Why Placebos Work

July 19, 2016

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal summarizes some of the explanations about how we think placebos work.  If you read an earlier blog post I wrote about placebos, what I find so fascinating about all this is that even when subjects/patients are told they are receiving a placebo (either in the form of a sub-therapeutic dosage of a real medication or just a sugar pill), they often still show the suggested effects of that “treatment.”  If people expect something to happen when they take a pill, it often does.  For example, this self-confirming bias occurs with medication side effects: you read that horrible insert from the pharmacist that lists every possible side effect that has been reported for the drug and sure enough you start to experience some of the effects… right away, before it’s really physiologically possible for the medication to have caused them.

Though some of my colleagues may not like this, I’d imagine that a nice chunk of what happens in psychotherapy is related to the placebo effect.  We might call it a safe holding environment, positive future orientation or something like that, but the fact of the matter is that when a patient comes into therapy expecting a positive outcome, they typically experience that.  (Similarly, when patients initiate treatment with negative expectations, they often don’t get much from treatment.)  Clearly, a difference between psychotherapy and placebo is that actual treatment is being provided with psychotherapy, but patient expectation, therapist suggestions and patient suggestibility all play a significant role in therapy and should not be underestimated.

Exercise to Argue Better

June 29, 2016

Let’s face it, all couples argue (well, some don’t but they probably don’t communicate much).  Typically when we argue we we try to convince the other person that we are right and they are wrong.  In doing so we tend not to listen much; instead while the other person is speaking we are thinking up a good come back or a verbal zinger to put the other person in his or her place.  Pause for a moment and think about how effective this really has been for you.

Sometimes, along the way, couples escalate and start calling each other names or slinging insults (or even physical objects) at each other.  Again, how well does this work?  Now maybe you win some battles but you (both) lose in the end.  After all, if you care about your partner, and you “win” that means he or she “loses.”  Furthermore, when you sling mud during an argument, that needs to be cleaned up afterward.

Could there be a better way?  Sure!  What people really want when arguing is usually to feel listened to and understood.  Sure, we might want our partner to agree with us and do things the way we want, but most of the time if you truly feel understood by your partner, the heat of the argument fizzles quickly and there’s nothing to apologize about afterward.

So how do you do this?  As with most skills, it’s a good idea to do skill-building exercises and to practice these exercises.  The exercise I’m about to describe is not how people actually talk to each other on a day-to-day basis; it’s an exercise.  It’s kind of like a runner who wants to improve her time will do interval training: instead of just going out for a run as she usually does, she’ll sprint from one utility pole to the next one, then rest/jog to the next utility pole, and then run to the next one.  If she repeats these “intervals” her running times improve.  That said, you’ll never see someone run a marathon alternating between sprinting and walking from utility pole to utility pole.

Oh, another thing about the exercise: it’s frustratingly slow.  You’ll likely hate this at first, but the slowness is part of it’s benefit.  If you have to argue really slowly, you’re less likely to escalate to yelling.

So here’s the recipe:


Person A: Speak to Person B for up to 30-45 seconds making a simple statement, request, argument, etc.

Person B: Paraphrase in your own words Person A’s statement without introducing new information, interpreting, judging or otherwise modifying the statement.

Person A: Either give a thumbs up to acknowledge sufficient accuracy of the paraphrased response or thumbs down so you can offer clarification.

Person A: If thumbs down, don’t judge how or with whom the communication breakdown occurred; instead, simply restate in different words your main point in 30-45 seconds.

Person B: Paraphrase the restatement.

Person A: Thumbs up or thumbs down

Swap Roles

Person B: Speak to Person A for up to 30-45 seconds responding to Person A or making a simple statement, request, argument, etc.

Person A: Paraphrase in your own words Person B’s statement without introducing new information, interpreting, judging or otherwise modifying the statement.

Person B: Either give a thumbs up to acknowledge sufficient accuracy of the paraphrased response or thumbs down so you can offer clarification.


Remember, this is not as easy as it seems, and to become a better arguer you’ll need to become a better listener.  The more you listen (and communicate to your partner that you understand him or her), the less you’ll need to argue.

Give it a shot, and like any new exercise routine, don’t give up after one or two tries; instead, commit to practicing this (about real issues, not current events or the weather) for about 10 minutes every day for at least a week straight.

Happiness Promotes Health

March 15, 2016

In a recent presentation, US Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy said, “If there was a factor in your life that could reduce your risk of having a heart attack or a stroke, that could increase your chances of living longer, and would make your children less likely to engage in crime or use drugs, and that would even increase your success with losing weight, what would that factor be?  It turns out, it would be happiness.”


Happiness is a realistic goal for most people; it is not a luxury and need not be a distant fantasy.  People often have psychological road blocks to achieving true happiness, and psychotherapy can often help knock down or work around these obstacles.

Therapy is Better than Medication

February 10, 2016

The American College of Physicians has released a new clinical guideline on the treatment of depression in the Annals of Internal Medicine.  They suggested that psychotherapy is as effective for treating depression as antidepressants, and “given its relative lack of potential harms, should be strongly considered as the first-line treatment.” This is consistent with the American Psychiatric Association guidelines on major depressive disorder from 2010, which show therapy and antidepressant medications as being similarly effective.

The two issues that I, personally, have with this are: 1) that the guidelines specifically mention CBT and do not adequately discuss the benefits of other modalities of psychotherapy which may lead health care providers and patients to assume that CBT is the only mode of treatment that is so effective, and 2) the suggestion that psychotherapy has a “relative lack of potential harms.”  The word “relative” is key here: psychotherapy has significant fewer potential side effects than medication, but this does not mean that psychotherapy is side effect-free.  Therapy can be difficult for many patients at different times along the course of treatment and patients should be aware of this from the outset.

Primary Care Providers to Screen all Patients for Depression

January 27, 2016

The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) now officially recommends that primary care health clinicians screen all of their patients for depression. Though this is wonderful, this is very, very long overdue. The costs associated with depression and other mental health screen are insignificant relative to the potential gains of “catching” otherwise unrecognized suffering patients. Physicians and other front-line, primary care providers are offered screening guidelines by the AMA via this JAMA article.

Hopefully with more patients being routinely screened, including pregnant and post-partum women – – an often overlooked depressed population, more people will receive quality treatment consisting of psychotherapy and/or antidepressant medications.

How talk therapy changes our brains

November 18, 2015

can psychotherapy change the brain?

Does talk therapy change the brain?

I teach a great professional development and clinical consultation class at Loyola University Maryland.  Yesterday morning my doctoral students and I had a great discussion about what makes psychotherapy work (among some other very stimulating discussions).  This morning I received an email with a link to an article entitled, Revival of psychotherapy? How “talk” therapy changes our brains and genes.  This short piece reviews some of the recent literature about the effectiveness of psychotherapy, including referencing statements from the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association.  But the article gets even better when it approaches some newer thinking including the possibility that psychotherapy may actually make structural changes in our brains.  Scientists have long known that repeated exposures to stimuli (aka, learning) can create new and more efficient neural pathways in the brain.  We are now more confidently hypothesizing that the same thing occurs when patients “vent” in therapy… but instead of just venting, what may be happening is that the patient is packaging her thoughts into a narrative that the psychologist can understand, and that in the process of this processing she is starting to think her thoughts differently, to appreciate new facets of her history and to consider alternate perspectives about all this.  In other words, she is being exposed to new “stimuli.” And in doing this multiple times (patients often tell the same or similar stories many times over the course of psychotherapy – – and this is a good thing), she may actually be forming new “connections” in her brain and this might be part of why talk therapy does, in fact, work for so many people.

Therapy, Medication or Both (or Neither)?

June 30, 2015

I stumbled upon this brief piece in the Huffington Post about when patients should consider doing psychotherapy, trying medication, doing both at the same time or not doing anything at all.  I liked this article because it was short and to the point while giving some nice examples behind the answer to the question: “it depends.”

As a psychologist I have many patients ask for medications and I have many patients refuse my suggestion that they consider medications.  I work with only a handful of psychiatrists who I trust, and one of the things that I really like about them is that they don’t always prescribe medication on the first visit and sometimes they don’t prescribe at all.  Now days many psychiatrists have defaulted to the role of “prescription mill” and they just see patients on the quarter hour, back to back, writing scripts as quickly as they can.  I feel fortunate that I have good relationships with some very thoughtful and knowledgeable psychiatrists.

I also feel fortunate that as a psychologist I have the luxury of time to get to really know my patients, develop a strong therapeutic relationship with them and then help them improve various aspects of their lives.  One of my favorite things to do in therapy is to review my clinical notes with a patient when we’re close to terminating treatment.  I have found that when people are feeling better they often forget just how bad things were when they first came to me.  When we read through the chart together they are reminded of the incredible progress they made.

Forgiveness and Forgiving the Unforgivable

June 24, 2015

Over the years of doing psychotherapy with individuals and couples I have often observed a thematic trend from patient to patient. Sometimes I get a bunch of calls about relationship problems or several existing patients will bring up similar issues in the same week or even the same day. Lately I have noticed that I am talking with a bunch of folks about forgiveness. Often the historical issue that my patient is struggling with is an “unforgivable” event but we still find ourselves discussing what forgiveness means or what it looks like. I like to think about forgiveness as being a selfish – rather than a selfless – process. Sometimes we forgive people, not for them but, for ourselves.

Think about the amount of time, energy and emotion you devote (and continue to allocate) toward maintaining resentments, being angry and keeping hatred alive. Now imagine how liberating it would be to be able to let go of that and how you might reallocate that time, energy and emotion. I’m sorry, but I don’t have any magical answers about how this process unfolds other than to say that it is just that: a process, and it begins by talking about the transgression against you. Eventually you may or may not opt to have a conversation, write a letter or engage in some sort of symbolic gesture to “interpersonally” forgive your transgressor. I recently read an interesting article in the Huffington Post about forgiveness but the most inspiring thing I’ve come across regarding the concept of forgiveness was a great story on NPR’s The Story (scroll down to the second story and if you want to listen to the show, you can skip the first third of the mp3 file).

Psychotherapy Helps Prevent Suicide

November 25, 2014

An article was recently published in The Lancet Psychiatry and nicely summarized in Forbes describing the benefits of even short-term psychotherapy on repeated suicide attempts and suicide related deaths.  Not surprisingly, the data suggest that talk therapy serves to significantly reduce the frequency of suicide following a previous suicide attempt.  The Forbes article also very briefly summarized several recent studies on the efficacy of psychotherapy as an adjunct to or instead of psychiatric medication.

Need an antidepressant? Try exercise!

September 10, 2014

Research has shown that when depressed people exercise 3-5 times per week for 45-60 minutes per session and achieve a heart rate of 50-85% of their max heart rate, the exercise is as effective, if not more effective, than medication. The Atlantic published a nice summary of the research and relevant literature.

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