree of theoretical integration did not predict outcome. The amount of time spent targeting improving specific skills and reviewing therapy recordings predicted client outcome.  

Can we improve our empathy?

Studies show that we can. Here are some things that can improve your ability to empathize:

  • Optimize your sensorium—keep yourself healthy. When you are tired, hungry, chronically stressed and with poor focus, it will be harder to enter into the experience of another.

  • Try to understand the person’s emotions that you are with.

    • A study showed by trying to pay attention to emotion mimicry was increased (linked to affective empathy)

  • Read fiction (Bal, 2013) allow yourself to be transported into the book.

  • Work through our “countertransference”

    • Talk through difficult situations

    • Patients have different ways of relating—learning to understand others, to see their way of being as “adaptive,” can be empathy promoting.

  • Learning to read emotions and body language more accurately  

  • Learning to accept feedback

  • Calming your own hyperarousal through practices like mindfulness

  • Tuning your mirror neurons

  • Noticing when connection or disconnection is occurring

  • Practice empathy towards viewpoints that are not your own

    • Becoming mindful of the emotion, the distress, the meaning behind the distress

Can therapists lose our empathy?

Studies show we can experience empathic strain and rupture. Empathic failure may lead to aggression. It is hard to empathize when we feel subjected to powerful influences from patients: complaints, requests, accusations, subtle seductions, bits of blackmail, challenges.  Throughout history, rulers have decreased empathy in their warriors and people by stirring up disgust towards those they seek to kill.

We are more likely to empathize with those we interact with frequently, find similar to us, or find thoughtful and kind.  We need to humanize people’s actions and see them like us, to not lose the part of us that could consider that we too could be in their situation.

Consider the stages of empathy:

I think of empathy in terms of 3 categories: the moment to moment emotional experience, the meaning and context of the emotion in their life, and the subjective experience evoked and created by the unique connection I am having in the here and now with the person.  

Level 1: There are moment to moment flashes of emotion on someone’s face, changes in body language, and current distress. Empathy can be experienced by just witnessing a flash of emotion and allowing the person to know you see it and that you hear them. During this, we can try to understand the person’s emotions, and ask them to verify what they are feeling, if we are correct in our questions, such as if they are feeling sad or angry about something.

Tuning into their experiential state and then asking if you are on the right track: (note if the patient gives a different word then do not contradict) can be helpful.

  • Ask them a few questions to clarify:

    • Perhaps you feel happy?

    • Perhaps you feel frustrated?

    • Perhaps you feel sadness?

    • Perhaps you feel disgusted?

    • Perhaps you feel concern or fear?

    • Perhaps you feel a sense of pride?

    • Perhaps you feel disconnected or numb?

    • Perhaps you feel a sense of embarrassment or shame?

  • Use their own words and repeat what you hear from them:

    • Patient: “I just feel so tired and sad all the time.”

    • Doctor: “It makes sense you feel tired because you have been so busy with your new jobs. In light of your recent losses your sadness also makes sense.”

  • Matching rhythm of voice, tonality, emotionality.

    • Matching an infant's cry rhythm (but not intensity) calms and regulates the infant

  • Imitation

  • Recognition of what the patient hopes for:

    • I hear you have hopes for… desires for… dreams for… aspirations for...

Level 2: This is where we try to know the context of the flash of emotion, the distress either in the distant past (how early relationships informed it) or recent life situations. Sometimes the quantity of distress is only as high as it is because it is linked to prior loss or prior trauma. We can find the context of the emotion by matching their emotionality, their demonstration of emotions on a level that we feel is appropriate. We can look at the meaning of the emotion and the context of the meaning of that emotion in their lives. We can also empathize with the meaning of the emotion once they’ve identified its context.

Even if they flash anger towards themselves, but maybe they in doing that are not accomplishing the energy of the emotion, and they are missing how the anger can help them accomplish their goals. Thus when the anger is pointed at themselves, we can explain that the anger should be pointed outward, and give energy to action.

  • Example: anger towards self looks like, “I am worthless” instead of anger towards abuser: “he should not treat me like that, I will set up a boundary.” The empathic statement can be “it must be hard to feel the anger pointed at yourself, telling you that you are worthless, and perhaps although it was adaptive to do this growing up, makes it hard to set boundaries now.”

Level 3: This level is when the person is having emotion that occurs because of their relationship with you. It is the interpersonal, and commenting and empathizing with any distress (or positive emotion) that your relationship is creating is a level 3 empathic statement. When a patient demonstrates anger towards their therapist, it’s helpful to ask if they are feeling anger towards you and if they feel comfortable talking about that emotion.

We can create psychological safety for a patient to give feedback to us by telling them we like to hear what they are feeling towards us. For example, my mentor, Dr. Tarr, tells his patients:  

“I very much want to hear your positive and negative feelings, particularly about me, and particularly negative ones. It will be helpful for you to share any feelings of disappointment, feelings of not being understood, feelings of not being responded to or criticized, or mannerisms or things I say that affect you undesirably. I hope you can understand that this is not a usual social situation, where you don’t tell people negative thoughts, here I hope you have the courage to say them out loud. It will be very helpful to say it has it is happening; we can learn much more than if it comes out later; we know it’ll be hard—but this kind of a laboratory where we discover what goes on between us.”



ADHD: Diagnosis, Symptoms & Treatment

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In this week’s episode of the podcast, I interview Dr. Michael Cummings about psychopharmacology for Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). We talk about the symptoms, the treatments, and the typical myths about the disorder.

What is ADHD?

ADHD is a brain neurotransmitter disorder that affects a person’s ability to concentrate, their social interactivity, and their impulsivity.

Diagnosing ADHD

People who truly have ADHD typically experience inattentive and hyper symptoms across all areas of their life. For example, if they are in a job that requires periods of attention to complete or organize a project, it will be inherently more difficult for people with ADHD.

One of the things that’s important in diagnosing people (particularly younger people) is their collateral history. People around the person with suspected ADHD are often more aware of the person’s deficits than the person themselves. When they reach adulthood, the problems might be made more obvious when they integrate into normal society and notice they struggle with symptoms of ADHD (compared to other people).

Although not required for diagnosis, PhD level psychologists can do psychological testing, along with ADD/ADHD testing and IQ testing, to get a full idea of the patient’s symptoms. It helps confirm the diagnosis because these tests are widely used among the entire population, which provides a large sample mean to compare with. It’s also helpful to get a benchmark of performance before beginning treatment and then follow it up with later testing to see how effective the treatment has been.

Myths about ADHD

If a child is hyper, he or she has ADHD.

ADHD diagnosis has, at times, been a fad in the public, leading to many misdiagnoses and overmedicating, especially in children. Children are inherently hyperactive and less attentive than adults are. Doctors who are performing diagnostic tests must really pay attention to the criteria in children to make sure that the magnitude of the problems truly cause stress and social dysfunction before they try to diagnose or medicate a child.

For example, the LA times published an article that ⅓ of the children in Orange County suffered from ADHD. Real studies show that prevalence in children is around 6-8%, in adolescence about 2.8%, and in adults about 2.5% of the population.

ADHD disappears with the onset of puberty.

Attentional deficits sometimes remains into adulthood, while hyperactivity may disappear as a child matures.

We are giving people methamphetamines as medication.

Methamphetamines and amphetamines are completely different drugs on a molecular level. The methyl group paired with amphetamines increases its absorption and effect on the brain. The amphetamines that are used to treat ADHD are essentially variants of dextroamphetamines.

There are even versions that are difficult to abuse, such as with vyvanse, where lysine (the amino acid) is bound to the amphetamine. The lysine make the amphetamines unabsorbable unless it’s in the GI tract. It cannot be inhaled or injected and still be effective. Similarly, some of the slow-release versions are encapsulated in pills that won’t release the drug easily, except very slowly in the GI tract, making it difficult to divert or abuse those formulations.

Dopamine stimulants are the only treatments for ADHD.

There are other drugs that are useful for ADHD symptoms. They are (for the most part) drugs that increase brain norepinephrine. They can be used for people who don’t tolerate increases in dopamine, or for other reasons cannot be treated with dopaminergic agents.

The most common side effect from amphetamines are increased anxiety, insomnia, increased sweating, hypertension, heart rate and blood pressure. These are things that can be overcome by titrating the drug more gradually, or being very attentive to the overall dosing of the drug.

Amphetamines are likely the first line of treatment, unless a person has anorexia, is still growing, or still has strong family genetics with a history of addictions.

What are true warning signs of child ADHD?

When the child is struggling socially, has attention deficit, is struggling academically, and the problems are noted by the educators and parents alike, it may be time to seek out a diagnosis. Most teachers get pretty good at recognizing the one or two children in the class that are most impulsive, most hyperactive, and less attentive, so it can be helpful to ask them first if they’ve noticed something disruptive about the child.

Often, boys with ADHD are easier to spot, because they tend to act out more. Girls tend to more often fall into the inattentive subtype, but may not be hyperactive or disruptive. They may not do as well academically, though intelligent, and that is a cue that they should be tested for the inattentive subtype. The problem is that unlike many disorders that have clear markers, attention—and the ability to modulate attention—always varies.

One of the characteristics of people with ADHD is that they tend to be impulsive, often acting without thinking through the consequences of their behavior, which can lead them in some cases to do things that will get them in trouble in school or in their social group. It can become a self-reinforcing phenomenon. If a child is often in trouble and begins to take on the “troublemaker” attitude, the behavior can continue as part of their identity. There is even an association between ADHD and the development of conduct disorder and/or antisocial personality disorder.

ADHD in adults

Sometimes I treat young adults who were high functioning enough in high school to be able to get by academically, but they noticed a major difference in college when the coursework became more difficult. They’d procrastinate as long as they could, and only get things finished at the last minute when adrenaline kicked in and stimulated their brain to do the work.

ADHD has been recognized as a failure of the reticular activating system to adequately stimulate the portions of the brain stem (the cortex and basal ganglia) in a way that it works for non-ADHD people. It can feel a little like the brain is drowsy all of the time.

Another characteristic of ADHD is that patients tend to be more able to concentrate on subjects they are interested in. For example, medical students who prefer higher-risk, fast paced environments tend to not need their medication when they are in emergency room rotations. When they are in a subject matter that is not as interesting to them, they might need to take their medication to function at a higher level and retain the information. I try to help my ADHD patients increase the meaning in what they are doing on a daily basis as a form of treatment.

People with ADHD have a higher rate of injury than the general population. There are many circumstances in which not paying attention to your environment is dangerous.

One study shows that there is even a correlation between car accidents and ADHD. Driving requires attention and responses, and if people are prone to do impulsive things, but are not prone to pay attention, it can increase their rate of accidents.

There is a noted decrease in risk of drug abuse when someone is treated appropriately with dopaminergic drugs, than there is if someone with ADHD is untreated. One of the things that occurs in people who don’t receive appropriate treatment and education (but they have ADHD) is that the first time a person takes a stimulant medication, maybe experimenting in college, illegally borrowing some for a test from a friend, they will report it as being the “first time they ever felt normal.” It can be a powerful lure to revisit the experience of feeling more normal, and being able to pay attention (I am in saying this, not recommending you ever share your ADHD medications, but nevertheless it is commonly reported to me on history as how they found out they might need treatment.)

Without guidance and education, it can be a pathway to drug abuse rather than an appropriate treatment. Proper treatment can greatly enhance quality of life.

Treating ADHD

I once had a patient in the emergency room that told me she put a little bit of methamphetamines in her coffee every morning. She wasn’t getting high off of it, but I did wonder if she was self-treating something she had naturally noticed was a problem for her—inattention.

People with ADHD should also be receiving a broad spectrum of psychosocial treatment and therapy, not just medication. If a child is under the age of 6, he or she should be given behavioral therapy as a first line treatment. The initial approach of diagnosis should be made carefully. If the person does have ADHD, the first treatment should be psychosocial interventions, afterwards, if that does not work, they can try medication.

The main category for pharmacological treatment of ADHD are dopaminergic stimulants. These drugs essentially serve to stimulate the production of dopamine (amphetamines) or to block its reuptake (with drugs like methylphenidate). Amphetamines increase and release proper neurotransmitters and block reuptake, while methylphenidate is more purely just a reuptake inhibitor for dopamine.

Medications that contain amphetamines will stimulate motor activity in healthy people, while it will actually return a hyperactive person to a calmer state as the dopamine regulates in their brain.

For those who don't respond to dopamine increasing drugs, the other approach has been to increase norepinephrine with drugs like atomoxetine or some of the noradrenergic antidepressants, thereby increasing the person’s alertness. About 70% of people respond to dopaminergic agents, and 30% don’t respond, or can’t tolerate the increase in dopamine because of either insomnia or increased restlessness.

Sometimes people with ADHD can also have comorbid anxiety. One professor explained that there is a survival advantage of both having ADHD and being willing to do high-fear tasks, but they also can have comorbidity with anxiety that keeps them from taking too high of risks and killing themselves.

Often, when a patient comes to see Dr. Cummings that has both ADHD and anxiety, his first line of defense is to try and increase serotonin through SSRIs, along with the drug they are taking for ADHD. Some could take an antidepressant as well. Most children and adolescents with ADHD do best with a dopaminergic agent, although those are also problematic in some people.

Exercise also has a positive effect on ADHD, specifically anaerobic exercise. It can aid several neurotransmitters, including norepinephrine and dopamine.

Issues with ADHD medication

Sometimes children who are on ADHD medication can experience a loss of proper growth hormone, causing different issues. If someone chronically takes a stimulant, they will be about an inch or an inch and a half shorter than if they did not take a dopamine stimulant. If that’s a problem for them will depend on the inherent genetic makeup of the person. If the child comes from a family of very tall people, it might not be a problem to lose an inch or two. If the family is short, losing an inch or two might be more of an issue socially and culturally.

Also, anorexia can be an issue, because dopaminergic medications can decrease appetite. It occurs to some extent in everyone who takes a dopaminergic drug, definitely enough to cause widespread clinical concern. However, there are approaches, such as taking drug holidays from the medication, that can help regulate the decreased appetite. Whether someone should take a drug holiday, or break from taking their medication, will depend on how disruptive the person will become when they are not on a stimulant. If it will cost the person social interactions and friendships, it is usually better to keep them on the medication.

Other abuses of ADHD drugs are very similar to the abuse or appropriate use of any molecule. The person who is using a stimulant appropriately is using it to improve their functionality—they are using it to pay attention and have a normal life. The person who is abusing a stimulant is taking it for the purpose of getting high. They are seeking the euphoric effects of the stimulants rather than positive life change. Someone who is trying to get a “speed run” will take a gram of medication, while someone who is trying to medicate for ADHD will take 20,30, or 50mg of methylphenidate in order to maintain their ability to concentrate.  

The true identification of abuse of amphetamine medication is a person’s deterioration in their ability to function in a balanced manor. Not sleeping for days because of stimulants, even if someone is able to get A’s on tests, is not improving their functionality and may hurt them long term.

In conclusion

As a whole, doctors need to be more careful when diagnosing ADHD. There is a tendency to over-diagnose, leading to over-medicating. Even if you receive a diagnosis, there are also several cognitive behavioral therapies that have been developed to help people deal with the psychosocial components of having ADHD. These can be self-administered through computers. There are also mindfulness practices to help the person monitor themselves so they are better at social interactions. Exercise should also be optimized. Repeat psychological tests can help guide effective treatment. Patients who have had ADHD untreated for years might have subsequent low self esteem. Approaching the uniqueness of the patient and their presentation will help the patient thrive!



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Understanding Placebo

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On this week’s episode of the Psychiatry and Psychotherapy podcast, I interview Mark Ard, M.D., a third year psychiatry resident at Loma Linda University. On the state level, he works towards developing means of access to care, in-patient psychiatric care, affordability of care, and further access to mental health.

Mark is also the person who encouraged me to start pursuing weight training through Starting Strength, which we will link in this article.

Link to show on: iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Overcast, PlayerFM, PodBean, TuneIn, Podtail, Blubrry, Podfanatic

Understanding Placebo

David Puder, M.D., Mikyla Cho, Mark Ard, M.D.

What is placebo?

The original meaning of the word placebo is, “I will please.” That statement comes from a time when doctors didn’t have our modern code of ethics, and they would prescribe whatever would make the person feel better. They probably had the best intentions, but they also would have known that whatever they were prescribing might not have been a real medication for the symptoms the patient was experiencing.

Doctors, even then, knew that suggestion was powerful, sometimes more powerful than the medicine they were prescribing.

Laypeople who hear the word “placebo” automatically think of sugar pills. They may think only that it’s something a doctor gives to placate and make people feel better when they aren’t getting the active medication. Placebos have long been used as a comparison arm for clinical trials. Usually it is in the form of an inert sugar pill or sham-procedure. Researchers can observe a psychobiological response known as the placebo effect.

But when thinking about the word “placebo,” we must think of the entire effect of it, and it is perhaps better termed “the meaning effect.” As I discussed in last week’s episode of the podcast, the meaning we give something creates belief, and belief is a potent change mechanism, even when it comes to our physical health. It is especially potent when it comes to mental health.

The placebo effect encompasses the therapeutic alliance, expectations, natural healing of the body and mind, and the environment of therapy. It involves the power of suggestion, mood, and the beliefs behind even one positive or negative interaction with a doctor. It also, as we will see, involves studies involving heavy-hitting medication.

When there is an increased ritual, there is an increased placebo effect. During a hospital stay, the surgery preparation, meetings with doctors, nurses and therapists can have an incredibly therapeutic effect on a patient. It is possible to see biological mechanisms triggered by psychosocial context and attribute it to a placebo effect.

What is the power of suggestion, the meaning effect, placebo effect, and how do we use it or avoid it in our practices and when testing new medical treatments?

Why do we study placebo?

We study placebos because we need to understand how meaning works, how belief works, and on the other side, if a medicine actually works.

As doctors, we need to be able to read studies critically, with an eye for placebo. We need to see what actually works and what the study was controlling the treatment group to. We also need to know if there parts of the treatment that are working only because of the placebo effect, and if so, how do we use that to heal people.

How does the placebo effect work?

The efficacy of the placebo goes up because of the expectation and meaning we give to placebo.

In one study, half of the patients got the actual medication, half got the placebo. In the same study, in another group, 25% of the patients got the placebo, and 75% of them got the actual medication. In both of these studies, the participants were told the percentage chance they would get the real medication. In the study where only 25% of patients received the placebo, more people experienced positive changes from the treatment, whether they received the placebo or not. Most people believed, because of hearing the percentages, that they would probably get the medicine. That belief increased the placebo effect.

In groups with lower percentages receiving the actual medication, the response is lower, even with real medication.

Researchers think placebo effect works because of expectation and classical conditioning mechanisms. Such understanding may be an oversimplification of a very complex phenomenon but it provides a useful framework. Expectation is how much the patient believes in the therapy. Higher expectation leads to hope and positive outlook, which results in better outcomes. Exactly how this works is still under investigation. There are multiple theories as to the underlying mechanism, but overall, we can say that there is a bidirectional interaction between expectations and emotions, and we respond better when expectations are high and our mood is good.

Classical conditioning contributes to the placebo effect by modulating conscious expectation and non-conscious learning. The white coat effect is a classic example of how our body responds to a conditioned stimulus. Also, when a patient feels better after taking a pill, it becomes a conditioned stimulus, and the body may respond positively even after taking a placebo medication because of its conditioned response.

Expectation can be shaped by many factors. Broadly, these factors can be grouped into patient effect, clinician effect and study design effect. Patient effect refers to patient characteristics such as beliefs, values, cultures, and the meanings associated with the illness and the treatment.

In a study of IBS patients, Vase et al found that expected pain levels and desire for pain relief accounted for up to 81% in the variance in visceral pain intensity. There is also a greater dopamine release in patients who had higher expectation. (De la Fuente-Fernández). Conversely, pessimists were more likely to have negative side effects (when compared to optimists’ responses) when told a placebo would make them feel bad.(Geers)

How a patient interprets and generates meaning in a given treatment condition is widely variable and difficult to control for. A similarity in demographic characteristics would not account for all of them. Direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising of antidepressants is an example of how a society can shape one’s view and expectation of the illness and the treatment. The promotion of antidepressants inherently depends on the biological model of depression. By simplifying depression as serotonin deficiency, antidepressants were promoted as a simple solution to a complicated problem. These advertisements are designed to convey that “psychopharmaceuticals have an obvious, objective, and scientific relationship to the symptoms they are supposed to treat”(Greenslit, 2012). The reality is more complex and difficult to understand than the advertising, but the narrative is believed and shapes decision making.   

An interaction with a clinician can shape the expectation of outcomes as well, especially if there is a strong alliance. Warmth, empathy, duration of interaction, and communication of positive expectation may significantly affect clinical outcome (Kaptchuk).  

One article (Verhulst et al., 2013) deconstructed the correlation between the medical alliance and placebo. The placebo effect encompasses the beliefs, values, and expectations that patients have about a treatment. We can help shape a patient’s belief and expectations by giving realistic illustrations of the treatment, which are more valuable than false hopes; this is the medical alliance that we as healthcare providers can utilize. Part of the medical alliance is the idea of concordance between the physician and patient. There is both narrative concordance, the shared understanding of the patient’s condition, and the relational concordance, the shared relationship structured based on scripts, boundaries, and interactional rules. Ultimately, by utilizing the idea of concordance and a strong alliance with the patient we can influence how they view a treatment and better the outcomes via the placebo effect.

Study design can also change expectation. Having a higher chance of being assigned to the treatment group and having a choice (Rose 2012) increases the expectation. The degree to which placebo resembles the treatment is another important consideration, because unblinding can lead to decreased expectation. (Some studies utilize active placebo to make unblinding more difficult.) In pharmacological studies, active placebo usually contains some real medication that contains some of the expected side effects to imitate the expected treatment.  

The mechanisms that control placebo effect:

  • Opioid system

This system bolsters a lot of the evidence for pain relievers—you have more of a placebo effect on the patient if they know they're getting the medication than if it’s snuck into an IV. The opioid system in the brain begins to work as a pain reliever before any actual medication sets in, if it’s even administered.

  • Dopamine system

Dopamine signaling is involved in expectation and response. Our brains will respond as if something is happening if it believes it will happen. This pathway is also involved in habit formation and novelty seeking. The brain lights up in the same way to a placebo as it does to an active intervention. There is a fascinating link between dopamine deficiency and Parkinson’s disease; placebos can induce dopamine release, leading to improvement in Parkinson’s disease motor dysfunction.

In another study, people were told they were getting either a cheap medication or an expensive medication. Even though they both received placebos, the group who was told they were getting the more expensive medication experienced a greater placebo effect.

Even the color of medication can affect a person’s response. Brand names can affect a person’s response. A person who is told they are receiving an anti anxiety medication will calm down, even if it’s a placebo.

  • Prefrontal cortex

The third “system” is prefrontal cortex, which is involved in associations and meaning. This is also one of the main areas involved in improvement of depression (Murray, 2013).


What is the effect of placebos on the medical profession?

Is placebo testing accurate?

Some industries fail to examine things with an accurate and rigorous placebo. For example, in a recent study on Botox used for depression, ¾ of the subjects knew if they had received the placebo or not (Finzi & Rosenthal, 2014). Some studies also neglected that placebos can actually change brain chemistry, and activate or deactivate different areas of the brain.

We often think that the patient who is administered a placebo, in taking the medication, thinks it is real and thus the whole placebo response is merely from taking the pill. But in those results we neglect the human factors that come into play when a person meets with a psychiatrist that is doing the patient interview, and how it could be the therapeutic alliance and feeling cared for that influences outcomes and spontaneous remission of symptoms.

For the medical field to determine that it’s not only the placebo effect taking place, that the medicine or treatment actually works, many factors come into play.


Discussing negative side effects with patients

How do you talk about medication as a doctor without scaring the patients with a side effect list? Studies show that by listing side effects, people are more likely to experience the side effects.

I usually discuss the side effects with patients if they occur in more than 1% of patients or if the side effect is life threatening. Also, if the patient feels like they need to stop the medication, I tell them to call or email me. Even knowing they can reach out of they are experiencing problems gives patients a sense of peace, and could decrease negative placebo effects of the medicine, and increase positive effects of it.

In medical education at large, there seems to be a loss of the science of connection and a focus on medicine rather than being able to emotionally connect to people, and mental health is part of the human experience.


Therapy and the placebo effect

Placebo and psychiatry have an interesting and complicated relationship—both are concerned with the mind-body connection. Using placebo in psychiatriatric research is, therefore, more challenging. It is more difficult to tease out the true effect of a treatment since mental illnesses have significant psychosocial components.

Higher therapeutic alliance, higher empathy, and higher interpersonal skills all have better outcomes. Beyond the model of therapy, each therapist’s kind of connection to their patients deeply affects a patient's’ response.

The value of the therapeutic alliance can be as powerful as medication, and also bolster the effectiveness as the medication itself.

In their paper Wampold, Frost, and Yulish (2016) reviewed the history of how placebo was used in randomized control trials for testing the efficacy of psychotherapies. They found that when poorly designed placebo therapies were used as controls, the psychotherapy treatment group had superior results. It is difficult to have a truly controlled placebo. For example, it can be obvious whether a therapy is a placebo or a true psychotherapy and the providers administering the treatments would also know which was the true treatment. People have advocated that different psychotherapies are beneficial because of their common factors such as the therapeutic alliance, discussing expectations, and instilling hope. These and other factors common to the variety of psychotherapies can also be found in the placebo effect, which facilitates the argument that placebo psychotherapies are not inert. Therefore when we look at studies that compare psychotherapies to a placebo therapy, we must be aware that the comparisons may not be completely accurate.

In therapy practice there are no effective placebos to be given to compare, so effect size with therapy is very different than effect size with medication vs placebo. A broader and more nuanced understanding of the placebo effect is important in two ways. First, it allows a clinician to critically evaluate studies that compare the treatment with placebo. Placebo should be evaluated within the framework of mental illnesses. Secondly, understanding placebo allows a clinician to maximize the clinical outcome by focusing on factors such as alliance. Placebo teaches us about the complexity of the mind body connection, and calls for a more integrated approach in treating mental illnesses.

The effect size in double blind studies, however, does not tell the whole story of the effectiveness of the psychiatric relationship, because it does not take into account the part of the placebo response that actually came from a psychiatrist’s relationship with the patient.

Even since the beginning of psychopharmacology, in the 1940’s, placebo effect has increased. In part, I believe that’s because we’ve reduced mental illness to a few symptoms and then say those can be helped or fixed by a pill. For example, there is commonly believed language around depression that says it’s a serotonin deficiency. So, patients take medicines to boost their serotonin (SSRI medication). That is not the only thing going on in depression, and it’s not necessarily true. So SSRI medications have a large placebo effect.

Further, different psychiatrists will have different effectiveness with patients (McKay, 2006). The authors analyzed data from the Treatment of Depression Collaborative Research Program (TDCRP) that compared imipramine hydrochloride with clinical management vs. placebo with clinical management and found that 7% to 9% of outcome variabilities depended on the psychiatrist providing the treatment. When using BDI, the results were statistically significant (p < 0.05) and when using the HAM-D the results were marginally significant (p = 0.053). Therefore the authors concluded that the psychiatrist effect was at least equal to or greater than the treatment effects. The effectiveness of a psychiatrist is also critical in proving optimal treatment.  


Non-therapeutic medical fields and doctor-patient relationships

Even the awareness that the placebo effect exists should make medical workers understand that we need to consider people’s outside lives, not just the psychopharmacological effects of the medication. If little things have a placebo effect, and that is directly related to meaning and belief, what are the patients experiencing outside of the medical office that is influencing them?

Conclusion

Our brains were made to create meaning out of things, and this meaning can change the very nature of the brain. When we understand placebo we become better guides to our patients, steering them away from things that don’t do anything, and towards things like having a connected relationship with a caring person, which can be the treatment itself. We also look not only at how powerful a medication was compared to the placebo, but also if the patients thought they were taking the real medication or not. We also learn that belief is powerful and can understand how people get swayed into cults and taking things which have been proven to only be harmful.  

Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders

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In this podcast and article Dr. Kelly Rivinius, a licensed clinical psychologist who helps women suffering from PMAD, gives her insights about PMAD, its risk factors, prevention, and her own experience with perinatal OCD and anxiety.

David Puder, M.D. and Kelly Rivinius, Psy.D. have no conflicts of interest to report.  


Article the accompanies this episode go: here

Therapeutic Alliance Part 2: Meaning and Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy

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In this week’s episode of the podcast, I’m going to be emphasizing the meaning that I, as a therapist, can help draw out of other people’s experience through a therapeutic alliance.

David Puder, M.D., Kristen Bishop, Brooke Haubenstricker, Mikyla Cho

In the celebrated book Man’s Search for Meaning, author Viktor Frankl wrote about his intimate and horrific Holocaust experience. He found that meaning often came from the prisoners’ small choices—to maintain belief in human dignity in the midst of being tortured and starved and bravely face these hardships together.

“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation he may forget his human dignity and become no more than an animal.” - Viktor Frankl

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” - Viktor Frankl

Frankl argued that the ultimate human drive is the “will to meaning,” which could be described as the meaning to be found in the present and in the future. For example, I have had patients who are suicidal, yet they would not kill themselves, despite part of them desiring death, because they would not get to see their grandkids grow up. The meaning of the future moments and being able to help their grandkids in some small way empowers them to keep going to treatment.

People’s meaning keeps them going, even when other drives, like sex or desire for power, are completely gone. In this way, Frankl noted, “Focus on the future, that is on the meaning to be fulfilled by the patient in his future…I speak of a will to meaning in contrast to the pleasure principle (or, as we could speak also term it, the will to pleasure) on which Freudian psychoanalysis is centered, as well as in contrast to the will to power on which Adlerian psychology, using the term ‘striving for superiority,’ is focused.”

This idea led to the beginning of a new type of therapy—logotherapy.

Helping a patient find meaning

Being unable to find personal meaning in our lives can lead to depression, hopelessness, anxiety, and suicidality. As a physician, I see this often, and I try to help my patients find meaning in their lives. However, the approach I have learned from Dr. Tarr (my mentor), and from my studies, is different than the normal approach of just asking people, “What is your purpose?” or, “What is your vision for the future?” The technique I use is based on another principle called “psychic determinism,” which means that everything has meaning. There is nothing that a person says, no flash of emotion, no change in body posture that is meaningless.

When you believe this, you view the patients’ words differently. The meaning may not be readily apparent; it may be expressed in primary process mentations and have an unconscious-type meaning like dreams, which may be difficult to understand. Suffice to know at this point that the mindset we have when we approach people is that everything they say has meaning; every sequence of thoughts that they say is deep and valuable.

We start from small moments of meaning that are coming from their words, their body language, their microexpressions, your experience of them in the moment, and we take those small moments of meaningfulness and start to verbalize what we find meaningful. Listening to our patients and helping them to understand the hidden meaning in their lives, even in the midst of work or difficult times, can help them withstand trauma, stress, and hardships.

No rambling is random

Sometimes patients will talk for awhile, changing subjects rapidly, and we may think it is random, but it isn’t. Even when schizophrenic patients talk, there is meaning behind what they’re saying. When we allow for free association, we can derive a sense of meaning from the commonalities in topics that come up.

For example, a patient might be talking about how they are angry at their significant other, then immediately report that when they were young their mother would often yell at their father, and their father would cower in his room in silence. How is their current anger related to how they felt as a child watching this drama? How might the two be linked? What about the microexpression of disgust that flashed as they reported both topics.  

As you look deeper, the meaning becomes more evident. In this particular situation, the disgust or revulsion they experience recollecting their father’s cowardice magnified the disgust they felt toward their significant other. Understanding the link and the uncovered meaning helped them tolerate the intensity of that negative feeling, and helped them develop new meanings about their current and past experiences.

Even hallucinations and delusions generated by some mental illnesses have meaning. When I’ve given patients antipsychotics and they’ve adapted to the medicine, we explored their hallucinations and they were able to see why they wanted to believe in an alternate reality—it gave them a sense of power or control, or related to a deep underlying fear in some way. As we developed meaning in their real lives, they felt more comfortable in their actual reality.

When we sincerely believe that everything the patients say has meaning, the patients themselves feel meaningful. Ascribing meaning enhances the patient’s esteem tremendously and makes them feel safe enough to continue to freely associate. Incredible progress can be made with patients in this way.

To get people to free associate, you need to reduce the shame enough to get people to feel safe enough to be able to share their uncensored thoughts and feelings.

Empathize with the meaning

“Men are not moved by events but by their interpretations.” - Stoic Epictetus

Relationships can allow for deeper understanding and meaning to develop in life. To strengthen our relationship with our patients, we must understand what they’re saying and then empathize with that meaning.

We often think in the context of our own lives, and as therapists or physicians we need to allow people to be the experts of their own lives. A word or phrase may mean something completely different to our patients than it does to us, so we must ask the patients to help us understand their interpretations and the meanings they assign to the events they’ve experienced. It is important that the patient communicates their meanings and that assumptions aren’t made. Misunderstandings can cause feelings of isolation, leading to strains or ruptures in the relationship. If this happens, try to reconnect, as this conveys respect.

Try to deeply connect with the patient emotionally through empathy and listening. Listen to what is said, what is not said, and what makes the patient defensive. We can listen to the rhythm, the sound, their vocal cadence, and watch their face for emotional cues.

Even if we believe the patient isn’t entitled to the emotions they are experiencing, we have to search for the meaning they’ve assigned to their pain. That meaning is what we can empathize with, no matter the circumstance. When we empathize, we can join them in their distress or enjoyment, and we can develop a deeper therapeutic alliance that is patient-centered and emotion-centered.  

“To feel with a patient and share distress and hopelessness and mistrust of the future, is therapy. You are an observer in taking history, but you’re a participant as a therapist. To share together, is therapy.” - Dr. Tarr

Meaning develops emotional endurance

People who have chronic pain who believe they are enduring it for a deeper meaning report feeling far less physical pain compared to those who do not report a deeper meaning. Even in birthing units, women report the highest amount of pain, but also often the highest amount of satisfaction. The child being born gives meaning to the pain, and this meaning is so powerful that some women choose to endure the pain instead of accepting medication.

Help patients find meaning in their symptoms. Most symptoms are adaptive, even eating disorders, cutting, and other harmful behaviors. These things have helped people cope with the realities of their lives in some way. We don’t want them to judge their symptoms, but we want them to identify what the meaning behind them.

To really connect with a patient, we must convey to them through our words and actions that they mean something to us, and that we empathize with the meanings they’ve assigned to their lives.

Here are a few phrases I like to use that convey to the patient that I want to connect with them:

  • “What we are talking about together is meaningful.”

  • “We want to make sure we are understanding each other.”

  • “I think I know what you mean. Please tell me if ______ is what you meant. I want to make sure I am understanding you and that we are in tune with each other.”

  • “If you feel I misunderstood you, please tell me right away so we can clear it up as soon as possible.”

  • “We will know together, find out together…”

  • “Could you give an example, elaborate on that, I want to be sure I understand what you are sharing with me.”

  • “I can understand in part how that interaction would make you feel that way.”

Logotherapy, created by Viktor Frankl, helps patients understand and develop meaning in their lives.

Viktor Frankl’s book not only chronicles how the principles of logotherapy helped Frankl survive the Holocaust, it also recounts his observations of how others used meaning to retain their human dignity during times of great suffering. So what is this “logotherapy” that helped people survive?

Essentially, logotherapy is a meaning-centered approach to psychotherapy. Frankl first published his ideas on logotherapy in 1938, and it is now known as the “Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy.”

The Viktor Frankl Institute lists the three principles that are the basis for logotherapy:

  1. Freedom of will

  2. Will to meaning

  3. Meaning in life

The core tenants can also be elaborated in another way, as done by the Viktor Frankl Institute of Logotherapy in Texas:

  1. Life has meaning in all circumstances, even the most miserable ones.

  2. Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life.

  3. We have freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or at least in the stand we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.

Frankl noted that there are a variety of ways in which we can find meaning, such as by our actions, our experiences, our relationships, and our attitude toward suffering. Indeed, logotherapy has been utilized to help treat a variety of psychiatric illnesses, such as anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and even schizophrenia. Currently, there are several logotherapy institutes around the world in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America that focus on educating the public about logotherapy and applying it to find meaning in people’s lives.

Here are some studies about logotherapy:

  • One study (May, 2010) found psychological safety and psychological meaningfulness was significantly related to engagement in work. 73% of the variance in engagement in work was able to be explained, with 62% coming from meaningfulness and 42% coming from psychological safety.

  • One study (Mahdizadeh, 2016) of patients after heart surgery found that those receiving logotherapy had improvement in mood. Additionally, this study found that logotherapy did not change the physical capabilities of the patient post surgery. However in the patients who had little to no symptom relief and continued limitation of functions post-op, it still showed an improvement in mood 6 months after the study was completed.

  • Another study (Robatmili, 2014) had the logotherapy group work on describing what was meaningful, setting goals, and then had the group facilitate each other moving towards their goals. In this treatment group, the “meaning of life” scores increased and depression scores decreased. Discovering and pursuing meaning is facilitated by helping through the following steps: (a) establishing the therapeutic relationship; (b) increasing insight regarding identity, values, and goals; (c) reframing meaninglessness and depression; (d) discovering meaning within the meaninglessness and depression; and (e) pursuing the fulfillment of meaning.

  • Once you have some positive attributes, you find other positive attributes—like a snowball effect of developing positive meaning in life. One study (Zhang, 2018) showed this after surveying 1,000 elderly people in Hong Kong. There was a higher level of meaning associated with happiness, health status, and decreased healthcare utilization.

  • Another study (Mahdizadeh, 2016) showed that when educational interventions based on the main concepts of logothearpy were made, it lead to an improvement of the patient’s quality of life after CABG surgery in persons over the age of 35 (specifically, scores in QOL were improved psychologically).

  • In one study (Mosalanejad, 2013), an infertile experimental group that used logotherapy showed significant decreased psychological stress scores.

  • One case review (Southwick, 2006) looked at adding a meaning-based intervention into the treatment of chronic combat-related PTSD showed positive enhancement of outcome when combine with traditional therapies and medications.

  • A study of women with breast cancer (Mohabbat-Bahar, 2014) showed logotherapy to be helpful at reducing anxiety.  

  • I also discussed a study (Thomas, 2014) regarding how structured sessions helped cancer patients improve their sense of meaning in life.  

  • A qualitative interview study on nursing home residents (Drageset, 2017) found that meaning could be found in physical and mental well-being, belonging and recognition, personally treasured activities, and spiritual closeness and connectedness.  This present study also showed a link between well-being of patients’ hope for an improved state of health and are in accordance with previous studies showing significant associations between meaning, hope and well-being among older people in nursing homes.

  • Finally, a study (Leveen, 2017) explored how poetry can be used to increase a sense of meaning in physicians caring for patients.    

Conclusion:

By focusing on what is said by our patients and those we care about and by believing that everything that is said has meaning, we can increase our connectedness with them.  We can also slowly find the deeper sources of meaning and purpose which can help make sense of suffering and physical and emotional pain.






Psychiatric Approach to Delirium with Dr. Timothy Lee

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This week on the podcast, I am joined by Dr. Timothy Lee, the Loma Linda residency program director and the head of medical consult and liaison services. One of his specialities is delirium, so this week we will be discussing both hypoactive and hyperactive delirium.  

What is delirium?

Delirium is an acute change in a person’s sensorium (the perception of one’s environment or understanding of one’s situation). It can include confusion about their orientation, cognition or mental thinking.

With hyperactive delirium, a patient can become aggressive, violent and agitated with those around them. A patient experiencing delirium can have hallucinations and hear things, they can become paranoid, and they are overall confused. A family, or non-psychiatric medical staff, might be concerned that the patient is experiencing something like schizophrenia.

Hyperactive delirium symptoms in patients:

  • Waxing and waning—it comes and goes

  • Issues with concentration

  • Pulling out medical lines

  • Yelling profanities

  • Throwing things

  • Agitated

  • Responding to things in the room that aren’t there

  • Not acting like themselves

Hypoactive delirium is much more common than hyperactive delirium (based on research studies), but it is often missed because the presentation is much less dramatic. People with hypoactive delirium are confused and disoriented, but they do not express their confusion verbally or physically.

Hypoactive delirium symptoms:

  • Slower movement

  • Softer speech

  • Slower responses

  • Withdrawn

  • Not eating as much

Often, nurses and physicians can miss the fact that the patient has the typical confusion that denotes delirium because the patient is quieter, so it doesn’t come to the attention of the medical team or psychiatrist consult service.

Delirium can even be confused for depression. One Mayo Clinic study showed that when consulting a doctor about their depression, 67% of the time, the patient ended up having delirium.

Why does delirium happen?

Often we see it happen, even to relatively healthy people, in physically stressful situations—post surgery, during an acute illness, or even just being stuck in the hospital for a few days. This does not mean it is indicative of a sudden onset of a long term mental illness, such as schizophrenia.

To consider what can cause delirium, I like to think systematically from the top of the body and work my way down. This is by no means exhaustive, but it can be helpful.

Many things can cause delirium. I like to think about starting at the top of the body and going down, as a way to not miss the cause. Here are a few we would consider as we go down the body:

  • Stroke—check strength in both arms and legs, have the patient smile

  • Hypertensive emergency

  • Infection or meningitis

  • Physical trauma—concussion, head injury with initial loss of consciousness, then after regaining consciousness they can have delirium

  • Brain bleeding

  • Medications that affect the brain, such as ones that produce anticholinergic side effects. (They suppress acetylcholine, causing brain imbalances and confusion. Anti-allergy medicines, pain medications, and some psychiatric medications are anticholinergic.)

  • Circulatory issues

  • Thyroid imbalances or parathyroid hormones

  • Cancer

  • Heart attack

  • Traumatic injury to the heart

  • Aspiration pneumonia

  • Lung infection

  • Lung cancer

  • Viral pneumonia

  • Pancreatic inflammation

  • Urinary tract infections in women

  • Liver cirrhosis

  • Hepatitis

  • Gallbladder inflammation

  • Low bilirubin

  • Hepatic encephalopathy

How do we identify delirium in a patient?

Asking certain questions to the patient and/or medical team and family can help us understand if the patient is experiencing delirium. Often, a patient experiencing delirium will still know where they are, what they are doing, and who they are. The main test to really determine if it’s delirium is the “clock drawing” where we ask the patient to draw a clock with the hands showing 11:10.

Here are some questions and tasks we ask the patient to answer and perform to test for delirium:

  • Does the person know who they are?

  • Does the person know where they are?

  • In what detail does the person understand where they are?

  • Does the person know the date?

  • Can they orient to the situation? Do they know why they are there and the circumstances that led to them being in the hospital?

  • We might ask the patient to repeat back a few words for us.

  • We will ask them later if they remember the three words we asked previously.

  • We test for concentration, like asking the days of the week in reverse order.

  • We try to assess their visual and spatial ability.

  • We might ask them to draw a clock to look for spacing, impairments, or difficulties.  

Some tests that are common to determine delirium are:

  • The Mini Mental Status Exam (MMSE)

  • The Montreal Cognitive Assessment

How to help

It is important, if the patient has loved ones with them, to educate the family about delirium, because both hypoactive and hyperactive delirium can be terrifying to watch.

When it comes to giving medications, it’s important to follow a few rules, Dr. Lee says. Giving medications with anticholinergic side effects can make the patient more agitated. When prescribing meds, be careful not to switch from a hyperactive delirium presentation to a hypoactive delirium presentation by just sedating the patient but maintaining confusion. Medications like benzodiazepine, barbiturates, sedatives and pain medications (beyond what is needed for pain) can all cause worsening of delirium.

If the confusion is from an infection, an antibiotic should eventually help the cause of the delirium, however it may take a few days for the confusion to improve after the cause is eliminated.  At times antipsychotic medications are used to help the delirium and reduce the time needed to stay in the hospital.

Even after the cause of the delirium is gone, and the delirium seems to have improved very quickly, a person may still have lingering cognitive issues. It’s important to be conservative in terms of how quickly you taper them off of the antipsychotic medication used to treat the delirium.





Ketamine and Psychedelics with Dr. Michael Cummings

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Blog by David Puder, M.D., Mark Ard, M.D., Mikyla Cho,

On this week’s episode of the podcast, I interview Dr. Cummings, a reputable psychopharmacologist, about ketamine. We talk about psychedelics, the research behind it, both the positives and the negatives. We will look at how it is or is not helpful in psychiatric treatments.

(Disclaimer: There are no conflicts of interest to report. Neither Dr. Puder or Cummings is affiliated with any companies in favor of ketamine and other drug companies.)

Ketamine

Although ketamine has recently become a medication of great interest in psychiatry, it actually is a fairly old medication. It was first synthesized in 1962 and began human trials for anesthesia in 1964. It was finally approved by the FDA as a dissociative anesthetic in 1970.

What has piqued interest in psychiatry is that infusion of a smaller dose of ketamine produces a rapid response in terms of reversal of depressed mood, suicidality, and some treatment-resistant depressed patients.

The literature is rich (in one sense) as the most recent consensus statement (Sanacora, 2017) looked at seven randomized controlled trials, all of which support a robust antidepressant response and anti-suicide response. The difficulty with those trials is the majority of them lasted only one week. A few of the later trials lasted two to three weeks with two to three infusions per week. So, what’s lacking at this point is adequate data regarding long term treatment response and data about transitions to more traditional antidepressant treatments.

This area is of great interest, largely because of the limitations of our current antidepressants. In the STAR D antidepressant trials, 48.6% of people got a 50% reduction in depressive signs and symptoms with the first antidepressant, whereas only 37% of depressed patients achieved remission with the first medication.

Limitations of ketamine in Psychiatry

People receive low-dose infusions of ketamine for depression and suicidality, and there seems to be short term response to this, though the long term effects have not been measured.

The decrease in depression and suicidality is typically robust, but short lived. There is a fairly rapid decay of the antidepressant response following infusion. The infusions are done over 40 minutes. About thirty percent of the patients will become fairly unresponsive to light verbal stimulation. They then recover, but within a few days their mood will begin to deteriorate.

The study comparing 2 days/week to 3 days/week showed fairly equivalent effectiveness of ketamine for the several weeks it was studied. The other limitation of ketamine in terms of an ongoing treatment for depression is like all NMDA antagonists, these drugs are psychotomimetic and cause dissociation. They can induce psychotic signs and symptoms, and those do begin to become more prevalent with repeated infusions.

Currently adverse effects are known for chronic abusers, and can include cognition problems and bladder issues and we don’t have adequate data telling us how long it would be safe to continue ketamine infusions and how to make a transition from ketamine to a more stable, longer lasting treatment.

Ketamine and Dissociative States

Those who described their experiences during the ketamine infusion note a loss of sense of personal boundaries and a sense of union with the universe. There are fairly dramatic changes in their thinking.

Ketamine inhibits the brain’s primary activating receptor, the N-methyl-D-aspartatic receptor, blocking the effects of glutamate, which transiently enhances plasticity.  Ketamine blocks presymptic inhibitor interneurons, blocking glutamate, leading to more glutamate overall in the brain. This “glutamate surge” leads is what is thought to lead to a rapid release of BDNF which is a growth factor for the brain.  This may be responsible for the short term improvement in depressive symptoms.

People also use ketamine as a recreational drug because of its ability to induce a dissociative state. It has been a drug of abuse for a number of years since its introduction in the 1970s. It goes by “Special K,” and a number of other names. Many people abuse it after drinking and at raves. If they take a high enough dose, they can lose their ability to hear and see and become stuck in a “frozen state.”

It can produce delirium, which can be either stuporous or agitated. The related drug, phencyclidine (PCP, aka angel dust), causes more severe dissociation and psychosis. However, the effect of ketamine and phencyclidine are in the same direction and by the same mechanism.

People refer to Ketamine’s dissociative state as the “K Hole,” when one can’t move and experiences this depersonalization. Ketamine is sometimes used as a “date rape drug” because the person can be in a very vulnerable state.

Ketamine dosage

  • Ketamine dosage given for depression is at 0.5 mg/kg, which results in a plasma concentration of approximately 70-200 ng/mL.

  • Ketamine dosage given for anesthesia results in plasma concentrations of 2000-3000 ng/mL.

  • Doses people use at raves or for anesthesia are about an order of magnitude higher than those used for infusion for treatment of depression.

  • Peak plasma concentration with antidepressant infusions of ketamine are about 200 ng/mL. For recreational or ICU anesthesia purposes, it is closer to 2000 ng/mL.

Side effects/risks of ketamine infusion

When people are recovering from the antidepressant infusion, there is still a risk. They may become agitated, confused, or hallucinate, which is why one of the recommendations for treatment centers using ketamine is that they have adequate expertise in controlling psychomotor agitation and confusion if those things occur.

During ketamine infusion, about one-third of patients also exhibit a fairly pronounced sympathetic arousal during the initial portion of the infusion.

  • About 30% of patients achieve a heart rate of 110 and a blood pressure of approximately 180/100. (Sanacora, 2017)

  • One of the recommendations for ketamine infusion centers is that they take a good cardiac history and be sure that the person can tolerate exercise. Additionally, the drug should be administered by someone who is ACLS certified and has access to a crash cart.

  • For cats recovering from surgery (Jasani, 2015) on ketamine use for animals), it is helpful and ideal to put them in a quiet environment. The same is true for humans. Patients should be put in a quiet, safe environment so that one does not induce an agitated delirium because the patient is responsive to the environment, but their interpretation of that environment may not be based on reality and can produce an agitated response.

Mechanism of action

In many cases of treatment-resistant depression, it is necessary to alter the plasticity of the brain to get a response. Ketamine, perhaps via the blockade of glutamate at NMDA receptors, and perhaps via downstream mechanisms from that, seems to do this.

This correlates to some extent with how we know antidepressants and electroconvulsive therapy works. They have looked at CT scans for what is important in gaining a response, and for decades, it was thought that it was the seizure. Now, it may actually be the postictal neuronal suppression period that accounts for the therapeutic benefit because that is associated with turning on rapid response genes.

One small study looked at simply exposing people repeatedly to isoflurane, an anesthetic agent, causing repeated neuronal suppression. They also received an antidepressant response from that. So it may be that turning neurons off transiently can be beneficial in terms of resetting them at the DNA level and making them more plastic. Ketamine may not be the only anesthetic agent that alters longer term functioning of neural circuits.

Ketamine Clinics

Although ketamine has become popular, the major risk is not that the drug may not have psychiatric utility, but that we are still fairly early on in using it. The risk is that the use will outrun the data we have available to guide us. This may already be happening, as evidenced by the surge of new ketamine clinics.

Often, the clinics are started by anesthesiologists, and there is no clear psychiatric evaluation that may precede patients starting ketamine.

Currently, the data we have now essentially points to ketamine as treatment for major depression, refractory to other treatments. In many ketamine clinics, they’re using it to treat all complaints, but the data on this ranges from slim to none at all.

There may be a lucrative pull toward these clinics as they are usually cash pay since insurances don’t currently cover this.

Advice to Those Considering Ketamine Clinics

One should first get a very careful psychiatric evaluation, including a diagnosis of their mental disorder and a careful review of their treatment history to be sure that they have received optimal treatment in terms of established long term treatment options.

If one does decide to pursue ketamine treatment, then they should work with a psychiatrist who is well-versed in not only using ketamine, but is also knowledgeable in using other means to address depression, such as more traditional antidepressant medications and psychotherapies (especially day treatment programs).

Other Concerns with Ketamine

According to existing literature, ketamine is not a cure all for major depression. It may help “jolt” a brain that has become resistant to treatment into being more plastic and transiently being less depressed, but it is not a cure for the underlying condition.

Another concern is that we don’t know what the patient will be like after long-term treatment with ketamine. Will they have had a full recovery? Experience persistent issues or treatment complications?  Cognitive issues? Bladder issues?

Ketamine may be most helpful for patients who have failed multiple treatment modalities, such as full doses of antidepressants or even ECT. It may provide a means to enhance treatment response to get the person out of the immediate danger of severe depression and suicidality. However, at this point it is not a standalone treatment.


Ketamine and Psychotherapy

If ketamine is a dissociative drug, it might be best to have the person off of ketamine before starting psychotherapy so that their brain is fully functional. The psychotherapy would need to follow after the person’s dissociation has dissipated.  The half life of the parent compound of ketamine is about 2.5 to 3 hours. The active metabolite (norketamine or N-desmethylketamine) is up to 12 hours.

By the time the person is 60 hours post-infusion, the ketamine is gone. It is unlikely that there are prolonged dissociative effects, at least not with one, two, or three exposures. However, there is no data stating just exactly how many exposures to ketamine is considered safe in terms of avoiding a more protracted delirium.  

Final Thoughts on Ketamine

This is still a new frontier that will most likely be revisited as newer and larger studies are done. Ketamine is promising in that it does suggest that if we can discover more useful and somewhat more gentle NMDA antagonists, we may discover a new avenue into treating more resistant depressive illnesses.

Psychedelics

History of Psychedelics

Psychedelics are illegal is most areas of the world. Because of a few studies and their ability to alter mental states, they are a gaining interest in some areas of psychiatry.

They have been used for millennia in some Native American and other indigenous populations. Historically, they have been used primarily in terms of religious rituals, often under the guidance of a shaman or medicine man helping to guide an individual in respect to life issues. Traditionally, they were often used only once or very sparingly as a support to what were ritual-based psychotherapies. The interest in psychiatry is if these would facilitate some form of psychotherapy while using the psychedelics.  

All of these drugs, such as psilocybin, LSD, and ayahuasca, are all essentially very potent 5-HT2A serotonin agonists, with many of them also being agonists at other serotonin receptors.  

They produce a state similar to ketamine.

      • The person has an alteration of their sense of self, a loss of boundaries.

      • They have a sense of being in touch with the universe.

      • They become much more influenceable under those circumstances.

Of course, like ketamine, psychedelics have also been prone to being drugs of abuse like the psychedelic area of the late 1960s. Studies (Kalasinsky, 2014; Palamar, 2016) of people who have used street ecstasy have found that the drug was often mixed with other chemicals, such as methamphetamines and bath salts, making it very different than what could potentially be given at a pharmaceutical grade.

Psychedelics dosage

Psychedelics in high doses

Much has to do with the dosing and concentration that is present when abused, which are often both very high. These drugs can cause permanent changes. For example, LSD can induce a persistent hallucinosis that’s essentially the result of a permanent change in receptor status that usually occurred with repeated, very high dose exposures.

Psychedelics in modest doses

Frankly at this point, we don’t know very easily how to separate the benefits and risks of these drugs. Although used as they were traditionally, there were often very limited exposures and very controlled environments. This suggests that these drugs should perhaps be used with caution for therapeutic benefits.

Studies about Psychedelics (Rafael, 2018 for most recent review)

  • Psychedelics have shown benefits in a variety of open label, small studies, and lack adequate control group of mostly short duration for everything from depression, to anxiety, and to even inhibiting the use of substances like alcohol.

  • Psilocybin has been studied in decreasing depression in cancer patients

  • Patients will take the medication or placebo, wear an eye covering, and listen to some light music while lying down on the hospital bed. If patients do undergo an experience of some sort, there is a person in the room they can talk to.

Most studies typically report a positive primary result, but are limited by their very small samples and lack an adequate control group. Therefore, much of our data is still very early on with respect to the hallucinogens and their possible benefits.

In contrast, the wealth of data from traditional cultures that have used these substances for millennia shows that when these drugs are used in a very controlled, limited manner, they do not seem to induce ongoing mental disorders.

Research is still at an early stage and may open new routes for treatment by modulation of serotonin receptors in ways that we haven’t approached before. It may turn out that hallucinogens themselves may or may not be the right agents to use in the long run. But, this may point to a new approach to altering brain plasticity to enhancing treatment.

Study designs and placebos affect study results.

Some studies use saline or sugar pills as placebo, and patients are likely to know they have not received the treatment in those cases. A good placebo produces some degree of change and level of consciousness. For example, an infused benzodiazepine might be a possibility.

A normal saline infusion or an oral sugar pill would not produce an adequately blinded study since both hallucinogens and ketamine produce a fairly rapid effect that anyone being exposed to the drug would be aware of.

Another example is a study that used botox for depression (Finzi, 2014). 75% of the Patients knew if they have actually received the botox or just an injection of normal saline since the effects on the muscle were so different. These studies would then become suspect because particularly in treating mood disorders, the placebo response rate is typically fairly high, often around 30-40%. Therefore, studies really do need to blind both the participants and the researchers by giving an active comparative placebo.

The Hawthorne effect can bias the study because if you expect something to happen, you tend to see it, whether it actually exists or not. However, the results of a study can change once it becomes a multi-site study.

Open label studies have a higher rate of positive findings than those of randomized controlled trials.

  • In an open label trial, the patient and the prescriber of the treatment both know what the patient is receiving and consequently, they can be biased by their beliefs.

  • If you compare open label studies to studies in which neither the patient or the prescriber knows what the patient got, the rate of positive results is about twice in the open trials than what it is in the controlled trial.

    • We can fool ourselves into seeing something that wasn’t actually there about half the time.

Final Thoughts

Longer trials of up to six months should be done for ketamine research to address several questions.

  • How often can a patient receive treatment?

  • What are the long-term effects?

  • What is the point at which one should stop because of any long-term effects on a person’s brain?

  • How do we transition from ketamine infusion to alternative treatments?

  • Does ketamine ultimately make the person more responsive to other pharmacologic interventions or psychotherapeutic interventions?

Psychedelics also still need to be studied more extensively.

  • We need to understand more fully what is happening in the brain as a result of very potent stimulation of 5-HT receptors.

  • Perhaps we can use that as a jumping off point to look for other means to modulate or encourage treatment response using those receptor systems.

We do not know enough about ketamine and psychedelics to be able to tell if they will have positive long term effects on mental health and be useful to psychiatry. These topics will need to be revisited as more research is done.

dos Santos, R. G., Bouso, J. C., Alcázar-Córcoles, M. Á., & Hallak, J. E. (2018). Efficacy, tolerability, and safety of serotonergic psychedelics for the management of mood, anxiety and substance use disorders: a systematic review of systematic reviews. Expert review of clinical pharmacology, (just-accepted).

Finzi, E., Kels, L., Axelowitz, J., Shaver, B., Eberlein, C., Krueger, T. H., & Wollmer, M. A. (2018). Botulinum toxin therapy of bipolar depression: A case series. Journal of psychiatric research, 104, 55-57.

Kalasinsky, Kathryn S., John Hugel, and Stephen J. Kish. "Use of MDA (the" love drug") and methamphetamine in Toronto by unsuspecting users of ecstasy (MDMA)." Journal of Forensic Science 49.5 (2004): JFS2003401-7.

Palamar, Joseph J., et al. "Detection of “bath salts” and other novel psychoactive substances in hair samples of ecstasy/MDMA/“Molly” users." Drug and alcohol dependence 161 (2016): 200-205.

Sanacora, G., Frye, M. A., McDonald, W., Mathew, S. J., Turner, M. S., Schatzberg, A. F., ... & Nemeroff, C. B. (2017). A consensus statement on the use of ketamine in the treatment of mood disorders. JAMA psychiatry, 74(4), 399-405.



What is psychodynamic theory?

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On this week’s episode of the podcast, I interviewed Allison Maxwell-Johnson, a social worker and PhD student of clinical social work. I refer patients to her regularly for psychoanalysis, and she has had a wonderful impact on their mental health journey.

Link to show on: iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Overcast, PlayerFM, PodBean, TuneIn, Podtail, Blubrry, Podfanatic

Psychodynamic therapy is a form of talk therapy where the practitioner work focuses on the patient’s emotion, fantasies, dreams, unconscious drives and wishes, early and current life relationships, and the relationship that is forming between the patient and therapist.  

The history of psychodynamic therapy

Sigmund Freud is known as the father of psychodynamic therapy. He practiced in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Some psychiatrists and therapists think that Freud has been debunked because he is a controversial figure. But my colleague, Allison Maxwell, and I, think his impact on furthering the mental health field has been positive.

Historically, people with borderline personality disorder, somatic disorder and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were all grouped under the title of “hysteria.” A few hundred years ago, these people would have been killed as witches, put in asylums, and there wasn’t much ability to, or interest in, digging into their psyche. There was certainly no warmth or empathy given to them.

Freud began to grapple with those deeper, tougher issues, claiming it wasn’t just a medical disorder. He gave empathy, and a level of connectedness to his patients that hadn’t been done before. As the first psychoanalyst, he was a pioneer in his field, and he figured out that having an emotionally connected relationship with his patients (he would even have is patients over for dinner and go for walks with them) could actually heal the patient.

Affect

Affect is something therapists need to pay attention to when it comes to each individual patient. It’s about noting the facial and emotional state of the person. Is the patient emotionally flat or expressive? Are they depressed or happy? Are they peaceful or agitated?

We focus on their emotional state and try to lean in to understand what a patient is feeling during a session. As the doctor or therapist, what is the emotional reaction you're having to the patient, in the moment? Analyze the situation—both your feelings and theirs. Ask them for clarification on their feelings, then ask yourself how you can use that information to understand and connect with the patient emotionally.

There are multiple emotions going on which can be conflicting. We need to ask ourselves if we can empathize with the distress that is in the room.  

It’s not only about intellectually understanding what’s happening with a patient, or diagnosis. It’s about understanding how to create an emotional connection and help someone.

Transference

A therapist applies the principle of transference when we pay attention to the emotional state the patient has towards them. If the therapist reminds them of their abusive father, and they react emotionally, it’s a classic transference situation.

Understanding transference can help a therapist remain empathic and curious, even when a patient is angry at them. Transference can be seen in their complete reaction towards you, both from their past, and how you are interacting with them.  

Countertransference

As therapists, we are also humans. We will have reactions to the patients we work with.  Countertransference is the complete reaction we have towards our patients, both coming from how the patient reminds us of people from our past, and our reaction towards the things that the patient is uniquely doing.

The unconscious exists both in our patients and in us. If we can keep countertransference in our awareness as therapists, we can try to understand what is happening interpersonally—why we do or don’t like our patient, and why we feel angry or upset with our patients.

As therapists, we should not react to our patients out of direct emotion, but understand that countertransference is happening, and be curious about the meanings behind our feelings, and their feelings towards us.

Studies that show psychodynamic theory works:

  • For the curious, read this article by Jonathan Shedler, “The Efficacy of Psychodynamic Psychotherapy” PDF

Mentalization-based therapy

Mentalization therapy is an emotion-focused therapy for people with borderline personality disorder. It helps them question whether they are accurately mentalizing, or understanding, their own experiences and their therapists emotional experiences. The positive effect of mentalization-based therapy is measurable. It has a mean effect size of 1-2, meaning it is 1-2 standard deviations from the control group—it works.

People who were in and out of psychiatric hospitals with suicide attempts, after mentalization therapy, can have great success in achieving a normal life.

  • Study on Mentalization based therapy with 8 year follow up: PDF

Transference Based Therapy:

  • Article on transference focus therapy increasing a patient’s narrative coherence and reflective function: PDF

In conclusion

As therapists, including psychodynamic principles can help us connect with our patients. It will protect us from burnout, and give our patients the chance to feel emotionally connected with someone, in a corrective and healing way. It can be incredibly rewarding, rather than draining, when we feel connected, and our patients usually express gratitude as they heal.



Advice for medical students applying to psychiatric residency

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Timothy Lee has talked to thousands of medical students about how to applying for residency programs, and here, he gives us a few tips on how to make it through the gauntlet, and how to have your best chance at landing the program you want.


Here is what Timothy Lee says:

Stay calm

Many students have been fine tuning their personal statements, and trying to get their resume just right, or hurrying to press the faculty to write letters of recommendation. It can be very stressful.


It’s okay to turn in information a little bit later, in order to have all of the paperwork you need. It’s even okay to review your statement after you’ve already turned it in. No one will lower their opinion based on that. You will need to have applied for the majority of the programs you are interested in by early or mid-October, otherwise the program director might wonder if you’re applying to them later as a backup plan.

What matters in a personal statement?

Every program director will have different opinions on what you write, and every program director will be looking for different things from your personal statement. For some people, it’s a chance to get to know the applicant a little bit. For others, it doesn’t really matter that much.


As long as your grammar and syntax are competent, you should be fine. Some people don’t worry about the format, and others are more particular. To be on the safe side, if you have access to a good mentor, run it by them. Also, don’t be too wordy—stick to a page and a half.

Do step scores matter?

Step scores are a very convenient screening tool for what matters, but there are studies that show that step scores are not directly correlated to success in residency performance. They are helpful, but are not the end-all-be-all. It’s only one part of the picture of an applicant. However, if you are going for a highly-competitive school, you might need to worry about step scores a bit more.

Apply to the right number of programs

The number of programs is not the only way to increase your chance of success of getting in. Pay attention to the types of programs you are applying to as well. If you are applying for a good number of programs, make sure at least half of them are are ones you are a solid and potentially attractive candidate for.

Keep a good perspective

Ultimately, you are more than your CV, step score, or personal statement. If patients like you, that’s going to go a long ways. Your patients won’t know your scores, or where you graduated from medical school. They will know if you were competent, caring and connected. That is ultimately what matters.


Therapeutic Alliance Part 1

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What is a therapeutic alliance?

The therapeutic alliance is a collaborative relationship between the physician and the patient. Together, you jointly establish goals, desires, and expectations of your working partnership.

Every interview with a patient, whether it’s for diagnostic, intake, evaluative, or psychopharmacology purposes, has therapeutic potential. The treatment starts from your first greeting—how you listen, empathize, and even how you say goodbye.  

It’s built from a partnership and dialogue, like any other relationship. It’s not built from medical interrogation. It’s not about pulling medical information to be able to make a diagnosis. We have to make it a positive experience for patient, so they can begin to talk about what's negative in their lives.

The therapeutic alliance is full of meaning, and it uses every emotional transaction therapeutically. If they get angry, sad, or have fear you will abandon them, as a therapist, it’s our job to figure out how to help them through that feeling within the relationship. The doctor can express desire for the patient to share, in real time, how the patient is feeling, even about his or her relationship with the doctor.

Why do we care?

We all know that some talk therapists have better outcomes than other talk therapists. What’s interesting though, is that some some psychiatrists’ placebos worked better than other psychiatrists’ active drugs. One study of NIMH data of 112 depressed patients treated by 9 psychiatrists with placebo or imipramine, found that variance in BDI score (a score that measures depression) due to medication, was 3.4% and variance due to psychiatrist was 9.1%. One-third of psychiatrists had better outcomes with the placebo than one-third had with imipramine.  

Another book argues that the therapist is more important to outcome than theory or technique. Many other studies have shown that therapeutic alliance directly correlates to success rates.

What builds a therapeutic alliance?

Research shows there are a few things that grow therapeutic alliance:

Expertness

  • Facilitating a greater level of understanding

  • When residents are worried they are an imposter, I tell them that humility is good, but realize that you have experience that most will never have, medical school, being highly educated, being around vast different ways of thinking and reflecting on the world...

Consistency

  • Structuring your office to run on time.

  • Being consistent to respond to refill request, lab results, or patient’s questions.

Non-verbal gestures

  • Eye contact

  • Leaning forward

  • Mirroring of emotion occurs naturally when people pay attention to emotion

Maintenance of the therapeutic frame

  • A dual relationship (eg, dating) breaks down therapeutic alliance. Patients will test the frame. It can be helpful to say, "There will be positive and negative feelings between us and what will be safe is to talk about them."

Empathy, attunement, positive regard

  • Patient: “Therapist is both understanding and affirming."

  • Patient: “Therapist adopts supportive stance.

  • Patient: “Therapist is sensitive to patient’s feelings, attuned to patient, empathic.”

  • Research has found that for beginning therapists, setting and maintaining treatment goals is harder

  • Research has shown that strength of therapeutic bond is not associated with level of training

  • Therapist should appear alert, relaxed and confident rather than bored, distracted and tired

Foundational concepts of the therapeutic alliance

Our profession gives us a privileged glimpse into the human heart and mind. Each patient is idiosyncratic, unique, precious. Each patient has unique strengths which we should place focus on.  Some therapists can be in a hurry to find out what's wrong, but we should also want to find out what's right with our patients.

Our own feelings, as therapists, about the session are not intrusions but clues. If you are experiencing boredom, perhaps you are not understanding the main point the patient is trying to explain. Be curious for what you are missing. If you start feeling something different than you did at the beginning of the encounter, notice it. Try to empathize for the patient with what changed.

Our goal is for the patient to feel understood, heard, accepted, felt. To be understood is to be accepted.

A strong alliance will provide a "Corrective Emotional Experience"  (Franz Alexander), which means past relational pain and difficulties are worked out in a new relationship. When your subjectivity (your feelings, thoughts, goals) come into contact with the patient's subjectivity, a unique "intersubjective relationship" is formed from your mutual influencing of each other. A new dyad (2 coming together) is formed by looking at new meanings, understandings and connectedness. As a therapist, you are a “participant observer” as you observe the patient’s behavior and also become a “significant other” in their life through your interactions (Harry Stack Sullivan).

Here are some things to consider on a first encounter with a patient:

The patient will feel: examined, fear being seen as crazy, fear of not being liked, discouraged, hopeless, helplessness, needy, fear you are a mind reader, or even fear that you sleep with your patients.

In developing this relationship, it’s important to understand they can formulate defenses that are adaptive. Try to empathize with that underlying emotion. Starting with what's an adaptive response and solves something, looking for what’s maladaptive does not.

The patient may question your competence. They might say you look very young to be a doctor. The appropriate response would be to dig down and see why they are feeling what they are feeling. Say something like,"Perhaps you were looking for someone who looks older; of course you’re entitled to worry about how competent I am and how much I may be able to help you."

Therapists are always worried about being ineffectual. It's very natural to feel like an impostor in our position. It’s also normal to feel—when someone's angry at us, our mirror neurons lead us to be angry back.

Always face the patient, without desks between you, lean slightly forward, give appropriate eye contact, and do not do excessive note taking (you should be observing at least 90% of the time). Ideally, a clock is positioned behind the patient which can easily be seen by you without making obvious movements.

On Listening: An Active Process

Connection is non-verbal, and is equally as important as verbal communication, sometimes more so.

  • Omissions (what is not said) in the patient's stories and memories are important.

  • Point out common patterns you hear.

  • If every time you say something to the patient he says "no, that's not it" then point out that to the patient.  

  • Be aware when asking "why" questions, you are likely going to arouse the same defensive emotional reactions that occurred when the patient as a child was asked "why did you do that?" by the parent.  At times, "why" can communicate disapproval. For example you ask, "Why do you feel that?" And they say, "I DON'T KNOW! Are not you the doctor!"

  • Dr. Tarr has some good advice on nonverbal communication: "I participate. I respond. I react to my patient and to his verbal and nonverbal communications.  At the same time I observe what's going on, what the patient is saying and what he is not saying. I am particularly attuned to evidences of anxiety, to what I am feeling and thinking, and where, if anywhere, the interchanges are going. I am wondering how best to formulate for this particular patient what I observe that may help him feel understood and responded to."

  • Observe that defenses (sublimation, reaction formation, intellectualization), although they reduce anxiety, may misrepresent reality.  

  • Assume an attitude of "reverie," like a good maternal object, receiving toxic stuff from patients and then giving it back to them in a detoxified form (Wilfred Bion).

  • Create a "holding" place for patients in which patients have a transitional or play space (Donald Winnicott).

  • Listen in a way that notes what the patient is trying to say about your relationship.

    • Patient: "I feel lonely even when I am with people."  Doctor: "Do you feel lonely here with me now?" Patient: "No, I feel you understand me somewhat."  Doctor: "I want to know if there are any times where you feel more lonely in our sessions, it will help me to understand what is going on between us."

  • Listen to their moment to moment change in emotions.

    • Try to enter a bit into their feeling, be present with them, mirror the emotion/feeling, use their own words, ask them to find their own words.

    • If you don’t get why they are sad, then stay with it, ask them more questions, have them deepen your understanding of it.

    • Once they feel you truly understand the effect will change. When people feel heard, deeply understood, it is pleasurable.  

    • Shame- patient looks down

      • “I can understand why talking about this must be difficult.”

      • Perhaps as you talk about this you feel…”

      • Try to find the adaptive function: “I hear switching to a new doctor is hard, I think that is a common experience, I think it is adaptive to be hesitant at first in what you share, we are just meeting."

    • Anger/Frustration:

      • “Would you say that as you mentioned this you feel frustrated.”

      • Find the adaptive function: “your anger here seemed to have the goal to protect you and your family”  “your anger likely kept you alive!"

    • Sadness

      • “Perhaps you are feeling sad as you say this?”

      • Find the adaptive function: “it makes sense that you feel sad here, I think crying and feeling sad shows how much you valued your dad and therefore the loss hurts that much more."

    • Disgust

      • “I am wondering if you feel disgusted by this?”

      • “I hear you feel disgusted…” (ask with a questioning tone).

      • Find the adaptive function: “Feeling disgusted by how your sisters turned on you and cast you out of the family makes sense, it sickens you to see the level of their resentment and bitterness."

    • Fear

      • “I hear a deep concern or perhaps fear regarding this.”

      • “Might there be a deep concern or perhaps fear regarding this?”

      • Find the adaptive function: “After your traumatic event, it makes sense that you would no longer want to put yourself in that situation, it sounds like you are trying to protect yourself."

Listen to the patient’s goals, purposes, aspirations, fears, hopes, values, meanings.

How do you create and maintain a working alliance:

Be sensitive to empathic strains and prevent them from developing into empathic ruptures.  

Ask for feedback. Reflect on the "we" aspect of the encounter. If the intervention/participation failed to have the desired result then look at what went wrong with the communication.  

  • “As we were talking together when did you really feel we were on the same page?”

  • “When did you feel we were understanding each other?”

  • “When did you feel we were communicating meaningfully?”  

  • “When were you feeling disappointed?”

  • “When did you fell I was not responding enough?”  

  • “When did you feel frustrated, misunderstood, or impatient?”

Be able to define and predict interpersonal conflicts that may cause a disruption of the shared empathic relationship. Set the groundwork for openness.

For example:  

Doctor: "Tell me about your past psychiatrist?  “What worked and what were your disappointments with your past psychiatrist?"

Patient: "He was kind of a jerk."  

Doctor: "Can you tell me more about that?"  

Patient: "He always would just stare at this computer, and often answered his pager during sessions."  

Doctor: "Thank you for sharing that, I will stop typing and finish this later, I hope that if you ever have any feedback for me you will know that I will want to hear it, even if it is negative, and will appreciate knowing your experience of things."

Patient: “Ooo I was not talking about you.”

Doctor: “Ok, nevertheless it is a good reminder to not be focused on the computer, but if you are bothered by things or frustrated it will be helpful to know.”

The therapeutic alliance is an incredibly powerful relationship, and if it is managed with care, it can affect positive change in a patient’s life.

In future episodes on therapeutic alliance I will dig deeper into specifics of it, and pull upon the depth of my mentorship from Dr. John Tarr.

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