The limitations of ISTDP. Part 2: Patricia Coughlin

What are the limitations of ISTDP? What would a balanced view of ISTDP be like? Just as any approach to psychotherapy, ISTDP is subject to both idealization and devaluation. Over the past few years, we at ISTDPsweden.se have published quite a lot of positive stories and news about ISTDP. Now it’s time to do some balancing. We sat down with some prominent ISTDP clinicians to discuss the shortcomings and downsides of ISTDP. Here’s the second part, an interview with Patricia Coughlin. You can find the first part here.

ON LEARNING ISTDP

Just how difficult is ISTDP to learn? Should learning ISTDP be easier? 

Patricia Coughlin presentation
Patricia Coughlin

Patricia Coughlin: I don’t think it’s possible or even desirable to make the complex and challenging task of helping someone change easy. As Rilke said,”...many things must happen, many things must go right, a whole constellation of events must be fulfilled, for one human being to successfully advise or help another.”  

Our desire for life and therapy to be easy can really backfire, giving us false expectations and setting us up for a sense of inadequacy. Life is hard and complicated – so is therapy.  The danger here is to oversimplify and get reductionistic in our approach.  I believe that is already happening in ISTDP and does us all a disservice.  The masters in most fields have a great ability to tolerate complexity and uncertainty.  We would do well to expand this capacity within ourselves.

ON JARGON and research

Unlocking the unconscious is sometimes described as a unique aspect of ISTDP. But other models also facilitate emotional breakthroughs and spontaneous reporting of previously repressed material. Could the jargon mystify the therapy process and put ISTDP at risk of distancing from other models?

Patricia: From what I can see, the masters in our field readily admit overlap between models and don’t claim an exclusive corner on the market of transformation.  Many approaches find a way to access the unconscious forces responsible for the patient’s symptoms and suffering and, in so doing, help the patient resolve previously unconscious conflicts. 

That said, the development of a systematic, yet flexible, method for reliably getting there – something the central dynamic sequence of ISTDP provides – seems to be a real contribution to the field.  The research seems to suggest that ISTDP is highly effective with cases that often fail in other treatments – character disorders, treatment resistant depression, functional disorders and conversion, for example.

ON RESEARCH GAPS

Even though there’s more and more research showing the efficacy of ISTDP as a whole, there’s still not so much high-quality research on the different ingredients of the therapy. What are some of the challenges with the specific ingredients of ISTDP?

Patricia: While we have not done much research in ISTDP on the specific elements, I have gathered data from other sources to support each step of the central dynamic sequence. This material has been outlined in both Lives Transformed and Maximizing Effectiveness in Dynamic Psychotherapy. It’s my contention that it is the combination of the six factors associated with positive outcomes that are responsible for the effectiveness of ISTDP. 

While often associated with a dramatic breakthrough of feelings, this is only one of six factors involved in the application of ISTDP. Understanding all the steps and being able to implement them effectively is essential to mastery. Too many are skipping over crucial steps, such as a dynamic inquiry in which patient and therapist develop an agreement on the problems to be addressed, goals to be achieved and tasks involved in the treatment or turning patients on defenses before pressing for the experience of feelings. This often undermines the alliance and derails the process.

ON IDEALIZATION AND DEVALUATION

Historically, the ISTDP community has unfortunately been subject to sect-like behavior such as a strong idealization of charismatic figures (such as Davanloo) along with exclusion and devaluation of critical voices. Is there something in particular that makes ISTDP vulnerable to this? What can we do to safeguard against this in the present and future?

Patricia: Sadly, this seems to be a tendency in human beings, not just practitioners of ISTDP. Look at our political situation here in the US.  Idealization, demonization, and splitting are rampant.  We need to take a stand against this.

I will never forget an interaction with a young trainee who came to a seminar, having read my books. He expressed disappointment when I acknowledged being confused by what was happening in a particular session. Of interest, the group has asked to see a case in which everything did not go smoothly, but rather one in which we had to ride some rough patches to get to a positive outcome. 

Despite this conscious desire, when I presented just such a case (which ended with a good outcome, by the way), the trainee said, “I am really upset. I need to idealize you- you are supposed to know everything.” I replied with something like, “I would suggest that idealizing anyone is ill advised. We all struggle. The point is not to be perfect but to be open to feedback and constantly learning. If you trust the UTA, it will guide you.”

He continued to protest. I found this baffling, yet this desire to have someone to idealize seems pervasive. We must do what we can to combat this.

OTHER LIMITATIONS AND WEAKNESSES

Do you see other major limitations or weaknesses in ISTDP? 

Patricia: The biggest one to my mind is the exclusive focus on feelings toward and in reaction to others – what one might refer to as “attachment affects“. As Blatt pointed out so eloquently in his classic book, The Polarities of Experience, human beings have two primary drives that motivate their behavior throughout life: 1) the need to attach securely to others and 2) the need to be autonomous, self defined and self directed. 

Many of our patients sacrifice one of these needs for the other. In most cases, they sacrifice self in a desperate attempt to maintain an attachment to the other. If we join them in this preoccupation with feelings toward others and neglect their own feelings, wishes, desires and goals, we could exacerbate their problems rather than ameliorate them.  We want to help patients feel all of their feelings – about themselves, as well as others – so they can be a solid self, capable of closeness with others.

Some limitations are not inherent in the model but involve the way it is sometimes taught.  We know from all the research that focusing on specific interventions, without a clear case conceptualization of the patient to help the clinician know what to do when, the treatment is likely to be ineffective.  A heavy focus on learning a method, if not combined with an equal focus on the person of the therapist – the very vehicle of transmission of the treatment itself – will be ineffective.

Do you find there are aspects of ISTDP that we have to address and change in order for the method to thrive? 

Patricia: Healthy expression of feelings. The exclusive focus on the experience of feelings and impulses, with a relative neglect on the issue of how these feelings can be expressed in a constructive manner. It seems as if there is an assumption that if we help patients abandon defenses and experience their feelings freely, they will automatically find healthy and constructive ways to communicate these feelings to others.  That’s a pretty big assumption. After the mixed feelings have been experienced and integrated, I ask how they plan to communicate these feelings to the others involved to assess whether they can do so constructively or need some help in that area.

It’s not enough to feel one’s feelings. We also have to help patients understand what the feelings mean. Patients often develop pathological beliefs about the self that perpetuate their suffering.  I’m thinking of a case of a man who was suffering from anxiety and depression, related to pathological mourning, following the death of his first born. As I helped him abandon defenses and face the rage and grief he had been suppressing, he felt better, but still did not share these feelings with his wife. It was only as we started to explore this, that his pathological beliefs that 1) grief will drive a woman crazy (as it had his mother); and 2) real men don’t cry, were exposed and re-examined.  

So helping patients to express feelings would be another step in the development of ISTDP?

Human beings are meaning-making machines. We are most often upset – not about what happened – but what we made it mean. In my own life, I interpreted my father’s tendency to keep an emotional distance from me as a personal rejection. I thought he just didn’t like me very much.  When I was 30 years old, my mother told me that he was born during the 1918 flu epidemic, on the very day his 18 month old brother died of the virus. Subsequently, two of his younger brothers died in childhood. His father died when he was only 42. In an instant, I understood that my father’s distance was not a sign of lack of love for me, but a defensive posture.

I was very sick as a child and often hospitalized. It was because he did love me and was afraid to lose me that he couldn’t bear to come visit me. My whole view of him, myself and our relationship changed in an instant. Just feeling my feelings about what I interpreted as rejection wouldn’t get me there. Of course I could still be sad and angry that he didn’t deal with this differently, but what I felt was enormous compassion for him and we got much closer as a result. Sometimes we need to help patients ask their family about life events in order for them to get more emotional clarity.


Here’s the first part of our series of articles on the limitations of ISTDP. Below you’ll find a list of our latest interviews:

The limitations of ISTDP. Part 1: Jon Frederickson

What are the limitations of ISTDP? What would a balanced view of ISTDP be like? Just as any approach to psychotherapy, ISTDP is subject to both idealization and devaluation. Over the past few years, we at ISTDPsweden.se have published quite a lot of positive stories and news about ISTDP. Now it’s time to do some balancing. We sat down with some prominent ISTDP clinicians to discuss the shortcomings and downsides of ISTDP. Here’s the first part, an interview with Jon Frederickson.

On SUITABILITY FOR ISTDP

As we’ve talked about before, ISTDP is not a panacea. Which type of problems and patients are not suitable for ISTDP? 

Jon Frederickson discussing a balanced view of ISTDP
Jon Frederickson

Jon Frederickson: Nothing is a panacea in the field of mental health. Types of problems not suitable for ISTDP would include the treatment of traumatic brain injury, neurocognitive deficits, and genuine autism spectrum disorders (not including those mistakenly diagnosed).

Generally, we should offer supportive and not exploratory psychotherapy to patients currently abusing drugs until we have built the affect tolerance that would make exploratory therapy possible. Likewise, some psychotic patients in a severe regression and severely depressed patients may require medication and supportive psychotherapy before a trial of exploratory therapy should be attempted.

ON LEARNING ISTDP

Just how difficult is ISTDP to learn? As far as I’ve heard, no one ever graduated from Davanloo’s training. Should learning ISTDP be easier? 

Jon: It’s not just a matter of ISTDP being hard to learn. Learning to be a really good therapist is hard. That is why it is relatively rare. Twenty percent of therapists get eighty percent of the good results. And that is true within each model of therapy. It is really hard to become a highly effective therapist in any model of therapy. You may be under the illusion that you’ve “learned” the model, but the outcome research shows that there is no relationship between our perception of our ability and our actual effectiveness.  

Should learning this be easier? Should learning to be a professional musician be easier? Should learning to be a chess master be easier? No.

It should be hard because it is hard. That is reality. However, in the case of psychotherapy: should our teaching be better? Yes.

Research shows that graduate training has no effect on therapist outcome. What a disaster! Should our supervision be better? Yes, because research shows that 93% of therapy supervision is inadequate and 35% harmful.

At least in music and chess, it is clear what skills need to be learned and there are materials which train students in those skills. We have no agreement on the fundamental skills necessary for effective practice in psychotherapy and no materials for training in those skills. So, in response to your question, yes and no. Learning a complex skill like psychotherapy should be just as hard as becoming a violinist.

Yet, it is currently way too difficult to achieve this skill level as therapists because of the poor quality of supervision generally available. As well as the inadequate, indeed, useless quality of graduate training. The useless seminars offered which do not show effective treatment, and the failure to use videotapes to develop an empirically validatable model of teaching and supervision.

In case you wonder if I am outraged by this state of affairs, you read me accurately.

ON JARGON

Unlocking the unconscious is sometimes described as a unique aspect of ISTDP. But other models also facilitate emotional breakthroughs and spontaneous reporting of previously repressed material. Could the jargon mystify the therapy process and put ISTDP at risk of distancing from other models?

Jon: Obviously, any emotionally transformative human experience involves a breakthrough to feelings that were previously out of awareness. It even happens at movies! One danger in any model occurs when we use jargon to “professionalize” our field and to create a sense of mystique such that outsiders “could not possibly understand” what goes on behind closed doors.

Jargon creates another danger: we might accept a piece of jargon, usually a description, and mistake it for an explanation. As a result, steps in logic are skipped, and flaws in an argument remain invisible. In case you wonder what I mean, here are some common vague terms which are ill defined and have come to mean everything: mindfulnessawareness, and superego. Here is a term which doesn’t mean what it claims: diagnosis. In fact, what we call diagnoses are merely a description of symptoms, not a diagnosis of their cause.

Do you think there’s a need for a conceptual “makeover” in ISTDP to facilitate dialogue with other models? 

Jon: I don’t think ISTDP needs a makeover as you suggest. I think all therapists in all models need to abandon vague concepts, acronyms, and made up words for plain English, or whatever your native language is. If you cannot explain what you are doing so it could be understood by an adolescent, either your language is a barrier, or you do not fully understand what you are trying to say.

We work with humans, speaking a human language of the heart. Any theory we describe should be able to be put in these terms. If we dropped jargon, we could even talk to other clinicians. As it is, today much clinical dialogue at conferences becomes useless because the exchange of abstractions takes the place of examining the actual data. And the narcissistic display of mysterious language becomes a way to avoid the humbling act of revealing one’s actual work.

ON SUPERSHRINKS AND RESEARCH GAPS

Even though there’s more and more research showing the efficacy of ISTDP as a whole, there’s still not so much high-quality research on the different ingredients of the therapy. A notable contribution is the recent Iranian study showing that ISTDP without challenge was just as effective as standard ISTDP. Given the lack of studies, ISTDP is largely an “oral tradition” where the experience of specific prominent therapists (be that Davanloo or yourself, for example) is very influential. What are some of the challenges with the specific ingredients of ISTDP?

Jon: The Iranian study was important, but like all studies, it’s easy to forget the context. In fact, challenge is appropriate only with about 25-30% of patients, the ones who primarily regulate feelings with isolation of affect. Challenge is not appropriate for the other seventy percent of patients who are in repression and fragility. So it should be no surprise that ISTDP without challenge would be effective, because that is the effective form of ISTDP for 70% of patients!

When students try something I suggest, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Why? Sometimes they aren’t doing what I suggest. Sometimes I was wrong; I misread the patient, and the patient’s response gives a clearer idea of how to proceed. Sometimes, the therapist is initially helpful without realizing it, but is unable to understand and categorize the patient’s subsequent responses. I don’t think the issue is the individual clinician per se, although the effect of the therapist is powerful. I see repeatedly that there are certain patterns of response across patients and across cultures. When we address these patterns – feelings, anxiety, defenses, and transference resistance – we find patterns of response to intervention.

Now we get to the interesting question: the relationship between principles and rules. For instance, when a patient is struggling to bear mixed feelings, the principle is to help the patient bear mixed feelings without anxiety shifting out of the striated muscles. Sometimes, to make things simple, people make up a rule: “Thou shalt pressure to feelings in this way. Repeat after me!” The student, alas, learns to become a clone who follows rules rather than a person who operates according to principles. There are many interventions that could embody the principle of building affect tolerance. And those interventions could be in response to specific words or dynamics the patient has used. They could arise from the therapist’s experience, feelings, and intuition. They could arise from their mutual co-created responsiveness.

In music, the voice leading (how voices related to each other, for instance, in a fugue) was not supposed to have parallel fifths. That was a rule. Suddenly Debussy comes along and he uses all kinds of parallel voice leading to create effects of great beauty. What had been a rule was revealed to be subject to a higher principle. Thus, it could be broken.

Alas, the early phase of ISTDP training often involved people following rules without understanding the overarching principles, to which those rules are subject. If we ritualistically follow rules, therapy is very easy to learn, though robotic. If we follow principles, then we understand the purpose of our interventions, and that allows for creativity in the therapist and responsiveness to the patient.

Good therapy is like jazz. A jazz musician knows the key, the melody, the harmonies, the underlying principles and he improvises based on that underlying structure. He appears to be breaking rules, yet he is guided by underlying principles. A good teacher orients you to principles whether he is teaching you chess, music, or therapy.

ON IDEALIZATION AND DEVALUATION

Historically, the ISTDP community has unfortunately been subject to sect-like behavior such as a strong idealization of charismatic figures (such as Davanloo) along with exclusion and devaluation of critical voices. Is there something in particular that makes ISTDP vulnerable to this? What can we do to safeguard against this in the present and future? 

Freud - a balanced view
Sigmund Freud

Jon: As we know from the work of Bion and other group theorists, when humans form groups, groups become irrational. 

Friedrich Nietzche said that earth is the insane asylum of the universe. Every day we see plenty of evidence for this. Idealization of teachers happens in all models to greater and lesser degrees. Think of Freud, Klein, Davanloo, Rogers, or Beck. Every one of them has been idealized, and each of them has been devalued.

There will always be some people who want to idealize their leader and devalue the rest. We have to understand this as not a problem of a given model, but a problem of the human condition. To avoid the anxiety that our knowledge is partial, our theory will be changed and surpassed is the way of all scientific knowledge, and that whatever we create today will be forgotten in the mists of time, we seek magic.

We idealize a model and view it as the final, complete answer. We idealize some figure. Then we devalue other models and teachers. Then we imagine we are part of some secret society of superior therapists in contrast to all those “others.” This pattern has been described in cults, and, sadly, this kind of cult formation is common in the therapy field. All we can do is make ourselves aware of this temptation to idealize and devalue.

Melanie Klein

And we can also step back and realize what makes us anxious: 1) our knowledge is always partial; 2) we will never have all the answers; 3) we will always be flawed and fail with some people; 4) we will never have the final, complete understanding of the human condition in our lifetime; and 5) whatever we achieve, whatever we build is transient and will disappear. This is reality.

When we cannot bear this death anxiety, we engage in the denial of death through the magical claim that we have found the eternal answer, the eternal group, and the theory that has somehow transcended time. Due to death anxiety, this pattern will probably always recur in humanity, including groups of therapists.

OTHER LIMITATIONS AND WEAKNESSES

Do you see other major limitations or weaknesses in ISTDP? 

Jon: My major concern here does not have to do with ISTDP but with the psychotherapy field as a whole. Our understandings all too often are not linked to other areas of knowledge such as sociology, group theory, family studies, and economics. These different fields appear as silos. Take for instance the study of patients who suffer from borderline personality structure or psychotic patients. There is so much good research on the relationship between their psychological difficulties and predictable patterns of family dysfunction.

Yet this research keeps getting forgotten, only to be done again by the next generation. These patients are often examined only from the individual perspective, and we forget the family system that generates these patterns. We look at psychological issues, yet we seem to have forgotten the role of social class and capitalism in character development. Fromm wrote much on that, yet today in the US it is a taboo to recognize the role of class.

Or look at racism in the US or the caste system in India as examples of the transgenerational transmission of trauma. And then there is the tendency to underestimate the role of neurocognitive deficits and brain injury in borderline and psychotic patients. The psychotherapy field has become so focused on the individual, that we easily lose sight of the group and family context, the class context, and the biological context. Then we end up with these different research silos: each reducing the patient to one of these categories, when we need to open up to the interrelationships between them.

Do you find there are aspects of ISTDP that we have to address and change in order for the method to thrive? 

Jon: It depends on how you define ISTDP. Some describe it as the method. If so, that is ritualism, and, yes, that should be changed. Some describe it as what some teachers do. If so, that is idol worship, and that should be changed. For some, it is a set of rules, and that should be changed.

For me, ISTDP is a set of meta-theoretical principles which allow us to integrate any of a number of techniques. The most important principle is to assess each patient response to intervention to find out if you met the patient’s need in the moment. And these principles are based on a psychoanalytic theory of childhood development and attachment theory. The techniques of cognitive-behavioral therapy, somatic experiencing, gestalt therapy, or internal family systems, you name it, can be incorporated because the key issue, no matter what technique you use in the moment, is: am I meeting the patient’s need in this moment as revealed in her last response to intervention?

In this sense, I am suggesting that we need to move beyond the idea of a model toward an integrative way of thinking and responding. Models can only point toward that. Replication of models does not lead to good outcome. We have to foster a kind of integrative emotional feeling and responsiveness in our work that models and theories can only point toward.

The best therapists in each model look surprisingly alike according to research. This suggests to me that the key factor is not just their model, but a quality of thinking, feeling, responsiveness, and self-reflectiveness that is filtered through their model.

It’s like driving. It doesn’t matter what kind of car we see. It’s the nut behind the wheel.


Jon Frederickson’s latest book Co-Creating Safety: Healing the Fragile Patient came out a couple of weeks ago.

If you liked this article, you might find our other material interesting. Following this link you can find more material in english. Below you’ll find a list of our recent interviews.

Online presentation with Patricia Coughlin

Patricia Coughlin presentation
Patricia Coughlin

Mastering the trial therapy in ISTDP – AN online presentation with Patricia Coughlin

At the end of November this year, Patricia Coughlin will give an online presentation on the topic of the ISTDP “trial therapy”. ISTDP often begins with a longer therapy session, usually 2-3 hours, where we assess the patient and the suitability of the treatment model to the patient – the trial therapy. Research has shown that this first session in itself can have long-lasting benefits on mood symptoms and interpersonal problems.

In this video based webinar you will learn how to work effectively with a highly resistant patient with both a character disorder and anxiety and depression. You will observe the process of a trial therapy, in which a specific set of interventions is employed as a vehicle for determining the nature of the unconscious conflicts responsible for the patients symptoms and suffering. We will also discuss suitability for treatment with Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy (ISTDP).  The webinar is organized by a group of ISTDP therapists in Oslo, Norway: Psykologvirke

Date: November 23rd

Time: CET 12.00 – 20.00

Price: 1800 NOK

Registration and more information: click here


PATRICIA COUGHLIN

Patricia Coughlin Della Selva, Ph.D., is a licensed Clinical Psychologist with over 35 years of clinical experience. Currently she is Clinical Faculty at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. Over the past 20 years she has written professionally, given presentations at professional conferences and conducted workshops for mental health professionals internationally. Currently, she is conducting training groups in New York, Australia, Denmark, and Poland. Patricia last presented in Sweden in the fall of 2016.

Patricia has authored three books which are all considered essential readings for anyone interested in ISTDP: Intensive Short-term Dynamic Psychotherapy: Theory and Technique (1996), Lives Transformed (2006; in collaboration with Dr. David Malan) and Maximizing Therapeutic Effectiveness in Dynamic Psychotherapy (2016).


A while back we did an interview with Patricia Coughlin, which you can find here.

Here are some of our other recent interviews:

You can find other articles and materials in english by following this link.

Dion Nowoweiski: “We tailor the treatment protocol to the individual”

This is an interview with the Australian ISTDP therapist and researcher Dion Nowoweiski. We reported on one of his recent publications a while back, showing promising effectiveness of ISTDP in the treatment of eating disorders. In the interview we discuss the publication and what makes ISTDP unique in the treatment of eating disorders.

Earlier this year you published one of the first empirical articles on ISTDP in the treatment of eating disorders. How do you feel about the publication? 
We’re very pleased. It took longer than anticipated but it was a real team effort from all of the authors. Each author contributed in a unique way, but it goes without saying that this publication was only possible because of the dataset that Allan Abbass has been accruing over the years.

We were able to find a small sample of patients with eating disorders who had been treated through his service in Halifax. Typically, you would find these kinds of patients presenting to specialist eating disorders services or other non-tertiary mental health services. I think one of the more interesting aspects of this study is that ISTDP may be a suitable alternative to the established eating disorder treatments currently offered, many of which show a less than 50% response rate.

Dion Nowoweiski portrait
Dion Nowoweiski

In my opinion, that’s what makes this study so important. It offers an alternative treatment paradigm for the sub-specialty of eating disorders as many of the traditional treatment paradigms are limited by issues such as poor response, high dropout rates, burnout of professionals, high demand and low capacity of mental health services and high costs associated with inpatient care, amongst some of them.

Can you tell us about the background of the study? 
The study was the brainchild of Allan Abbass. We had already done some work on a previous publication on eating disorders, so he approached me to ask if I would be interested in writing up an article of the datafile he has been collecting. We were trying to see if there was a case for whether ISTDP could be a valid treatment protocol for people with eating disorders and whether there was any evidence as to whether there were any cost savings for cases treated with ISTDP. This study is part of a series of publications that he’s been working on in relation to showing cost savings related to ISTDP in other areas, for example, emergency departments.

Why is ISTDP the treatment of choice for eating disorders? 
I wouldn’t say that ISTDP is the treatment of choice for eating disorders per se. But I do think it’s a very good treatment option for people who suffer from ego-syntonic symptoms. As many of you will know, an eating disorder can be a very difficult condition to treat. I believe that one of the factors that contributes to this is the syntonicity of the symptoms. Through my clinical work, I have found that a large proportion of people with eating disorders tend to value their eating disorder symptoms. They don’t see themselves as separate from their resistance.

Separating patient from resistance. From Allan Abbass’s book “Reaching through resistance” (Seven leaves press, 2015)

For example, for many people suffering from Anorexia Nervosa, there is a strong sense of accomplishment associated with the level of self-denial required to maintain a restrictive intake of food or with the level of self-discipline needed to maintain an excessive exercise regime. Both of these symptoms (restriction and excessive exercising) are criteria for an eating disorder diagnosis.

Yet, imposing conditions on these behaviours – which is common in many treatment models for eating disorders – fails. It’s quite possible that this fails, because the patient values these symptoms as part of a mechanism that helps them maintain a sense of self-control and reduces their fear of harm (either from being overweight or from their own impulses).

In ISTDP for eating disorders, we aren’t trying to take anything away from the patient. We’re trying to help give them choices over their life by identifying the origin of their difficulties and seeing how their eating disorder symptoms function as a mechanism that, while once might have been necessary, is no longer helpful and preventing health. By doing this, it becomes more of a conscious choice for the patient to give up the life of suffering that they had once valued. I see this as a very unique contribution of ISTDP to eating disorders.

Compared to other models that try to encourage abstinence or control over impulses to binge and purge, I find ISTDP a very helpful model as I believe it is more focused on helping people change from the inside rather than forcing someone to change from the outside.

Can you talk us through the specific things to take into consideration when initiating ISTDP for a person struggling with eating disorders? 
Identifying the problem that the patient wants to work on is one of the first steps in the psychotherapy process. When you ask the standard Trial Therapy question of “what problems can I help you with?“, many of them respond by saying “I have an eating disorder“. Obviously, this doesn’t tell us anything about their problem.

How is your eating disorder a problem for you?” is a usual follow up. But that depends on what else is happening when the patient answers my question: non-verbal signals and so on. Without going into those details here, the point I’m wanting to emphasize is that it’s a mistake to believe that the eating disorder is the problem. That’s just a set of symptoms given a label.

But this kind of answer illustrates one type of difficulty often encountered in treating this population. It may seem like the person is saying they see their eating disorder as a problem, but on further examination we find that the eating disorder is a coping mechanism. For some people, that can be clarified early on in the Trial Therapy session. For others, I may not even get to do clarification work as their anxiety tolerance may be more problematic indicating their motivation to change is not the issue we need to address at this early stage. These cases require capacity building prior to any defense work.

The mistake I used to make was to assume that if a patient could formulate a response to my question, that meant they weren’t “over threshold”. But I’ve found that for many people with a significant and chronic eating disorder history, they have adapted to starvation and have learned to function as though they weren’t over threshold – even though they sometimes are. It’s taken time to recognize this, as it’s a different type of presentation of a person who is over threshold in the more usual ways.

Understanding the starvation effects on the brain is vital at this stage and being able to recognize whether the person sitting in front of you can think clearly is so important. They may not look like they’re over threshold or suffering from starvation affects as they can reason, but when that reasoning starts to take on a circularity to it, it’s best to evaluate whether the person is fragile. For example, when you begin to challenge circular reasoning in the form of the patient saying things like “I know I’m underweight”, but if I eat more I will get fat and then I won’t be healthy”, the patient can lose concentration, become confused, appear distant or shut down in some other way. I have learned that this usually signals issue with starvation on the brain and/or poor anxiety tolerance. It’s like saying “if you interrupt my circular reasoning (defense) and I have no other mechanism for dealing with the feelings you just triggered in me by pointing out my flawed logic, I need to protect you from the impulses attached to those feelings by dissociating.

In your recent article you mention that perhaps other treatments aren’t effective for eating disorders because of insufficient attention to “structural deficits”. Can you explain what you mean? Is this an ISTDP-specific thing, or would mainstream psychoanalysis suffice?  
I don’t know whether this comes from ISTDP specifically or if it’s from mainstream psychoanalysis, as I haven’t read much on psychoanalysis. I’m pretty much just an ISTDP practitioner and haven’t branched out very much. I think this helps me as I suspect that trying to blend or combine models would confuse me too much and would result in me exceeding my learning threshold.

What is meant by that statement though (“structural deficits…“) is that as a diagnostic group, people with eating disorders can vary so much. Not understanding the psychological capacity of the individual sitting in front of you is probably not good enough. Some cases may have a neurotic structure as described by Davanloo in that they are a resistant case with little need to restructure defenses or build capacity.

Other cases may have suffered from overwhelming attachment disruptions at an earlier age and therefore they haven’t developed the same level of ego capacity as other cases. For these cases, under some level of activation of the somatic pathway of emotions, they run into problems if they only have access to the less mature defense mechanisms of projection, splitting and projective identification. Trying to offer these cases the same treatment as those with a more intact psychological structure seems unfair to me. It’s like asking someone with one leg to race against Usain Bolt and get upset with them if they lose.

I prefer a model where we tailor the treatment protocol to the individual rather than making the individual fit the treatment protocol. Unfortunately I’ve worked in specialist eating disorder services where the latter is the common service model and it used to frustrate me to see how patient’s would be selected for treatment based on whether they met the requirements of a specific treatment modality based purely on the history of the person, without even considering the psychological makeup of the person.

What are some of the main challenges doing ISTDP for ED?
Many of the challenges I’ve encountered when working with people suffering from an eating disorder from an ISTDP perspective can be categorised as 1) relating to the individual and 2) relating to the broader treatment system.

The issues relating to the individual are linked to what I mention earlier and is about working with a syntonic defensive system and working with fragile clients where capacity building is needed. As you know, and as explained by Allan, in ISTDP we need to complete a thorough psychodiagnostics assessment. This begins at the outset of treatment and is focused on helping us identify the structure/organisation of the defensive system we’re working with and the degree to which the defenses are syntonic to the patient. We also need to know about the anxiety discharge pathways and whether there is a threshold to smooth muscle activation or cognitive-perceptual disruption. And at what level of rise in the complex transference feelings the different thresholds are crossed.

Although these may sound like simple enough concepts on paper, the ability to recognize what this looks like in the room, when we’re working with a patient, is something that needed to develop over time and came with doing more treatment for me. As I’ve did more and more treatment, my ability to be confident with my skills improved as I felt more comfortable with my assessment of what’s going on in the patient. This was something that I found needed to be done more collaboratively with patients than what I had been doing early on in my career. In the beginning of my career, this was something that I didn’t understood properly. But over time I found that the more I collaborated with the patient on what I was observing, the more feedback I got and the more conscious alliance it created.

The other issues relates to doing ISTDP work in a field that appears to be quite static (as opposed to dynamic). The mainstream models of treatment for eating disorders are sometimes quite narrow and I found them somewhat punitive at times. During my time working on inpatient services, I found that the model was very rigid and my efforts to step outside of that framework were usually met with quite a bit of resistance from others.  What I learned from this has been invaluable for me, because it really taught me that we operate – as therapists – within systems and these systems can be resistant too. So, if you’re working within the eating disorder field, my advice is to take the skills you have gained through ISTDP about working with resistance and use them to help you make the system more open to different ways of working with people.

Moving on to you, what are you struggling to learn right now? 
Humility……but that’s my lifelong struggle. In relation to ISTDP, my focus currently is on learning how to teach ISTDP. I’ve been lucky in my ISTDP training to learn from so many skilled and kind people, but I know there are lots of other people I haven’t learned from. So, I’m trying to take what I’ve learned from people like Allan Abbass, Joel Town and Steve Arthey and to apply it in a way that allows me to remain consistent to the model, but flexible enough to still be me and to engage learners in the model.

It’s a complex model and it takes time to learn and I truly think it works best when we’re ourselves because the model is really about connecting. When I started out, I used phrases that came from articles and books, or from watching other people’s tapes. I think this is completely normal, but as I progressed I noticed that I did less of that and that seemed to make a difference. I still used pressure, clarification and challenge, but I was doing it as me. So my struggle is about translating that into my training of others.

Do you have other studies in the pipeline? Will we see an Australian RCT of ISTDP for ED in the future? 
Currently I’m taking a break from writing. It’s a labour of love that I currently don’t have the love for. But everyday is a research day in the office. Every day is about gathering the data and analyzing it with my co-researchers (the patients). Although I’m not doing RCT:s at the moment, I still consider myself a researcher and encourage everyone doing this work to adopt a similar approach. Every session is about gathering the data and looking at it and making sense of it and putting it to good use with the patient, whenever I can.

If you dream a bit, where would you like ISTDP and the treatment of eating disorders to go within the next 5 or 10 years? 
That’s an easy one to answer… it’s been my dream from the start: To see ISTDP-based residential treatment facilities for eating disorders. I think the model has so much to offer and that it could make such an important contribution to the development of eating disorders treatment. I suspect that offering it in that format would help bring about some great results. My utmost respect goes out to people like Kristy Lamb from BOLD Health who set out down that path for addictions, and so many of the other amazing researchers in ISTDP like Katie Aafjes-Van Doorn at Yeshiva University, Joel Town and Allan Abbass at the Centre of Emotions and Health in Halifax, Canada. We’re so lucky to have those people producing empirical research for the rest of us to have. It’s that kind of leadership that will help us bring more ISTDP therapy into the world.


Want to read more about ISTDP and eating disorders? Make sure you check out this old gem by Dion, Steve Arthey and Allan Abbass on eating disorders and fragility: Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy for Severe Behavioural Disorders: A Focus on Eating Disorders

If you liked this Dion Nowoweiski interview, you might find some of our other interviews interesting. Related to this one, you might be interested in the interviews with Kristy Lamb, Allan Abbass or José Verpoort-Douw. Here’s a list of our eight latest interviews:

José Verpoort-Douw: “Working in a residential setting is a very educational process for everyone”

In the midst of the CoVid-19 global pandemic we found some time for an interview with José Verpoort-Douw. José is a psychiatrist and ISTDP clinician in the Netherlands, running an ISTDP residential treatment center called “The ISTDP-House“. Before that, she was one of the lead clinicians at the state funded residential treatment center for personality disorders “De Viersprong”.

You’ve been managing the ISTDP-House for a few years now. How does it feel? 
It feels great!

What’s the background of the ISTDP-House?
The idea behind the ISTDP-House was born in February 2016. At that time I was the last man standing – so to speak – in the Viersprong working with ISTDP. At that time this was mainly a daytime treatment program. The management had decided to stop offering ISTDP at the Viersprong all together and my colleagues – José Gelens, art therapist and Tineke Roks, social worker – were suddenly told to end the group we had in treatment at that time.

José Verpoort-Douw

Coincidentally, at the time we had asked the group of patients to give their consent to make a film about the treatment program, to present in Amsterdam at the IEDTA 2016 conference. The patients enthusiastically had agreed upon this idea. They told us that their most important reason for this was that they desperately wanted to keep this treatment program alive. They said it was the best treatment they had received so far for their personality related problems. And because their privacy was at stake, we shared the decision of the management with them. So they would know that despite our film/our presentation, the program was about to stop.

To our surprise and our admiration this patient group decided to start a petition to prevent the Viersprong from ending the treatment program. Within no time the petition had over 400 signatures: ex-patients, their network, colleagues from near and afar and so on. The patients also went to the radio to talk about the treatment program and the plans to stop it. Following this, the Viersprong decided to cancel its plans of stopping the ISTDP program. They even decided to make it a larger program! But not with me, I thought… I had had enough.

We felt very supported and in a winning mood, of course, and Kees Cornelissen and me decided to pick up an old idea of ours: to start a private initiative for ISTDP treatment for patients with severe personality pathology. And two years later, in February 2018, we hired a house where the ISTDP-House was founded.

To be your own boss with no threats of managers thinking everything should be better, more innovative, more cost-efficient, more hip or more whatever. It feels great! And being able to adjust the program according to what you think is the best way forward. Patients are very satisfied with the program, just as they were at the Viersprong. Here’s our page on a site for health care reviews (it is in Dutch, I’m afraid).

“After previous treatments I came to the ISTDP-House a bit skeptical. I could not reach the pain that was so deeply hidden. But soon I felt listened to and that gave confidence. In a safe environment for me, the therapists peeled the onion to get to the core of the blocked pain. Together with the group and the openness and vulnerability of everyone, I was able to take great steps. Now that I am finishing this process, I have regained peace and positivity and will certainly recommend this treatment to everyone.”
– Patient review at Zorgkaartnederland.nl (our translation)

Why is ISTDP a good treatment of choice for personality disorders? 
ISTDP is the best choice for personality problems for principally two reasons. The first one is that personality disorders are deeply rooted within the person and are built around feelings about very painful experiences in the past. To solve these problems and these patterns, patients not only need to think differently about these experiences, but also to feel differently about them. In order to get lifelong change.

The second reason is that psychotherapy has the best yield if the therapist believes firmly in the method. That is the reason that if I am to apply psychotherapy to patients with personality disorders – ISTDP is the only frame of reference I believe in – then this will be the only frame of reference in which I can be effective. 

Did you manage to get state funding – as in De viersprong – or is this a completely private clinic where the patients pay themselves? 
The Netherlands have a good insurance network for mental health. Thus, the treatment at the ISTDP-House is paid for by insurance companies. It’s not as much money as at De Viersprong or at other big mental health institutes, but since we have less costs we manage to make it viable. I mean, we have no managers, no financial department or Human Resources department and so on.

We also ask patients to contribute in the costs if they can afford it. Our policy is that everyone who needs this treatment must be able to acquire it. Of course people with personality problems are not the most successful people in work and financial issues! So, we are glad we don’t have to ask them to pay for it themselves in the case they cannot afford it.

The Netherlands have been pioneering both ISTDP residential treatment and ISTDP group therapy. Can you describe your model?
At the moment the ISTDP-House is the only place in the Netherlands where ISTDP is offered in a residential setting. As stated earlier personality disorders are deeply rooted and by having a very intensive treatment, within a group, it is possible to make a difference in a relatively short period of time.

Our treatment duration is one year. Within this year there’s a three-month period of daytime treatment, three days a week, in a group of eight patients. They all suffer from personality disorders, mainly Cluster C. By working in a group you have several advantages. For example, in a group patients are able to confront and support each other in a very effective way. Also, to self-attack is one thing, but to see someone else do this is something completely different. Patients want to shout: stop doing that to yourself! And then they realize: Oh my god. I do this to myself too! This experience in the group setting can be very powerful.

José-Verpoort-Douw is working at the ISTDP-House
ISTDP-House in Bergen Op Zoom

What else can you tell us about the structure of the program?
It’s a big and difficult question. Well- we have a three-day day-treatment. Patients have therapy from 9.30 – 16.30 each day, where everything is done within the group of 8 patients. This is the schedule:

Monday
9.30 – 10.30. Week opening. The patients report on how they have been working on their therapeutic focus during the last four days at home and what they plan to do for the next three days in the daytime treatment. At this point, two or three patients get a “focus sentence” from the staff: One sentence pinting out what we thought of the progress of the last period and the second sentence what we think they should focus on for the next period. The focus sentences are on a list in the living room of the patients for everyone to see.
10.45. Arts therapy.
12.30. Lunch with social workers – this is a therapy session too.
13.30. Physical therapy
15.00. Sociotherapy and closing of the day.

Tuesday and Wednesday
9.30 – 12.00. The day starts with two individual sessions with group attending, followed by a group session of 45 minutes. A social worker or arts therapist is attending as a co-therapist.
12.30. Lunch
13.30. Arts therapy
15.00. Sociotherapy.

At the end of the Wednesday we make plans for how to work on the respective focusses during the next four days in their own environment.

I hope this gives you an overall idea of the structure. The pressure to change your patterns is high.

What are some of the main challenges with the residential format?
Personally I think the biggest challenge is the portrayal of anger towards other group members. As a lot of patients have run into real violence towards themselves as a child, this can be very disturbing and hard to observe. But we usually find a way to handle this, and especially the transfer after the violence helps everyone put things back in perspective. Also it helps group members to realize and accept that they themselves have these primitive feelings inside them as well.

The differences in the ego-adaptive capacity of the different group members is something where much work needs to be done. But patients are very well capable of understanding and accepting that what works for one patients might be too difficult or too disturbing for someone else, and they support each other in doing what is best for them. Most of the time I see little challenges and a lot of opportunities!

Do you collect data from your patients or do other kinds of research? A big obstacle to implementing ISTDP in Sweden is the lack of robust evidence, so it’s always interesting to see data from the real world. 
Sure we do! We are obliged to do so, using ROM, as the insurance refuses to pay if you don’t have enough questionnaires filled out by the patients (you might read the irony in this sentence). But we decided to take this obligation serious. This is a rather expensive treatment, and we are a very small company, so we see it as our duty to prove that we are worth every penny (euro cent, that is). We are having some trouble to translate our ROM-outcomes to an effect size.

The most striking results we have at this moment is the patient satisfaction measure (CQi-AMB). We aim at a higher score than 7 on two questions: did you reach your treatment goals? and would you recommend this treatment to patients with similar symptoms? On the first question we average almost an 8 and on the second question almost a 9. This makes us proud – but it might not be what you need as “robust evidence”. We’re in the process of using the BSI to calculate effect sizes and so on.

At the Amsterdam presentation you showed a “head-on collision in concert”, with the patients helping the therapists out. Can you explain what that means? Is this something that you still encourage? 
The concept is simple. Head-on collision in concert means that you and the patients of the group help one patient confront his or her resistance. We still do it. Do we encourage it? Well, it depends. On the one hand it depends a lot on the skills of the therapists and also – which might sound strange to some – on the skills of the patients. Sometimes the patients are very skilled in confronting each other on a moment-to-moment basis – sometimes not so much, which can be rather unhelpful and frustrating. It is not a technique you can find in the literature, as far as I know, but it is something I invented – in concert so to say – with the two colleagues you saw me with in Amsterdam: Tineke Roks and Josephine Gelens.

A while back – before this whole Corona experience – we had a patient who started crying whenever she was angry. This was pointed out to her in the individual sessions, but she had trouble admitting it. The group picked it up and each time she started crying (except of course, when there was real sadness!) the group asked her to stop crying and see together how she had just perceived the individual who “made her” cry. After a few times she began to see the pattern and it helped her a lot.

Moving on, what are some of the things you are struggling to learn as a therapist at this moment?
I am struggling not to get involved in rationalization instead of confrontation, clarification and challenge! Also I tend to be the hardest working person in the therapeutic process, giving the patient the opportunity to lay back and see how very well I am trying to help them. So I struggle to improve this!

Sometimes the group of patients help me out with this. After the individual session – the patient group attends the individual sessions for joint learning – they sometimes are a little bit angry at the patient. They say: José was working so hard for you and you did nothing on behalf of yourself, that really annoyed me. Then I know. I did it again! I was overworking. So working in a residential setting is a very educational process for everyone, not only for the patients.

What do you envision for the future of ISTDP?
Dreaming about the future… I would really like to think about the ISTDP-House concept becoming a standard approach, applied all over the world for patients with personality disorders. I really would like that!

ISTDP has been implemented and evaluated in residential settings in a few places around the world. Results from De Viersprong in the Netherlands have been reported in this book by Kees Cornelissen, the Drammen clinic in southern Norway has been covered in several published papers while data from the Bridges Rehab in Arizona was published last year. All of this data is very encouraging, but high-quality RCT-studies are needed to draw definitive conclusions about the effects of the model.


If you liked this José Verpoort-Douw interview you might be interested in our other interviews. Concerning ISTDP clinics and group treatment, we talked to Kristy Lamb a while ago who’s running an ISTDP treatment center in California. You can find all of our english content here. Below you’ll find our latest interviews:

Patricia Coughlin: “ISTDP is a psychoanalytic method”

Here’s an interview with Patricia Coughlin. In September this year, the Swedish society for ISTDP will have the great pleasure to welcome Patricia to Malmö – if all goes according to plan. We sat down with her to talk about learning ISTDP, about sexual conflict, about psychoanalysis and more.

Patricia Coughlin Malmö
Patricia Coughlin

How do you feel about coming back to Sweden to present? 
I am delighted to return to Sweden and welcome the opportunity!

How did you end up becoming a therapist and later on specializing in ISTDP?
I knew from an early age that I was meant to be a psychologist. I pursued this goal with great focus and determination, obtaining my PhD at the age of 25. I was always interested in depth – in understanding the patient (and myself) in a profound way. I was most interested in what was happening beneath the surface, in the unconscious. All of my early education and training was in psychoanalytic/psychodynamic theory and practice. Like Davanloo, I became frustrated and guilty about erratic results with interpretive methods. Many patients came to understand their difficulties, but only some transferred that learning into change. Meeting Davanloo in 1988 and watching tapes of the Machine Gun Woman, the German Architect, and others, was a life altering experience. I saw the unconscious crack open in the most unmistakable way, when the therapist actively intervened to identify and intensify the patient’s core conflicts. I needed to learn that! 

How did you experience training with Davanloo? 
I had good experiences with Dr. Davanloo. He was always respectful and very helpful. I learned more from him than anyone about how to intervene rapidly and effectively. I was in a core group in Montreal for three years. Most of the time, I was the only woman in the group. Many in the group had been training with Davanloo for decades, yet very few seemed to be able to master the technique. Why was that?

In my own estimation, supervision, without teaching, gets limited results. There was little reference to the theory upon which ISTDP was built. He just assumed we already knew analytic theory. Luckily, I did, so I could employ the techniques in order to gain rapid access to the unconscious. Then, all my former knowledge, skill and training, aided me in helping the patient resolve the unconscious conflicts responsible for his symptoms and suffering.

Davanloo was very impersonal in his interaction with trainees. The lack of focus on the person of the therapist was the other factor that I thought contributed to problems in learning and growing. I have tried to include a good deal of teaching, as well as a focus on dynamic case formulation and personal development of each trainee in my groups, in order to enhance the learning experience. My trainees learn the method and the theory it is based upon, and develop as people, as well as clinicians.

My experiences with Davanloo were good while I was training with him, but he cut me off, as he has everyone who goes off on their own. I haven’t heard from him since I left training, but have heard that he denies knowing me. He has done this with everyone he has ever trained, so I don’t take it personally. At the same time, this way of treating people gives ISTDP a bad name and has undermined the method expanding more widely and rapidly.

What’s your perspective on the relationship between psychoanalysis and ISTDP? 
ISTDP is a psychoanalytic method. In many ways, this technique is similar to Freud’s early work, in which he was quite active and confrontational. Over time he got more passive and pessimistic, not in the least part due to being a Jew who was driven out of his country. For many reasons, he became increasingly pessimistic about human nature all together.

Davanloo felt Freud took a wrong turn when he decided to “bow to the superego’s resistance, which sees our efforts come to nothing”. Instead, he took up resistance as soon as it was apparent, inviting the patient to face and experience the feelings he has been avoiding, in order to heal. He also put pressure on the patient to decide whether to continue hiding and avoiding painful realities and feelings or to face them courageously in order to heal. By identifying and intensifying inner conflict and ambivalence, he was able to unlock the unconscious. 

His methods are all used pre-interpretively. It’s for those patients who are locked in by defenses and unavailable for a therapeutic alliance. Once the defenses break down, and the feelings break through into consciousness, dynamic therapy ensues. Many confuse the part with the whole, and the means for the end, but his method is used to open the unconscious. Once the unconscious is open and fluid, working through previously unconscious conflicts, to a new and healthy end is the order of the day. I think this whole mid phase of therapy has been neglected in ISTDP. My colleague Jonathan Entis and I are writing a book about this presently.

Sexuality used to be a central theme in psychotherapy education and writing. This seems to have changed and psychotherapy training nowadays hardly deals with the topic at all. Or that’s at least my impression. Maybe that’s different if you’re trying to become an analyst. Are we past the time when sexuality was a central aspect of psychotherapy? 
In my experience, many patients struggle with conflicts regarding sexual feelings and impulses, as well as those regarding rivalry and competition. The idea that we only have one kind of conflict – guilt over rage toward loved ones – is dangerously narrow. When we develop a set idea about the origin of the patient’s difficulties before meeting and assessing him, we will be prone to confirmation bias. It is essential to keep an open and curious mind and to evaluate the nature, intensity and history of the patient’s problems, in order to ascertain the nature of conflicts responsible for them The neglect of these other conflicts and our narrow focus contributes to poor outcomes. I have seen many patients who suffer from jealousy and rivalry conflicts get no help from other clinicians. It is important that we take all the data into consideration.

So does ISTDP offer unique insights about sexuality and sexual conflict?
The insight about the origins of conflicts regarding sexuality, rivalry and competition are not unique to ISTDP, but confirm psychoanalytic notions of the Oedipal conflict and sibling rivalry. The rage toward the competitor, along with forbidden sexual desires for family members, generates anxiety and defenses that undermine sexual pleasure and performance and can also contribute to a pattern of staying in the position of the loser. Inhibitions about “winning” and “beating” rivals are common and can be traced to Oedipal and sibling rivalry. Understanding these conflicts and the analytic ideas associated with them are important in helping clinicians identify and resolve them, both within themselves, and in their patients.

What are some of the aspects of ISTDP that still are in need of development? 
ISTDP, like many therapeutic models developed over the last 50 years, focuses almost exclusively on conflicts around attachment. The need to attach in a secure fashion to others is only one of two primary drives in operation from birth to death. The other is the innate tendency to be a separate, unique individual. The need for autonomy, self definition, and self determination is just as important as the need for attachment. If we focus exclusively on attachment, we can support the patient’s problem, which is often an excessive reliance on support and validation from others. 

Attending to the patient’s sense of self, so that he can feel solid and secure within himself, is capable of self regulation, self definition, self mastery, and intimacy with self, as well as other, is often neglected. Getting these two drives in balance, such that the more solid one’s self of self and the better able to stand on one’s own two feet, the better able we are to attach in a secure manner. 

The more secure our attachments, the freer we are to separate. Attending to what Blatt called “The Polarities of Experience” are needed to facilitate health and optimal functioning. In contrast, relying excessively on other validation, while being unable to self validate, sets patients up for enhanced anxiety and sub optimal functioning. If we only focus on reactive feelings toward others, and neglect how the patient feels about himself (proud and capable, for example), we keep them at effect, rather than cause. When we take over the process and dictate what the patient should do (face feelings) and must stop doing (rationalizing, avoiding, etc) we reinforce passivity and a tendency to sacrifice self for other. Supporting and encouraging differentiation, as well as attachment, is often required.

In what ways have your way of doing therapy changed over the past five or ten years, and why?
My work is smoother and more integrated. And I am more myself in the process.

What are you struggling to learn as a teacher and therapist right now? 
I am always learning, and hopefully, improving in my ability to teach, supervise and support the development of the person of the therapists. The fact that so many of my current and former trainees have gone on to become real contributors in the field – writing, teaching and presenting at conferences – is a great source of satisfaction and optimism for the future.

Where do you see ISTDP going in the coming five or ten years? 
I have no idea where ISTDP will go from here and look forward to seeing how it all evolves. My greatest concern is that the method is being taught in a highly technical fashion, with little, if any reference to theory or case conceptualization. There are no short cuts and this complex method can’t be learned and practicing by rote. Of course we are all eager to pass on our knowledge, but training and expertise take time. It is a life long journey. It’s important to remember that the best therapists have superior meta-cognitive skills. They have superior working memory, are able to spot patterns as they happen, and tolerate complexity and uncertainty. Containing these polarities – being systematic but flexible, courageous and enthusiastic but humble and open to feedback – is a challenge for us all.

Would you like to say something directly to the Swedish audience ahead of the event? 
I want to wish my Swedish colleagues all the best. These are scary times. Remember to focus on what you can do rather than worrying about things we can’t control. Just three 10 minute periods of meditations on gratitude each day will significantly boost your immune system. I have just returned home from Norway and am incredibly grateful to have arrived safely and in a healthy state. I am extremely grateful that we have the internet and secure sites so we can see our patient’s remotely. I am also grateful for some down time to rest and reflect. We all tend to work a great deal. Slowing down is a good thing. I hope the virus will die down and our plans to get together in late summer will materialize.

Patricia is coming to present in Malmö, Sweden, on the 10th of September, 2020. Make sure to make a reservation now, as seating is limited. Depending on the CoVid-19 situation, the date might be subject to change.


If you liked this Patricia Coughlin interview, you might find our other interviews interesting. For example, we have done interviews with several of Patricia’s former students, such as Kristy Lamb and Jon Frederickson. Here’s a list of our recent interviews:

[POSTPONED] Patricia Coughlin on sexuality in Malmö

On September 10, the Swedish association for ISTDP welcomes you to a one-day conference with Patricia Coughlin in Malmö, southern Sweden. EDIT: Due to CoVid-19, this event has been postponed until 2021.

Understanding and resolving sexual conflicts with Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy (ISTDP)

We’re very happy to welcome Patricia Coughlin back to Malmö for this one-day conference. The focus of the talk will be on understanding conflicts around sexuality. Patricia Coughlin, a renowned expert in ISTDP, will discuss how to detect the presence of these conflicts in your patients, and present methods designed to resolve them. Authentic videotaped examples of work with patients who struggle with conflicts around sex, jealousy and rivalry will be shown.

Patricia Coughlin portrait

Patricia Coughlin

Patricia Coughlin Della Selva, Ph.D., is a licensed Clinical Psychologist with over 35 years of clinical experience. Currently she is Clinical Faculty at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. Over the past 20 years she has written professionally, given presentations at professional conferences and conducted workshops for mental health professionals internationally. Currently, she is conducting training groups in New York, Australia, Denmark, and Poland. Patricia last presented in Sweden in the fall of 2016.

Patricia has authored three books which are all considered essential readings for anyone interested in ISTDP: Intensive Short-term Dynamic Psychotherapy: Theory and Technique (1996), Lives Transformed (2006; in collaboration with Dr. David Malan) and Maximizing Therapeutic Effectiveness in Dynamic Psychotherapy (2016).

Registration and info

Location: Nobel house, Act room, Per Weiiersgatan 6, 211 34 Malmö, Sweden

Date: Thursday, September 10th, 2020 At some point during 2021

Time: Registration starts at 8.30, workshop 09.00–17.00 (lunch approx. 12.00-13.00), book signing 17.00-18.30

Price: 2000 SEK for non-members, 1500 SEK for members of the Swedish society for ISTDP, 750 SEK for full-time students (regardless of membership). Lunch and coffee is included in the price. 15% discount for “early bird” registrations before April 15th! Register now – seating is limited!

Registration: E-mail your full name, work title, any food allergies or preferences and full invoice information to Victoria Paglert (vpaglert@gmail.com) for registration.

Contact: Victoria Paglert (vpaglert@gmail.com), Peter Lilliengren (peter.lilliengren@affekta.se)

This information is also available in this flyer.

Welcome! We’re looking forward to seeing you in Malmö next year.


For information about our other events (in Swedish and English), make sure to check out our events page.

[POSTPONED] ISTDP PRE-CORE. Introductory course in Helsinki, 4-6th of May

CANCELLED. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, this event has been postponed (2020-03-12).

Welcome to ISTDP PRE-CORE introductory course in Helsinki on 4-6th of May. For information in other languages, click here for Finnish and here for Swedish.

We’re very excited to offer ISTDP training in Finland for the first time. Following the workshop by Jon Frederickson at the end of March this year, to our knowledge this will be the second ISTDP event in Finland. The three-day course gives a complete introduction to the theoretical and practical foundations of Intensive Short-term Dynamic Psychotherapy, ISTDP. Alongside theoretical lectures, the course includes skills training, role-plays, observation of actual therapy video and group discussions. This is the main content:

  • an introduction to the central theoretical principles of ISTDP
  • practical skills to establish an effective working alliance and a consistent focus on affect
  • practical skills to assess and regulate anxiety manifestations during sessions
  • practical skills to identify and manage defenses and resistance
  • a critical introduction to the evidence base for ISTDP and other short-term dynamic therapies

The course is open for psychotherapists and psychologists, as well as students within these fields.

The course is led by lic. psychologist Thomas Hesslow. He runs the ISTDP-unit at the psychiatric outpatient clinic Kronan in northwestern Stockholm. He’s a certified ISTDP-therapist, trained by Jon Frederickson, Tobias Nordqvist and Peter Lilliengren. Currently he’s in Jon Frederickson’s Training of trainers program to become an ISTDP teacher and supervisor. He’s also on the board of the Swedish society for ISTDP and doing ISTDP-research part-time. Before doing ISTDP he specialized in dialectical behavior therapy, DBT.

ISTDP pre-core
Pre-core in Stockholm early 2019.

PRE-CORE is a prerequisite for later entering ISTDP Core training, which is the three year program to become a certified ISTDP therapist. Thomas Hesslow and Liv Raissi are planning for a Core training in Helsinki starting during fall 2020. More information on this is due later this spring.

For more information about the ISTDP PRE-CORE in Helsinki and details for registration, please download the flyer in English, Finnish or Swedish.

CANCELLED. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, this event has been postponed (2020-03-12)

Kristy Lamb: “I want ISTDP to become the standard of care for addiction treatment”

This is an interview with Kristy Lamb, who’s a psychiatrist and ISTDP clinician in California. For the past few years, she’s been running an outpatient clinic – BOLD Health – which treats addictions using an intensive format of ISTDP.

Kristy Lamb portrait
Kristy Lamb

It’s been two years now with the BOLD clinic if I’m not mistaken. How does it feel? What have you learned? 
We started BOLD Health in March of 2017, so we are coming up on our 3 year anniversary already. It’s all really exciting – so much has happened over the past 3 years.

Trained as a physician in Family Medicine and Psychiatry I had no background at all in business before this. So it has been a wild ride of learning as I go, trying to balance all the different aspects of the project. Learning about running a business and being an entrepreneur with regular supervision and deliberate practice for the clinical development of my staff and myself. 

For better or worse, much of the learning about the business has been trial and error.  So much of what I didn’t know, I didn’t realize until some issue or crisis and it was in working through the crisis that I learned.  I think it is much this way in therapy that you know what to do and how to do it until you come across something new, and then, the working through, the attunement and attention to the response to intervention, helps build your working model.  

What’s the background of the clinic? How are things developing? 
When I first graduated from residency (after five years of training in family medicine and psychiatry after medical school), I was working in a number of different environments practicing both general medicine and psychiatry from a concierge clinic to a homeless shelter and even in the jails. I had a passion for serving underserved and marginalized populations, but wanted to expose myself to all different clinical environments to see how things worked. It was clear that the system in the US creates a great chasm between the haves and the have nots

In the county clinics I had 15 minutes to see a patient and taking extra time to do any type of therapy was frowned upon because the system was so impacted. However, in the concierge, pay-for-service model I could spend as much time as I needed with people and as you’d expect those patients got better. So I set out to start a private practice in order to have the time and space to hone my skills in ISTDP but eventually to build space to do research so we can show the long-term cost-effectiveness of ISTDP and bring the model back to the community setting. And that’s where things are now. 

Why is ISTDP a suitable treatment for addictions? Aren’t there other psychological models with more scientific backing? 
This is such an important question. With the number of people dying from substance use each year growing exponentially, it’s imperative that we are figuring out what treatments work and what treatments don’t work.  Unfortunately, in the US over 90% of treatment programs are based in the 12-step model which has only about an 8% success rate. It has no scientific backing and was started as community support, not treatment. We are certainly not against the 12-step program and encourage our patients to engage in the community of 12-step. But we also recognize that substance dependence requires psychological treatment and often medications in the early stages if patients are to have sustained sobriety and more so, sustained success in their lives. 

In regard to why ISTDP is such a great model for addiction treatment, it really comes down to the way we conceptualize addiction – as Jon Frederickson says, “We are all addicted to avoiding reality.” We all use different mechanisms to numb and avoid the reality of our lives and drugs and alcohol are just one way we do this – so some people go to TV, or work, or exercise, or compulsions. 

Any of our defenses can be seen as a mechanism to avoid what we are feeling. Drugs and alcohol are no different and once someone is no longer under the influence by just abstaining from the substance, they can start to look at what was driving the numbing that, in this case, can be lethal.  When the substances are seen as just another defense it is clear that ISTDP is a perfect model to treat the human disease of affect intolerance. 

I think another reason why ISTDP is so important in addiction are the interventions that provides the therapist with a clear and direct way to address the common defenses in this group. Handling projection of will, projection of omnipotence, denial, helplessness and hopelessness, and anxiety regulation. All of which are imperative if treatment is to be successful.

What’s the treatment format, length of treatment, rules etc? And how did it come about
Our treatment program averages 10 weeks depending on the patient’s level of acuity.  When a patient signs up for the program they undergo neuro-psychological testing, a commitment interview assessing their will for engagement in treatment and then start the program with groups 3-5 days per week, once per week individual therapy and once per week as needed medication management appointments. 

Each day consists of 30 minutes of biofeedback, an hour of group psychoeducation and then an hour and a half of what we call The BOLD Seat which is structured group therapy. All the group members are given an opportunity to take the BOLD Seat in front of the group to look at a specific problem for the day with the therapist leading the group. The other patients observe and participate, helping that patient see anxiety and defenses. Also, watching your peer gives you the opportunity to see yourself objectively as you may resonate with what the person in the BOLD Seat is saying but be able to see it from a different, more compassionate, distance.  

Our curriculum and the entire structure were developed in collaboration with Jon Frederickson who had piloted this model at a program in Arizona, the data from which was recently published in the Journal of Addictive Diseases.

I had the good fortune of meeting Jon at a week-long training in Whidbey Island, WA, in 2016 and I was just starting to look at group therapy for addiction. We then started working on expanding the previous work that had started in Arizona and now, four years later, here we are. Jon has been an integral part of our development not only for the structure of the program but he provides weekly supervision to our team and has helped establish the ethos of the clinic – compassion, respect and integrity.

What are some of the challenges when doing ISTDP with persons who struggle with addictions? 
Really there is no difference in treating someone with addiction problems than any other patient if the patient is currently sober. Jon Frederickson often talks about the notion that there are specific criteria necessary to actually have a patient in the room.  You can’t do therapy with someone who is actively intoxicated so monitoring for this is critical. 

That being said, as we are an addiction treatment center we have to be sensitive to still welcoming people who are ambivalent about their treatment or struggling to maintain sobriety. We have to greet them with compassion and honesty: they may need a residential program or an inpatient detox or a residential program to begin with. So they can really get some time away from the drugs or alcohol, so that they later can get the most out of our program. 

Accordingly, when we screen for use during the program we work to approach the patient with compassion and understanding to let them know that relapse is common. And we don’t have a right or a need to punish them, but rather use the testing as just information to let us know if their will for engagement in treatment is aligned with their actions. Knowing that that sometimes it’s not, and we just have to pull back and get clear about where they are and what they want for themselves. We work really hard not to own the will of sobriety in any of our patients.

Many patients in recovery haven’t connected to their internal motivation for treatment. They are in program because of their partner, or parents, or job, or the law are setting an ultimatum. We have to work really hard to get clear that unless the patient wants to engage, treatment won’t work. 

What’s it like to do a core training with your fellow colleagues and staff? 
It feels like such a gift to be doing core training with our staff.  When we started, part of the collaboration with Jon Frederickson was to start a new core training cohort with our staff and weekly supervision with him and Esther Rosen

My first core training with Patricia Coughlin was personally life changing and the people I met there have become lifelong friends. But it has been a totally different experience to have all of my work colleagues now be a part of the quarterly intensive training. And for us to be able to come back to BOLD and stay motivated between core trainings with weekly skill building and supervision. So many things in place to keep focus.

It really feels like a dream to be working in a clinic based in ISTDP. Even during our lunch breaks we are chatting about defenses, portrayals and psychodynamic understandings of our patients. It creates an environment of support and collaboration like nothing I have ever experienced in any other work environment. I am incredibly grateful to Jon and our whole team for building this space.

In the swedish context there’s quite a lot of talk about deliberate practice nowadays. What are you struggling to learn right now as a therapist? 
I am a big fan of deliberate practice and have seen how deeply it changed my work. In 2016, I took a short course in deliberate practice and then had ongoing supervision with Tony Rousmaniere. I couldn’t agree more with Tony’s notion that the therapist’s own work is the glass ceiling between good providers and great providers. It is only when you can notice and work through your own “stuff” that comes up in sessions that you can really be present with the patient in front of you.

So the deliberate practice related to skill building is wonderful and undoubtedly makes for improved outcomes, but it is the personal work that Tony taught me that I find the most difficult and the most important. What I need to pay attention to so I can know when my anxiety comes up, where I might unconsciously avoid going with my patients, or biases I might have from my own life experiences. It is through this internally focused deliberate practice that I have been able to become more present and more available to my patients, which results in markedly more effective work. This work takes a lot of effort: making time and space for watching my own videos and – as importantly – making time for my own self-care and therapy. 

If you dream a bit, where would you like ISTDP and addiction psychiatry to go within the next 5 or 10 years? 
Thank you for asking! I happen to be someone who sets goals that I think others often think are idealistic or impossible but at BOLD we encourage our staff to dream wildly about what can be. 

I deeply believe in this model and want to see it become the standard of care for addiction treatment. We are looking to start a revolution and would love to see the BOLD Method be known across the world as the most effective treatment of addiction. Dream big! Right?

I would also love to see our clinic running as an incubator where we can continue to hone the model and build a body of research that supports what we are doing, as well as become a training facility so that we can support others to engage in this model of treatment. 


If you liked this Kristy Lamb interview, maybe you’ll appreciate some of our other interviews. Below, you’ll find a list of our five most recent ones.

Also, a while back we reported on the Frederickson et al. 2019 addiction trial. You can find that article here (in swedish). For all of our content in english, please click here.

Joel Town: “Teaching the ‘intensive’ is the central challenge”

This is an interview with Joel Town. Joel Town is one of the most important ISTDP researchers out there, being the first author of several empirical studies of ISTDP. Among them is the most rigorous ISTDP study thusfar, the “Halifax Depression Study“. He is an Assistant Professor at Dalhousie University, a lead researcher at the Halifax Centre for Emotions and Health and he runs Dynamic Health Psychological Services. Last year, he visited Göteborg for a two-day workshop on treatment-resistant depression. We had a chat with him about where ISTDP is at and where it should go.

joel town portrait
Joel Town

How did it feel to present to a swedish audience? 
As you know, this was actually my first time both visiting Sweden as well as teaching. I was very happy to see some old friends who I’ve met at past conferences, meet many engaging new colleagues, as well as make some new friends. It was a pleasure to be with you in Sweden and to see how your ISTDP community is growing!

You presented some thought-provoking ideas for modifying the graded format of ISTDP, managing the thresholds differently. Can you explain your perspective on this? And how is it different from the standard graded approach?
With the graded format, I was trained to first think about the use of ‘pressure’ to mobilize complex feelings. Next, we look for a threshold to detect when the patient is struggling to intellectually hold in mind complex emotional states and instead become flooded with anxiety. At this point, the therapist helps to reduce anxiety using different strategies. One observation around the clinical application of this approach that I spoke about during the workshop is how easily we can teach the process as though there are explicit “go” and “stop” signs.

The concept of a threshold can be helpful when initially learning this approach in order to avoid too much anxiety being triggered. But viewing patient tolerance more as a Threshold Window can allow therapists to involve patients more in the process, and help them better learn to self-regulate. I’d describe this more as principle we can be aware of during learning, teaching and supervision that can allow therapists to begin to incorporate what Allan Abbass has called “bracing” interventions. This can be done instead of formal recapping or other anxiety regulating interventions. 

You offered some modifications to the phase of inquiry that were very well received by the swedish audience. How did that come about?
It’s something that I noticed over time when I was reviewing trial therapy tapes. I felt like I was missing something if I wasn’t asking patients about feelings, clarifying anxiety or defences within the first few minutes. However, there were other occasions when I was using these kinds of interventions early in sessions – but I would be left questioning why am I doing this and how helpful is was. This made me think about some of the learning challenging when teaching. And it made me rethink the timing of the transition from ‘inquiry’ to phases of structured ‘pressure’ in ISTDP.

In Gothenburg, I showed a tape in which the patient came into a trial therapy exhibiting a mixed bag of responses that we might consider examples of unconscious anxiety and defence combined. In the tape, I didn’t comment explicitly on these processes for around 10 minutes and instead stuck with a phase of inquiry. The subsequent group discussion raised some good questions about the importance of the pace and timing of therapist interventions early in sessions. The audience appeared to appreciate me saying that it isn’t always entirely clear what is happening moment-to-moment, so collecting more data from sitting with the patient can be helpful.

I think in our effort to provide and teach “intensive short-term” treatments we can easily prioritise the need to intervene. We even sometimes intervene before we understand why we are intervening. During the 2-day seminar it felt like we were able to have a very a constructive discussion about these issues. My thought is that these are likely learning and training challenges in ISTDP as much as they are about technical elements related to the phase of inquiry in treatment.

What are you struggling to learn as a clinician right now?
I have begun seeing a series of patients with chronic symptoms that have an explicit behavioural component such as OCD (e.g., compulsive behaviours), Tourette’s and other tic-based presentations. There hasn’t been a lot written on this topic around the use of ISTDP and in my experience these cases present infrequently to dynamically orientated therapists. It’s been a challenge and learning curve to think about how to adapt and tailor a dynamic approach to specifically target change in symptoms that involve repetitive behavioural patterns.

For instance, in ISTDP I would aim to help a patient see harmful patterns and behaviours so that they become motivated to interrupt them independently. In contrast, a traditional CBT exposure and response prevention approach involves a more directive therapist stance in advising a patient to prevent the ‘response’. In the cases I have treated so far, I am struck by how much emphasis there has needed to be on an explicit therapist stance towards response prevention. I think it is a subtle but significant shift for the ISTDP therapist to focus on interrupting an explicit in-session behaviour like a vocal tic in contrast to purely intrapsychic defences.

What are some of the current challenges for the further development and dissemination of ISTDP globally?
One of the challenges for the dissemination of any psychotherapy is having the means to effectively train others to deliver the treatment. Over time, through these dissemination efforts, if enough clinicians can be trained to become both effective therapists and trainers themselves, there reaches a critical mass at which point the treatment is readily accessible for patients. There are probably only a handful of therapies which can be said to have achieved this globally.

The manualisation of psychotherapies has been a key part of what has made this possible. However, the development of treatment manuals to treating mental health as discreet “disorders” defined by symptom clusters is problematic. I think this paradigm has contributed to the numbers of patients who fail to remit or relapse following psychotherapy generally. In contrast, I think ISTDP is best described as an approach that is fundamentally built to achieve ambitious changes in personality. While my own experience as a researcher and clinician confirm that this is possible, as with other therapies, therapist factors and patient factors contribute significantly to outcomes. 

I think the ISTDP Core Training programs conducted in the last decade indicate that there are many elements to ISTDP that can be taught to a broad group of therapists. The programs teach the delivery of effective treatment that is likely comparable to the outcomes achieved in other treatments. However, my current view is that I think there are other elements of ISTDP that are very difficult to learn, particularly given the training resources typically available to most therapists (e.g., access to and frequency of supervision).

If some of the more difficult-to-learn treatment elements were emphasized less, akin to dropping the ‘intensive’ from ISTDP, I think we would have a treatment that could be more easily disseminated globally. It is arguable that in doing so, we could compromise the nature of the changes possible in treatment by de-emphasizing the elements that promote personality level changes. This is a question that would need addressing empirically.

Do you think we should drop the “intensive” then? Or what do you propose? 
I don’t think the field needs a new treatment with a new acronym. What I am pointing out is that there are different elements to ISTDP that require different competencies to be taught and adequately mastered by a therapist. If attempting to gain competency in multiple domains limits the transferability of the treatment, I am proposing that therapists can be trained and encouraged to utilise specific elements as they are able.

This type of learning environment might help therapists to flourish and grow rather than to become discouraged and drop-out. Perhaps within the field of psychotherapy training there is a risk that in an effort to maintain the presumed integrity of the treatment, it is very possible that the alliance between therapists and their trainers/teachers can be adversely effected. I think this is a central challenge around the dissemination of ISTDP.

Do you have any upcoming research in the pipeline?
I am just preparing a manuscript describing the 12-month post treatment outcomes and a cost effectiveness analysis from the Halifax Depression Study. This a randomized controlled trial that compared the outcomes of time-limited ISTDP against the effects of secondary care community mental health team treatment for treatment resistant depression (TRD). We published the initial findings in the Journal of Affective Disorders in 2017 showing ISTDP is an efficacious treatment for TRD with 36% of patients reaching full-remission at the end of treatment. The follow-up findings are also very encouraging. 

What’s your vision for the future of ISTDP? 
Currently there are very few academic centres around the world in which ISTDP research is being conducted. For the growth of any treatment, research is an important part of dissemination alongside offering the possibility of innovation in methods and technique. In particularly, as a clinical psychologist and researcher having both trained and conducted clinical trials in ISTDP, I think my understanding of some the teaching and learning challenges around ISTDP has been enhanced greatly by this work. Moving forward, I would hope there are increasingly more opportunities for people at all stages of learning to be involved in ISTDP training and research within academic centres of excellence.  


If you enjoyed this Joel Town interview, you might find our other interviews interesting. You can find the whole list here. Below you’ll find a list of five of our most recent interviews: