What is Trichotillomania?

Introduction

Trichotillomania (TTM), also known as hair pulling disorder or compulsive hair pulling, is a mental disorder characterised by a long-term urge that results in the pulling out of one’s hair. This occurs to such a degree that hair loss can be seen. A brief positive feeling may occur as hair is removed. Efforts to stop pulling hair typically fail. Hair removal may occur anywhere; however, the head and around the eyes are most common. The hair pulling is to such a degree that it results in distress.

The disorder may run in families. It occurs more commonly in those with obsessive compulsive disorder. Episodes of pulling may be triggered by anxiety. People usually acknowledge that they pull their hair. On examination broken hairs may be seen. Other conditions that may present similarly include body dysmorphic disorder, however in that condition people remove hair to try to improve what they see as a problem in how they look.

Treatment is typically with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). The medication clomipramine may also be helpful, as will clipping fingernails. Trichotillomania is estimated to affect one to four percent of people. Trichotillomania most commonly begins in childhood or adolescence. Women are affected about 10 times more often than men. The name was created by François Henri Hallopeau in 1889, from the Greek θριξ/τριχ; thrix (meaning “hair”), along with τίλλειν; tíllein (meaning “to pull”), and μανία; mania (meaning “madness”).

Brief History

Hair pulling was first mentioned by Aristotle in the fourth century B.C., was first described in modern literature in 1885, and the term trichotillomania was coined by the French dermatologist François Henri Hallopeau in 1889.

In 1987, trichotillomania was recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, third edition-revised (DSM-III-R).

Epidemiology

Although no broad-based population epidemiologic studies had been conducted as of 2009, the lifetime prevalence of trichotillomania is estimated to be between 0.6% and 4.0% of the overall population. With a 1% prevalence rate, 2.5 million people in the US may have trichotillomania at some time during their lifetimes.

Trichotillomania is diagnosed in all age groups; onset is more common during preadolescence and young adulthood, with mean age of onset between 9 and 13 years of age, and a notable peak at 12-13. Among preschool children the genders are equally represented; there appears to be a female predominance among preadolescents to young adults, with between 70% and 93% of patients being female. Among adults, females typically outnumber males by 3 to 1.

“Automatic” pulling occurs in approximately three-quarters of adult patients with trichotillomania.

Signs and Symptoms

Trichotillomania is usually confined to one or two sites, but can involve multiple sites. The scalp is the most common pulling site, followed by the eyebrows, eyelashes, face, arms, and legs. Some less common areas include the pubic area, underarms, beard, and chest. The classic presentation is the “Friar Tuck” form of vertex and crown alopecia. Children are less likely to pull from areas other than the scalp.

People who suffer from trichotillomania often pull only one hair at a time and these hair-pulling episodes can last for hours at a time. Trichotillomania can go into remission-like states where the individual may not experience the urge to “pull” for days, weeks, months, and even years.

Individuals with trichotillomania exhibit hair of differing lengths; some are broken hairs with blunt ends, some new growth with tapered ends, some broken mid-shaft, or some uneven stubble. Scaling on the scalp is not present, overall hair density is normal, and a hair pull test is negative (the hair does not pull out easily). Hair is often pulled out leaving an unusual shape. Individuals with trichotillomania may be secretive or shameful of the hair pulling behaviour.

An additional psychological effect can be low self-esteem, often associated with being shunned by peers and the fear of socialising, due to appearance and negative attention they may receive. Some people with trichotillomania wear hats, wigs, false eyelashes, eyebrow pencil, or style their hair in an effort to avoid such attention. There seems to be a strong stress-related component. In low-stress environments, some exhibit no symptoms (known as “pulling”) whatsoever. This “pulling” often resumes upon leaving this environment. Some individuals with trichotillomania may feel they are the only person with this problem due to low rates of reporting.

For some people, trichotillomania is a mild problem, merely a frustration. But for many, shame and embarrassment about hair pulling causes painful isolation and results in a great deal of emotional distress, placing them at risk for a co-occurring psychiatric disorder, such as a mood or anxiety disorder. Hair pulling can lead to great tension and strained relationships with family members and friends. Family members may need professional help in coping with this problem.

Other medical complications include infection, permanent loss of hair, repetitive stress injury, carpal tunnel syndrome, and gastrointestinal obstruction as a result of trichophagia. In trichophagia, people with trichotillomania also ingest the hair that they pull; in extreme (and rare) cases this can lead to a hair ball (trichobezoar). Rapunzel syndrome, an extreme form of trichobezoar in which the “tail” of the hair ball extends into the intestines, can be fatal if misdiagnosed.

Environment is a large factor which affects hair pulling. Sedentary activities such as being in a relaxed environment are conducive to hair pulling. A common example of a sedentary activity promoting hair pulling is lying in a bed while trying to rest or fall asleep. An extreme example of automatic trichotillomania is found when some patients have been observed to pull their hair out while asleep. This is called sleep-isolated trichotillomania.

Causes

Anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are more frequently encountered in people with trichotillomania. Trichotillomania has a high overlap with post traumatic stress disorder, and some cases of trichotillomania may be triggered by stress. Another school of thought emphasizes hair pulling as addictive or negatively reinforcing, as it is associated with rising tension beforehand and relief afterward. A neurocognitive model – the notion that the basal ganglia plays a role in habit formation and that the frontal lobes are critical for normally suppressing or inhibiting such habits – sees trichotillomania as a habit disorder.

Abnormalities in the caudate nucleus are noted in OCD, but there is no evidence to support that these abnormalities can also be linked to trichotillomania. One study has shown that individuals with trichotillomania have decreased cerebellar volume. These findings suggest some differences between OCD and trichotillomania. There is a lack of structural MRI studies on trichotillomania. In several MRI studies that have been conducted, it has been found that people with trichotillomania have more gray matter in their brains than those who do not suffer from the disorder.

It is likely that multiple genes confer vulnerability to trichotillomania. One study identified mutations in the SLITRK1 gene.

Diagnosis

Patients may be ashamed or actively attempt to disguise their symptoms. This can make diagnosis difficult as symptoms are not always immediately obvious, or have been deliberately hidden to avoid disclosure. If the patient admits to hair pulling, diagnosis is not difficult; if patients deny hair pulling, a differential diagnosis must be pursued. The differential diagnosis will include evaluation for alopecia areata, iron deficiency, hypothyroidism, tinea capitis, traction alopecia, alopecia mucinosa, thallium poisoning, and loose anagen syndrome. In trichotillomania, a hair pull test is negative.

A biopsy can be performed and may be helpful; it reveals traumatised hair follicles with perifollicular haemorrhage, fragmented hair in the dermis, empty follicles, and deformed hair shafts. Multiple catagen hairs are typically seen. An alternative technique to biopsy, particularly for children, is to shave a part of the involved area and observe for regrowth of normal hairs.

Classification

Trichotillomania is defined as a self-induced and recurrent loss of hair. It includes the criterion of an increasing sense of tension before pulling the hair and gratification or relief when pulling the hair. However, some people with trichotillomania do not endorse the inclusion of “rising tension and subsequent pleasure, gratification, or relief” as part of the criteria because many individuals with trichotillomania may not realise they are pulling their hair, and patients presenting for diagnosis may deny the criteria for tension prior to hair pulling or a sense of gratification after hair is pulled.

Trichotillomania may lie on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum, also encompassing OCD, body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), nail biting (onychophagia) and skin picking (dermatillomania), tic disorders and eating disorders. These conditions may share clinical features, genetic contributions, and possibly treatment response; however, differences between trichotillomania and OCD are present in symptoms, neural function and cognitive profile. In the sense that it is associated with irresistible urges to perform unwanted repetitive behaviour, trichotillomania is akin to some of these conditions, and rates of trichotillomania among relatives of OCD patients is higher than expected by chance. However, differences between the disorder and OCD have been noted, including: differing peak ages at onset, rates of comorbidity, gender differences, and neural dysfunction and cognitive profile. When it occurs in early childhood, it can be regarded as a distinct clinical entity.

Because trichotillomania can be present in multiple age groups, it is helpful in terms of prognosis and treatment to approach three distinct subgroups by age: preschool age children, preadolescents to young adults, and adults.

In preschool age children, trichotillomania is considered benign. For these children, hair-pulling is considered either a means of exploration or something done subconsciously, similar to nail-biting and thumb-sucking, and almost never continues into further ages.

The most common age of onset of trichotillomania is between ages 9 and 13. In this age range, trichotillomania is usually chronic, and continues into adulthood. Trichiotillomania that begins in adulthood most commonly arises from underlying psychiatric causes.

Trichotillomania is often not a focused act, but rather hair pulling occurs in a “trance-like” state; hence, trichotillomania is subdivided into “automatic” versus “focused” hair pulling. Children are more often in the automatic, or unconscious, subtype and may not consciously remember pulling their hair. Other individuals may have focused, or conscious, rituals associated with hair pulling, including seeking specific types of hairs to pull, pulling until the hair feels “just right”, or pulling in response to a specific sensation. Knowledge of the subtype is helpful in determining treatment strategies.

Treatment

Treatment is based on a person’s age. Most pre-school age children outgrow the condition if it is managed conservatively. In young adults, establishing the diagnosis and raising awareness of the condition is an important reassurance for the family and patient. Non-pharmacological interventions, including behaviour modification programmes, may be considered; referrals to psychologists or psychiatrists may be considered when other interventions fail. When trichotillomania begins in adulthood, it is often associated with other mental disorders, and referral to a psychologist or psychiatrist for evaluation or treatment is considered best. The hair pulling may resolve when other conditions are treated.

Psychotherapy

Habit reversal training (HRT) has the highest rate of success in treating trichotillomania. HRT has also been shown to be a successful adjunct to medication as a way to treat trichotillomania. With HRT, the individual is trained to learn to recognise their impulse to pull and also teach them to redirect this impulse. In comparisons of behavioural versus pharmacologic treatment, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT, including HRT) have shown significant improvement over medication alone. It has also proven effective in treating children. Biofeedback, cognitive-behavioural methods, and hypnosis may improve symptoms. Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is also demonstrating promise in trichotillomania treatment. A systematic review from 2012 found tentative evidence for “movement decoupling”.

Medication

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved any medications for trichotillomania treatment.

Medications can be used to treat trichotillomania. Treatment with clomipramine, a tricyclic antidepressant, was shown in a small double-blind study to improve symptoms, but results of other studies on clomipramine for treating trichotillomania have been inconsistent. Naltrexone may be a viable treatment. Fluoxetine and other selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have limited usefulness in treating trichotillomania, and can often have significant side effects. Behavioural therapy has proven more effective when compared to fluoxetine. There is little research on the effectiveness of behavioural therapy combined with medication, and robust evidence from high-quality studies is lacking. Acetylcysteine treatment stemmed from an understanding of glutamate’s role in regulation of impulse control.

Different medications, depending on the individual, may increase hair pulling.

Devices

Technology can be used to augment habit reversal training or behavioural therapy. Several mobile apps exist to help log behaviour and focus on treatment strategies. There are also wearable devices that track the position of a user’s hands. They produce sound or vibrating notifications so that users can track rates of these events over time.

Prognosis

When it occurs in early childhood (before five years of age), the condition is typically self-limiting and intervention is not required. In adults, the onset of trichotillomania may be secondary to underlying psychiatric disturbances, and symptoms are generally more long-term.

Secondary infections may occur due to picking and scratching, but other complications are rare. Individuals with trichotillomania often find that support groups are helpful in living with and overcoming the disorder.

Society and Culture

Support groups and internet sites can provide recommended educational material and help persons with trichotillomania in maintaining a positive attitude and overcoming the fear of being alone with the disorder.

Media

A documentary film exploring trichotillomania, Bad Hair Life, was the 2003 winner of the International Health & Medical Media Award for best film in psychiatry and the winner of the 2004 Superfest Film Festival Merit Award.

Trichster is a 2016 documentary that follows seven individuals living with trichotillomania, as they navigate the complicated emotions surrounding the disorder, and the effect it has on their daily lives.

What is Behaviour Therapy?

Introduction

Behaviour therapy or behavioural psychotherapy is a broad term referring to clinical psychotherapy that uses techniques derived from behaviourism and/or cognitive psychology.

It looks at specific, learned behaviours and how the environment, or other people’s mental states, influences those behaviours, and consists of techniques based on learning theory, such as respondent or operant conditioning. Behaviourists who practice these techniques are either behaviour analysts or cognitive-behavioural therapists. They tend to look for treatment outcomes that are objectively measurable. Behaviour therapy does not involve one specific method but it has a wide range of techniques that can be used to treat a person’s psychological problems.

Behavioural psychotherapy is sometimes juxtaposed with cognitive psychotherapy, while cognitive behavioural therapy integrates aspects of both approaches, such as cognitive restructuring, positive reinforcement, habituation (or desensitisation), counterconditioning, and modelling.

Applied behaviour analysis (ABA) is the application of behaviour analysis that focuses on functionally assessing how behaviour is influenced by the observable learning environment and how to change such behaviour through contingency management or exposure therapies, which are used throughout clinical behaviour analysis therapies or other interventions based on the same learning principles.

Cognitive-behavioural therapy views cognition and emotions as preceding overt behaviour and implements treatment plans in psychotherapy to lessen the issue by managing competing thoughts and emotions, often in conjunction with behavioural learning principles.

A 2013 Cochrane review comparing behaviour therapies to psychological therapies found them to be equally effective, although at the time the evidence base that evaluates the benefits and harms of behaviour therapies was felt to be weak.

Brief History

Precursors of certain fundamental aspects of behaviour therapy have been identified in various ancient philosophical traditions, particularly Stoicism. For example, Wolpe and Lazarus wrote,

While the modern behavior therapist deliberately applies principles of learning to this therapeutic operations, empirical behavior therapy is probably as old as civilization – if we consider civilization as having started when man first did things to further the well-being of other men. From the time that this became a feature of human life there must have been occasions when a man complained of his ills to another who advised or persuaded him of a course of action. In a broad sense, this could be called behavior therapy whenever the behavior itself was conceived as the therapeutic agent. Ancient writings contain innumerable behavioral prescriptions that accord with this broad conception of behavior therapy.

The first use of the term behaviour modification appears to have been by Edward Thorndike in 1911. His article Provisional Laws of Acquired Behaviour or Learning makes frequent use of the term “modifying behaviour”. Through early research in the 1940s and the 1950s the term was used by Joseph Wolpe’s research group. The experimental tradition in clinical psychology used it to refer to psycho-therapeutic techniques derived from empirical research. It has since come to refer mainly to techniques for increasing adaptive behaviour through reinforcement and decreasing maladaptive behaviour through extinction or punishment (with emphasis on the former). Two related terms are behaviour therapy and applied behaviour analysis. Since techniques derived from behavioural psychology tend to be the most effective in altering behaviour, most practitioners consider behaviour modification along with behaviour therapy and applied behaviour analysis to be founded in behaviourism. While behaviour modification and applied behaviour analysis typically uses interventions based on the same behavioural principles, many behaviour modifiers who are not applied behaviour analysts tend to use packages of interventions and do not conduct functional assessments before intervening.

Possibly the first occurrence of the term “behaviour therapy” was in a 1953 research project by B.F. Skinner, Ogden Lindsley, Nathan Azrin and Harry C. Solomon. The paper talked about operant conditioning and how it could be used to help improve the functioning of people who were diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia. Early pioneers in behaviour therapy include Joseph Wolpe and Hans Eysenck.

In general, behaviour therapy is seen as having three distinct points of origin: South Africa (Wolpe’s group), The United States (Skinner), and the United Kingdom (Rachman and Eysenck). Each had its own distinct approach to viewing behaviour problems. Eysenck in particular viewed behaviour problems as an interplay between personality characteristics, environment, and behaviour. Skinner’s group in the United States took more of an operant conditioning focus. The operant focus created a functional approach to assessment and interventions focused on contingency management such as the token economy and behavioural activation. Skinner’s student Ogden Lindsley is credited with forming a movement called precision teaching, which developed a particular type of graphing programme called the standard celeration chart to monitor the progress of clients. Skinner became interested in the individualising of programs for improved learning in those with or without disabilities and worked with Fred S. Keller to develop programmed instruction. Programmed instruction had some clinical success in aphasia rehabilitation. Gerald Patterson used programme instruction to develop his parenting text for children with conduct problems. With age, respondent conditioning appears to slow but operant conditioning remains relatively stable. While the concept had its share of advocates and critics in the west, its introduction in the Asian setting, particularly in India in the early 1970s and its grand success were testament to the famous Indian psychologist H. Narayan Murthy’s enduring commitment to the principles of behavioural therapy and biofeedback.

While many behaviour therapists remain staunchly committed to the basic operant and respondent paradigm, in the second half of the 20th century, many therapists coupled behaviour therapy with the cognitive therapy, of Aaron Beck, Albert Ellis, and Donald Meichenbaum to form cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). In some areas the cognitive component had an additive effect (for example, evidence suggests that cognitive interventions improve the result of social phobia treatment) but in other areas it did not enhance the treatment, which led to the pursuit of third generation behaviour therapies. Third generation behaviour therapy uses basic principles of operant and respondent psychology but couples them with functional analysis and a clinical formulation/case conceptualisation of verbal behaviour more inline with view of the behaviour analysts. Some research supports these therapies as being more effective in some cases than cognitive therapy, but overall the question is still in need of answers.

Theoretical Basis

The behavioural approach to therapy assumes that behaviour that is associated with psychological problems develops through the same processes of learning that affects the development of other behaviours. Therefore, behaviourists see personality problems in the way that personality was developed. They do not look at behaviour disorders as something a person has, but consider that it reflects how learning has influenced certain people to behave in a certain way in certain situations.

Behaviour therapy is based upon the principles of classical conditioning developed by Ivan Pavlov and operant conditioning developed by B.F. Skinner. Classical conditioning happens when a neutral stimulus comes right before another stimulus that triggers a reflexive response. The idea is that if the neutral stimulus and whatever other stimulus that triggers a response is paired together often enough that the neutral stimulus will produce the reflexive response. Operant conditioning has to do with rewards and punishments and how they can either strengthen or weaken certain behaviours.

Contingency management programmes are a direct product of research from operant conditioning.

Current Forms

Behavioural therapy based on operant and respondent principles has considerable evidence base to support its usage. This approach remains a vital area of clinical psychology and is often termed clinical behaviour analysis. Behavioural psychotherapy has become increasingly contextual in recent years. Behavioural psychotherapy has developed greater interest in recent years in personality disorders as well as a greater focus on acceptance and complex case conceptualisations.

Functional Analytic Psychotherapy

One current form of behavioural psychotherapy is functional analytic psychotherapy. Functional analytic psychotherapy is a longer duration behaviour therapy. Functional analytic therapy focuses on in-session use of reinforcement and is primarily a relationally-based therapy. As with most of the behavioural psychotherapies, functional analytic psychotherapy is contextual in its origins and nature. and draws heavily on radical behaviourism and functional contextualism.

Functional analytic psychotherapy holds to a process model of research, which makes it unique compared to traditional behaviour therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy.

Functional analytic psychotherapy has a strong research support. Recent functional analytic psychotherapy research efforts are focusing on management of aggressive inpatients.

Assessment

Behaviour therapists complete a functional analysis or a functional assessment that looks at four important areas: stimulus, organism, response and consequences. The stimulus is the condition or environmental trigger that causes behaviour. An organism involves the internal responses of a person, like physiological responses, emotions and cognition. A response is the behaviour that a person exhibits and the consequences are the result of the behaviour. These four things are incorporated into an assessment done by the behaviour therapist.

Most behaviour therapists use objective assessment methods like structured interviews, objective psychological tests or different behavioural rating forms. These types of assessments are used so that the behaviour therapist can determine exactly what a client’s problem may be and establish a baseline for any maladaptive responses that the client may have. By having this baseline, as therapy continues this same measure can be used to check a client’s progress, which can help determine if the therapy is working. Behaviour therapists do not typically ask the why questions but tend to be more focused on the how, when, where and what questions. Tests such as the Rorschach inkblot test or personality tests like the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory) are not commonly used for behavioural assessment because they are based on personality trait theory assuming that a person’s answer to these methods can predict behaviour. Behaviour assessment is more focused on the observations of a persons behaviour in their natural environment.

Behavioural assessment specifically attempts to find out what the environmental and self-imposed variables are. These variables are the things that are allowing a person to maintain their maladaptive feelings, thoughts and behaviours. In a behavioural assessment “person variables” are also considered. These “person variables” come from a person’s social learning history and they affect the way in which the environment affects that person’s behaviour. An example of a person variable would be behavioural competence. Behavioural competence looks at whether a person has the appropriate skills and behaviours that are necessary when performing a specific response to a certain situation or stimuli.

When making a behavioural assessment the behaviour therapist wants to answer two questions:

  1. What are the different factors (environmental or psychological) that are maintaining the maladaptive behaviour; and
  2. What type of behaviour therapy or technique that can help the individual improve most effectively.

The first question involves looking at all aspects of a person, which can be summed up by the acronym BASIC ID. This acronym stands for behaviour, affective responses, sensory reactions, imagery, cognitive processes, interpersonal relationships and drug use.

Clinical Applications

Behaviour therapy based its core interventions on functional analysis. Just a few of the many problems that behaviour therapy have functionally analysed include intimacy in couples relationships, forgiveness in couples, chronic pain, stress-related behaviour problems of being an adult child of a person with an alcohol use disorder, anorexia, chronic distress, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, insomnia and obesity.

Functional analysis has even been applied to problems that therapists commonly encounter like client resistance, partially engaged clients and involuntary clients. Applications to these problems have left clinicians with considerable tools for enhancing therapeutic effectiveness. One way to enhance therapeutic effectiveness is to use positive reinforcement or operant conditioning. Although behaviour therapy is based on the general learning model, it can be applied in a lot of different treatment packages that can be specifically developed to deal with problematic behaviours. Some of the more well known types of treatments are: Relaxation training, systematic desensitisation, virtual reality exposure, exposure and response prevention techniques, social skills training, modelling, behavioural rehearsal and homework, and aversion therapy and punishment.

Relaxation training involves clients learning to lower arousal to reduce their stress by tensing and releasing certain muscle groups throughout their body. Systematic desensitisation is a treatment in which the client slowly substitutes a new learned response for a maladaptive response by moving up a hierarchy of situations involving fear. Systematic desensitisation is based in part on counter conditioning. Counter conditioning is learning new ways to change one response for another and in the case of desensitisation it is substituting that maladaptive behaviour for a more relaxing behaviour. Exposure and response prevention techniques (also known as flooding and response prevention) is the general technique in which a therapist exposes an individual to anxiety-provoking stimuli while keeping them from having any avoidance responses.

Virtual reality therapy provides realistic, computer-based simulations of troublesome situations. The modelling process involves a person being subjected to watching other individuals who demonstrate behaviour that is considered adaptive and that should be adopted by the client. This exposure involves not only the cues of the “model person” as well as the situations of a certain behaviour that way the relationship can be seen between the appropriateness of a certain behaviour and situation in which that behaviour occurs is demonstrated. With the behavioural rehearsal and homework treatment a client gets a desired behaviour during a therapy session and then they practice and record that behaviour between their sessions. Aversion therapy and punishment is a technique in which an aversive (painful or unpleasant) stimulus is used to decrease unwanted behaviours from occurring. It is concerned with two procedures:

  1. The procedures are used to decrease the likelihood of the frequency of a certain behaviour; and
  2. Procedures that will reduce the attractiveness of certain behaviours and the stimuli that elicit them.

The punishment side of aversion therapy is when an aversive stimulus is presented at the same time that a negative stimulus and then they are stopped at the same time when a positive stimulus or response is presented. Examples of the type of negative stimulus or punishment that can be used is shock therapy treatments, aversive drug treatments as well as response cost contingent punishment which involves taking away a reward.

Applied behaviour analysis is using behavioural methods to modify certain behaviours that are seen as being important socially or personally. There are four main characteristics of applied behaviour analysis:

  • First behaviour analysis is focused mainly on overt behaviours in an applied setting.
    • Treatments are developed as a way to alter the relationship between those overt behaviours and their consequences.
  • Another characteristic of applied behaviour analysis is how it (behaviour analysis) goes about evaluating treatment effects.
    • The individual subject is where the focus of study is on, the investigation is centred on the one individual being treated.
  • A third characteristic is that it focuses on what the environment does to cause significant behaviour changes.
  • Finally the last characteristic of applied behaviour analysis is the use of those techniques that stem from operant and classical conditioning such as providing reinforcement, punishment, stimulus control and any other learning principles that may apply.

Social skills training teaches clients skills to access reinforcers and lessen life punishment. Operant conditioning procedures in meta-analysis had the largest effect size for training social skills, followed by modelling, coaching, and social cognitive techniques in that order. Social skills training has some empirical support particularly for schizophrenia. However, with schizophrenia, behavioural programmes have generally lost favour.

Some other techniques that have been used in behaviour therapy are contingency contracting, response costs, token economies, biofeedback, and using shaping and grading task assignments.

Shaping and graded task assignments are used when behaviour that needs to be learned is complex. The complex behaviours that need to be learned are broken down into simpler steps where the person can achieve small things gradually building up to the more complex behaviour. Each step approximates the eventual goal and helps the person to expand their activities in a gradual way. This behaviour is used when a person feels that something in their lives can not be changed and life’s tasks appear to be overwhelming.

Another technique of behaviour therapy involves holding a client or patient accountable of their behaviours in an effort to change them. This is called a contingency contract, which is a formal written contract between two or more people that defines the specific expected behaviours that you wish to change and the rewards and punishments that go along with that behaviour. In order for a contingency contract to be official it needs to have five elements. First it must state what each person will get if they successfully complete the desired behaviour. Secondly those people involved have to monitor the behaviours. Third, if the desired behaviour is not being performed in the way that was agreed upon in the contract the punishments that were defined in the contract must be done. Fourth if the persons involved are complying with the contract they must receive bonuses. The last element involves documenting the compliance and noncompliance while using this treatment in order to give the persons involved consistent feedback about the target behaviour and the provision of reinforcers.

Token economies is a behaviour therapy technique where clients are reinforced with tokens that are considered a type of currency that can be used to purchase desired rewards, like being able to watch television or getting a snack that they want when they perform designated behaviours. Token economies are mainly used in institutional and therapeutic settings. In order for a token economy to be effective there must be consistency in administering the program by the entire staff. Procedures must be clearly defined so that there is no confusion among the clients. Instead of looking for ways to punish the patients or to deny them of rewards, the staff has to reinforce the positive behaviours so that the clients will increase the occurrence of the desired behaviour. Over time the tokens need to be replaced with less tangible rewards such as compliments so that the client will be prepared when they leave the institution and won’t expect to get something every time they perform a desired behaviour.

Closely related to token economies is a technique called response costs. This technique can either be used with or without token economies. Response costs is the punishment side of token economies where there is a loss of a reward or privilege after someone performs an undesirable behaviour. Like token economies this technique is used mainly in institutional and therapeutic settings.

Considerable policy implications have been inspired by behavioural views of various forms of psychopathology. One form of behaviour therapy, habit reversal training, has been found to be highly effective for treating tics.

In Rehabilitation

Currently, there is a greater call for behavioural psychologists to be involved in rehabilitation efforts.

Treatment of Mental Disorders

Two large studies done by the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University indicates that both behaviour therapy and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) are equally effective for OCD. CBT has been shown to perform slightly better at treating co-occurring depression.

Considerable policy implications have been inspired by behavioural views of various forms of psychopathology. One form of behaviour therapy (habit reversal training) has been found to be highly effective for treating tics.

There has been a development towards combining techniques to treat psychiatric disorders. Cognitive interventions are used to enhance the effects of more established behavioural interventions based on operant and classical conditioning. An increased effort has also been placed to address the interpersonal context of behaviour.

Behaviour therapy can be applied to a number of mental disorders and in many cases is more effective for specific disorders as compared to others. Behaviour therapy techniques can be used to deal with any phobias that a person may have. Desensitisation has also been applied to other issues such as dealing with anger, if a person has trouble sleeping and certain speech disorders. Desensitisation does not occur over night, there is a process of treatment. Desensitisation is done on a hierarchy and happens over a number of sessions. The hierarchy goes from situations that make a person less anxious or nervous up to things that are considered to be extreme for the patient.

Modelling has been used in dealing with fears and phobias. Modelling has been used in the treatment of fear of snakes as well as a fear of water.

Aversive therapy techniques have been used to treat sexual deviations as well as alcohol use disorder.

Exposure and prevention procedure techniques can be used to treat people who have anxiety problems as well as any fears or phobias. These procedures have also been used to help people dealing with any anger issues as well as pathological grievers (people who have distressing thoughts about a deceased person).

Virtual reality therapy deals with fear of heights, fear of flying, and a variety of other anxiety disorders. VRT has also been applied to help people with substance abuse problems reduce their responsiveness to certain cues that trigger their need to use drugs.

Shaping and graded task assignments has been used in dealing with suicide and depressed or inhibited individuals. This is used when a patient feel hopeless and they have no way of changing their lives. This hopelessness involves how the person reacts and responds to someone else and certain situations and their perceived powerlessness to change that situation that adds to the hopelessness. For a person with suicidal ideation, it is important to start with small steps. Because that person may perceive everything as being a big step, the smaller you start the easier it will be for the person to master each step. This technique has also been applied to people dealing with agoraphobia, or fear of being in public places or doing something embarrassing.

Contingency contracting has been used to deal with behaviour problems in delinquents and when dealing with on task behaviours in students.

Token economies are used in controlled environments and are found mostly in psychiatric hospitals. They can be used to help patients with different mental illnesses but it doesn’t focus on the treatment of the mental illness but instead on the behavioural aspects of a patient. The response cost technique has been used to address a variety of behaviours such as smoking, overeating, stuttering, and psychotic talk.

Treatment Outcomes

Systematic desensitisation has been shown to successfully treat phobias about heights, driving, insects as well as any anxiety that a person may have. Anxiety can include social anxiety, anxiety about public speaking as well as test anxiety. It has been shown that the use of systematic desensitisation is an effective technique that can be applied to a number of problems that a person may have.

When using modelling procedures this technique is often compared to another behavioural therapy technique. When compared to desensitisation, the modelling technique does appear to be less effective. However it is clear that the greater the interaction between the patient and the subject he is modelling the greater the effectiveness of the treatment.

While undergoing exposure therapy, a person typically needs five sessions to assess the treatment’s effectiveness. After five sessions, exposure treatment has been shown to provide benefit to the patient. However, it is still recommended treatment continue beyond the initial five sessions.

Virtual reality therapy (VRT) has shown to be effective for a fear of heights. It has also been shown to help with the treatment of a variety of anxiety disorders. Due to the costs associated with VRT, therapists are still awaiting results of controlled trials investigating VRT, to assess which applications demonstrate the best results.

For those with suicidal ideation, treatment depends on how severe the person’s depression and sense of hopelessness is. If these things are severe, the person’s response to completing small steps will not be of importance to them, because they don’t consider the success an accomplishment. Generally, in those not suffering from severe depression or fear, this technique has been successful, as completion of simpler activities builds their confidences and allows them to progress to more complex situations.

Contingency contracts have been seen to be effective in changing any undesired behaviours of individuals. It has been seen to be effective in treating behaviour problems in delinquents regardless of the specific characteristics of the contract.

Token economies have been shown to be effective when treating patients in psychiatric wards who had chronic schizophrenia. The results showed that the contingent tokens were controlling the behaviour of the patients.

Response costs has been shown to work in suppressing a variety of behaviours such as smoking, overeating or stuttering with a diverse group of clinical populations ranging from sociopaths to school children. These behaviours that have been suppressed using this technique often do not recover when the punishment contingency is withdrawn. Also undesirable side effects that are usually seen with punishment are not typically found when using the response cost technique.

Third Generation

The third-generation behaviour therapy movement has been called clinical behaviour analysis because it represents a movement away from cognitivism and back toward radical behaviourism and other forms of behaviourism, in particular functional analysis and behavioural models of verbal behaviour. This area includes acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), cognitive behavioural analysis system of psychotherapy (CBASP), behavioural activation (BA), dialectical behavioural therapy, functional analytic psychotherapy (FAP), integrative behavioural couples therapy, metacognitive therapy and metacognitive training. These approaches are squarely within the applied behaviour analysis tradition of behaviour therapy.

ACT may be the most well-researched of all the third-generation behaviour therapy models. It is based on relational frame theory. Other authors object to the term “third generation” or “third wave” and incorporate many of the “third wave” therapeutic techniques under the general umbrella term of modern cognitive behavioural therapies.

Functional analytic psychotherapy is based on a functional analysis of the therapeutic relationship. It places a greater emphasis on the therapeutic context and returns to the use of in-session reinforcement. In general, 40 years of research supports the idea that in-session reinforcement of behaviour can lead to behavioural change.

Behavioural activation emerged from a component analysis of cognitive behaviour therapy. This research found no additive effect for the cognitive component. Behavioural activation is based on a matching model of reinforcement. A recent review of the research, supports the notion that the use of behavioural activation is clinically important for the treatment of depression.

Integrative behavioural couples therapy developed from dissatisfaction with traditional behavioural couples therapy. Integrative behavioural couples therapy looks to Skinner (1969) for the difference between contingency-shaped and rule-governed behaviour. It couples this analysis with a thorough functional assessment of the couple’s relationship. Recent efforts have used radical behavioural concepts to interpret a number of clinical phenomena including forgiveness.

Organisations

Many organisations exist for behaviour therapists around the world. In the United States, the American Psychological Association’s Division 25 is the division for behaviour analysis. The Association for Contextual Behaviour Therapy is another professional organisation. ACBS is home to many clinicians with specific interest in third generation behaviour therapy. Doctoral-level behaviour analysts who are psychologists belong to American Psychological Association’s division 25 – Behaviour analysis. APA offers a diploma in behavioural psychology.

The Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies (formerly the Association for the Advancement of Behaviour Therapy) is for those with a more cognitive orientation. The ABCT also has an interest group in behaviour analysis, which focuses on clinical behaviour analysis. In addition, the Association for Behavioural an Cognitive Therapies has a special interest group on addictions.

Characteristics

By nature, behavioural therapies are empirical (data-driven), contextual (focused on the environment and context), functional (interested in the effect or consequence a behaviour ultimately has), probabilistic (viewing behaviour as statistically predictable), monistic (rejecting mind–body dualism and treating the person as a unit), and relational (analysing bidirectional interactions).

Behavioural therapy develops, adds and provides behavioural intervention strategies and programs for clients, and training to people who care to facilitate successful lives in the communities.

Training

Recent efforts in behavioural psychotherapy have focused on the supervision process. A key point of behavioural models of supervision is that the supervisory process parallels the behavioural psychotherapy.

Methods

  • Behaviour management.
  • Behaviour modification.
  • Clinical behaviour analysis.
  • Contingency management.
  • Covert conditioning.
  • Decoupling.
  • Exposure and response prevention.
  • Flooding.
  • Habit reversal training.
  • Matching law.
  • Modelling.
  • Observational learning.
  • Operant conditioning.
  • Professional practice of behaviour analysis.
  • Respondent conditioning.
  • Stimulus control.
  • Systematic desensitisation.

Reference

Skinner, B.F. (1969). Contingencies of Reinforcement: A Theoretical Analysis. New York: Meredith Corporation.

Book: The PTSD Workbook

Book Title:

The PTSD Workbook: Simple, Effective Techniques for Overcoming Traumatic Stress Symptoms.

Author(s): Mary Beth Williams and Soili Poijula.

Year: 2016.

Edition: Third (3rd).

Publisher: New Harbinger.

Type(s): Paperback and Kindle.

Synopsis:

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an extremely debilitating condition that can occur after exposure to a terrifying event. But whether you are a veteran of war, a victim of domestic violence or sexual violence, or have been involved in a natural disaster, crime, car accident, or accident in the workplace, your symptoms may be getting in the way of you living your life.

PTSD can often cause you to relive your traumatic experience in the form of flashbacks, memories, nightmares, and frightening thoughts. This is especially true when you are exposed to events or objects that remind you of your trauma. Left untreated, PTSD can lead to emotional numbness, insomnia, addiction, anxiety, depression, and even suicide. So, how can you start to heal and get your life back?

In The PTSD Workbook, Third Edition, psychologists and trauma experts Mary Beth Williams and Soili Poijula outline techniques and interventions used by PTSD experts from around the world to conquer distressing trauma-related symptoms. In this fully revised and updated workbook, you’ll learn how to move past the trauma you’ve experienced and manage symptoms such as insomnia, anxiety, and flashbacks.

Based in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), this book is extremely accessible and easy-to-use, offering evidence-based therapy at a low cost. This new edition features chapters focusing on veterans with PTSD, the link between cortisol and adrenaline and its role in PTSD and overall mental health, and the mind-body component of PTSD. Clinicians will also find important updates reflecting the new DSM-V definition of PTSD.

This book is designed to give you the emotional resilience you need to get your life back together after a traumatic event.

What is Melancholic Depression?

Introduction

Melancholic depression, or depression with melancholic features, is a DSM-IV and DSM-5 subtype of clinical depression.

Refer to Melancholia.

Signs and Symptoms

Requiring at least one of the following symptoms:

  • Anhedonia (the inability to find pleasure in positive things).
  • Lack of mood reactivity (i.e. mood does not improve in response to positive events).

And at least three of the following:

  • Depression that is subjectively different from grief or loss.
  • Severe weight loss or loss of appetite.
  • Psychomotor agitation or retardation.
  • Early morning awakening.
  • Guilt that is excessive.
  • Worse mood in the morning.

Melancholic features apply to an episode of depression that occurs as part of either major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder I or II.

Causes

The causes of melancholic-type major depressive disorder are believed to be mostly biological factors; some may have inherited the disorder from their parents. Sometimes stressful situations can trigger episodes of melancholic depression, though this is a contributing cause rather than a necessary or sufficient cause. People with psychotic symptoms are also thought to be more susceptible to this disorder. It is frequent in old age and often unnoticed by some physicians who perceive the symptoms to be a part of dementia. Major depressive disorder, melancholic or otherwise, is a separate condition that can be comorbid with dementia in the elderly.

Treatment

Melancholic depression is often considered to be a biologically based and particularly severe form of depression. Treatment involves antidepressants, electroconvulsive therapy, or other empirically supported treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy and interpersonal therapy for depression. A 2008 analysis of a large study of patients with unipolar major depression found a rate of 23.5% for melancholic features. It was the first form of depression extensively studied, and many of the early symptom checklists for depression reflect this.

Incidence

The incidence of melancholic depression has been found to increase when the temperature and/or sunlight are low. According to the DSM-IV, the “melancholic features” specifier may be applied to the following only:

  • Major depressive episode, single episode.
  • Major depressive episode, recurrent episode.
  • Bipolar I disorder, most recent episode depressed.
  • Bipolar II disorder, most recent episode depressed.

What is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy?

Introduction

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT, typically pronounced as the word “act”) is a form of psychotherapy and a branch of clinical behaviour analysis.

It is an empirically-based psychological intervention that uses acceptance and mindfulness strategies mixed in different ways with commitment and behaviour-change strategies, to increase psychological flexibility. The approach was originally called comprehensive distancing. Steven C. Hayes developed acceptance and commitment therapy in 1982 in order to create a mixed approach which integrates both covert conditioning and behaviour therapy. There are a variety of protocols for ACT, depending on the target behaviour or setting. For example, in behavioural health areas a brief version of ACT is called focused acceptance and commitment therapy (FACT).

The objective of ACT is not elimination of difficult feelings; rather, it is to be present with what life brings us and to “move toward valued behaviour”. Acceptance and commitment therapy invites people to open up to unpleasant feelings, and learn not to overreact to them, and not avoid situations where they are invoked. Its therapeutic effect is a positive spiral where feeling better leads to a better understanding of the truth. In ACT, ‘truth’ is measured through the concept of ‘workability’, or what works to take another step toward what matters (e.g. values, meaning).

Technique

Basics

ACT is developed within a pragmatic philosophy called functional contextualism. ACT is based on relational frame theory (RFT), a comprehensive theory of language and cognition that is an offshoot of behaviour analysis. Both ACT and RFT are based on B.F. Skinner’s philosophy of Radical Behaviourism.

ACT differs from some other kinds of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in that rather than trying to teach people to better control their thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories and other private events, ACT teaches them to “just notice,” accept, and embrace their private events, especially previously unwanted ones. ACT helps the individual get in contact with a transcendent sense of self known as self-as-context – the you who is always there observing and experiencing and yet distinct from one’s thoughts, feelings, sensations, and memories. ACT aims to help the individual clarify their personal values and to take action on them, bringing more vitality and meaning to their life in the process, increasing their psychological flexibility.

While Western psychology has typically operated under the “healthy normality” assumption which states that by their nature, humans are psychologically healthy, ACT assumes, rather, that psychological processes of a normal human mind are often destructive. The core conception of ACT is that psychological suffering is usually caused by experiential avoidance, cognitive entanglement, and resulting psychological rigidity that leads to a failure to take needed behavioural steps in accord with core values. As a simple way to summarise the model, ACT views the core of many problems to be due to the concepts represented in the acronym, FEAR:

  • Fusion with your thoughts.
  • Evaluation of experience.
  • Avoidance of your experience.
  • Reason-giving for your behaviour.

And the healthy alternative is to ACT:

  • Accept your reactions and be present.
  • Choose a valued direction.
  • Take action.

Core Principles

ACT commonly employs six core principles to help clients develop psychological flexibility:[9]

  • Cognitive defusion: Learning methods to reduce the tendency to reify thoughts, images, emotions, and memories.
  • Acceptance: Allowing unwanted private experiences (thoughts, feelings and urges) to come and go without struggling with them.
  • Contact with the present moment: Awareness of the here and now, experienced with openness, interest, and receptiveness. (e.g., mindfulness)
  • The observing self: Accessing a transcendent sense of self, a continuity of consciousness which is unchanging.
  • Values: Discovering what is most important to oneself.
  • Committed action: Setting goals according to values and carrying them out responsibly, in the service of a meaningful life.

Correlational evidence has found that absence of psychological flexibility predicts many forms of psychopathology. A 2005 meta-analysis showed that the six ACT principles, on average, account for 16-29% of the variance in psychopathology (general mental health, depression, anxiety) at baseline, depending on the measure, using correlational methods. A 2012 meta-analysis of 68 laboratory-based studies on ACT components has also provided support for the link between psychological flexibility concepts and specific components.

Research

A 2008 meta-analysis concluded that the evidence was still too limited for ACT to be considered a supported treatment, and raised methodological concerns about the research base. A 2009 meta-analysis found that ACT was more effective than placebo and “treatment as usual” for most problems (with the exception of anxiety and depression), but not more effective than CBT and other traditional therapies. A 2012 meta-analysis was more positive and reported that ACT outperformed CBT, except for treating depression and anxiety.

A 2015 review found that ACT was better than placebo and typical treatment for anxiety disorders, depression, and addiction. Its effectiveness was similar to traditional treatments like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). The authors suggested that the CBT comparison of the previous 2012 meta-analysis may have been compromised by the inclusion of nonrandomised trials with small sample sizes. They also noted that research methodologies had improved since the studies described in the 2008 meta-analysis.

The number of randomised clinical trials (RCT) and controlled time series evaluating ACT for a variety of problems is growing. In 2006, only about 30 such studies were known, but in 2011 the number had approximately doubled. The website of the Association for Contextual Behavioural Science states that there were 171 RCTs of ACT published as of December 2016, and over 20 meta-analyses and 45 mediational studies of the ACT literature as of Spring 2016. Most studies of ACT so far have been conducted on adults and therefore the knowledge of its effectiveness when applied to children and adolescents is limited.

Professional Organisations

The Association for Contextual Behavioural Science is committed to research and development in the area of ACT, RFT, and contextual behavioural science more generally. As of 2017 it had over 7,600 members worldwide, about half outside of the United States. It holds annual “world conference” meetings: The 16th will be held in Montreal, in July 2018.

The Association for Behaviour Analysis International (ABAI) has a special interest group for practitioner issues, behavioural counselling, and clinical behaviour analysis ABA:I. ABAI has larger special interest groups for autism and behavioural medicine. ABAI serves as the core intellectual home for behaviour analysts. ABAI sponsors three conferences/year – one multi-track in the US, one specific to Autism and one international.

The Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) also has an interest group in behaviour analysis, which focuses on clinical behaviour analysis. ACT work is commonly presented at ABCT and other mainstream CBT organisations.

The British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP) has a large special interest group in ACT, with over 1,200 members.

Doctoral-level behaviour analysts who are psychologists belong to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Division 25 – Behaviour analysis. ACT has been called a “commonly used treatment with empirical support” within the APA-recognized specialty of behavioural and cognitive psychology.

Similarities

ACT, dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), functional analytic psychotherapy (FAP), mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and other acceptance- and mindfulness-based approaches are commonly grouped under the name “the third wave of cognitive behaviour therapy”. The first wave, behaviour therapy, commenced in the 1920s based on Pavlov’s classical (respondent) conditioning and operant conditioning that was correlated to reinforcing consequences. The second wave emerged in the 1970s and included cognition in the form of irrational beliefs, dysfunctional attitudes or depressogenic attributions. In the late 1980s empirical limitations and philosophical misgivings of the second wave gave rise to Steven Hayes’ ACT theory which modified the focus of abnormal behaviour away from the content or form towards the context in which it occurs. ACT research has suggested that many of the emotional defences individuals use with conviction to try to solve their problems actually entangle humans into greater suffering. Rigid ideas about themselves, lack of focus on what is important in their life and struggling to change sensations, feelings or thoughts that are troublesome only serve to create greater distress.

Steven C. Hayes described this group in his ABCT President Address as follows:

Grounded in an empirical, principle-focused approach, the third wave of behavioral and cognitive therapy is particularly sensitive to the context and functions of psychological phenomena, not just their form, and thus tends to emphasize contextual and experiential change strategies in addition to more direct and didactic ones. These treatments tend to seek the construction of broad, flexible and effective repertoires over an eliminative approach to narrowly defined problems, and to emphasize the relevance of the issues they examine for clinicians as well as clients. The third wave reformulates and synthesizes previous generations of behavioral and cognitive therapy and carries them forward into questions, issues, and domains previously addressed primarily by other traditions, in hopes of improving both understanding and outcomes.

ACT has also been adapted to create a non-therapy version of the same processes called Acceptance and Commitment Training. This training process, oriented towards the development of mindfulness, acceptance, and valued skills in non-clinical settings such as businesses or schools, has also been investigated in a handful of research studies with good preliminary results. This is somewhat similar to the awareness-management movement in business training programmes, where mindfulness and cognitive-shifting techniques are employed.

The emphasis of ACT on ongoing present moment awareness, valued directions and committed action is similar to other psycho-therapeutic approaches that, unlike ACT, are not as focused on outcome research or consciously linked to a basic behavioural science programme, including approaches such as Gestalt therapy, Morita therapy and Voice Dialogue, IFS and others.

Wilson, Hayes & Byrd explore at length the compatibilities between ACT and the 12-step treatment of addictions and argue that, unlike most other psychotherapies, both approaches can be implicitly or explicitly integrated due to their broad commonalities. Both approaches endorse acceptance as an alternative to unproductive control. ACT emphasizes the hopelessness of relying on ineffectual strategies to control private experience, similarly the 12-step approach emphasizes the acceptance of powerlessness over addiction. Both approaches encourage a broad life-reorientation, rather than a narrow focus on the elimination of substance use, and both place great value on the long-term project of building of a meaningful life aligned with the clients’ values. ACT and 12-step both encourage the pragmatic utility of cultivating a transcendent sense of self (higher power) within an unconventional, individualised spirituality. Finally they both openly accept the paradox that acceptance is a necessary condition for change and both encourage a playful awareness of the limitations of human thinking.

Criticisms

Some published empirical studies in clinical psychology have argued that ACT is not different from other interventions. Stefan Hofmann argued that ACT is similar to the much older Morita therapy.

A meta-analysis by Öst in 2008 concluded that ACT did not yet qualify as an “empirically supported treatment”, that the research methodology for ACT was less stringent than cognitive behavioural therapy, and that the mean effect size was moderate. Supporters of ACT have challenged those conclusions by showing that the quality difference in Öst’s review was accounted for by the larger number of funded trials in the CBT comparison group.

Several concerns, both theoretical and empirical, have arisen in response to the ascendancy of ACT. One major theoretical concern was that the primary authors of ACT and of the corresponding theories of human behaviour, relational frame theory (RFT) and functional contextualism (FC), recommended their approach as the proverbial holy grail of psychological therapies. Later, in the preface to the second edition of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, the authors clarified that “ACT has not been created to undercut the traditions from which it came, nor does it claim to be a panacea.” Psychologist James C. Coyne, in a discussion of “disappointments and embarrassments in the branding of psychotherapies as evidence supported”, said: “Whether or not ACT is more efficacious than other therapies, as its proponents sometimes claim, or whether it is efficacious for psychosis, is debatable”. The textbook Systems of Psychotherapy: A Transtheoretical Analysis provides criticisms of third-wave behaviour therapies including ACT from the perspectives of other systems of psychotherapy.

Psychologist Jonathan W. Kanter said that Hayes and colleagues “argue that empirical clinical psychology is hampered in its efforts to alleviate human suffering and present contextual behavioural science (CBS) to address the basic philosophical, theoretical and methodological shortcomings of the field. CBS represents a host of good ideas but at times the promise of CBS is obscured by excessive promotion of ACT and Relational Frame Theory (RFT) and demotion of earlier cognitive and behaviour change techniques in the absence of clear logic and empirical support.” Nevertheless, Kanter concluded that “the ideas of CBS, RFT, and ACT deserve serious consideration by the mainstream community and have great potential to shape a truly progressive clinical science to guide clinical practice.”

ACT currently appears to be about as effective as standard CBT, with some meta-analyses showing small differences in favour of ACT and others not. For example, a meta-analysis published by Francisco Ruiz in 2012 looked at 16 studies comparing ACT to standard CBT. ACT failed to separate from CBT on effect sizes for anxiety, however modest benefits were found with ACT compare to CBT for anxiety and quality of life. The author did find separation between ACT and CBT on the “primary outcome” – a heterogeneous class of 14 separate outcome measures that were aggregated into the effect size analysis. This analysis however is limited by the highly heterogeneous nature of the outcome variables used in the analysis, which has the tendency to increase the number needed to treat (NNT) to replicate the effect size reported. More limited measures, such as depression, anxiety and quality of life decrease the NNT, making the analysis more clinically relevant, and on these measures ACT did not outperform CBT.

A 2013 paper comparing ACT to cognitive therapy (CT) concluded that “like CT, ACT cannot yet make strong claims that its unique and theory-driven intervention components are active ingredients in its effects.” The authors of the paper suggested that many of the assumptions of ACT and CT “are pre-analytical, and cannot be directly pitted against one another in experimental tests.”

What is Virtual Reality Therapy?

Introduction

Virtual reality therapy (VRT), also known as virtual reality immersion therapy (VRIT), simulation for therapy (SFT), virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET), and computerised CBT (CCBT), is the use of virtual reality technology for psychological or occupational therapy and in affecting virtual rehabilitation.

Patients receiving virtual reality therapy navigate through digitally created environments and complete specially designed tasks often tailored to treat a specific ailment; and is designed to isolate the user from their surrounding sensory inputs and give the illusion of immersion inside a computer-generated, interactive virtual environment. This technology has a demonstrated clinical benefit as an adjunctive analgesic during burn wound dressing and other painful medical procedures. Technology can range from a simple PC and keyboard setup, to a modern virtual reality headset. It is widely used as an alternative form of exposure therapy, in which patients interact with harmless virtual representations of traumatic stimuli in order to reduce fear responses. It has proven to be especially effective at treating post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and shows considerable promise in treating a variety of neurological and physical conditions. Virtual reality therapy has also been used to help stroke patients regain muscle control, to treat other disorders such as body dysmorphia, and to improve social skills in those diagnosed with autism.

Description

VRT uses specially programmed computers, visual immersion devices and artificially created environments to give the patient a simulated experience that can be used to diagnose and treat psychological conditions that cause difficulties for patients. In many environmental phobias, reaction to the perceived hazards, such as heights, speaking in public, flying, close spaces, are usually triggered by visual and auditory stimuli. In VR-based therapies, the virtual world is a means of providing artificial, controlled stimuli in the context of treatment, and with a therapist able to monitor the patient’s reaction. Unlike traditional cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), VR-based treatment may involve adjusting the virtual environment, such as for example adding controlled intensity smells or adding and adjusting vibrations, and allow the clinician to determine the triggers and triggering levels for each patient’s reaction. VR-based therapy systems may allow replaying virtual scenes, with or without adjustment, to habituate the patient to such environments. Therapists who apply virtual reality exposure therapy, just as those who apply in-vivo exposure therapy, can take one of two approaches concerning the intensity of exposure. The first approach is called flooding, which refers to the most intense approach where stimuli that produce the most anxiety are presented first. For soldiers who have developed PTSD from combat, this could mean first exposing them to a virtual reality scene of their fellow troops being shot or injured followed by less stressful stimuli such as only the sounds of war. On the other hand, what is referred to as graded-exposure takes a more relaxed approach in which the least distressing stimuli are introduced first. VR-exposure, as compared to in-vivo exposure has the advantage of providing the patient a vivid experience, without the associated risks or costs. VRT has great promise since it historically produces a “cure” about 90% of the time at about half the cost of traditional CBT authority, and is especially promising as a treatment for PTSD where there are simply not enough psychologists and psychiatrists to treat all the veterans with anxiety disorders diagnosed as related to their military service.

Recently there have been some advances in the field of virtual reality medicine. Virtual reality is a complete immersion of the patient into a virtual world by putting on a headset with an LED screen in the lenses of the headset. This is different from the recent advancements in augmented reality. Augmented reality is different in the sense that it enhances the non-synthetic environment by introducing synthetic elements to the user’s perception of the world. This in turn “augments” the current reality and uses virtual elements to build upon the existing environment. Augmented reality poses additional benefits and has proven itself to be a medium through which individuals suffering from specific phobia can be exposed “safely” to the object(s) of their fear, without the costs associated with programming complete virtual environments. Thus, augmented reality can offer an efficacious alternative to some less advantageous exposure-based therapies.

Brief History

VRT was pioneered and originally termed by Max North documented by the first known publication (Virtual Environment and Psychological Disorders, Max M. North, and Sarah M. North, Electronic Journal of Virtual Culture, 2,4, July 1994), his doctoral VRT dissertation completion in 1995 (began in 1992), and followed with the first known published VRT book in 1996 (Virtual Reality Therapy, an Innovative Paradigm, Max M. North, Sarah M. North, and Joseph R. Coble, 1996. IPI Press). His pioneered virtual reality technology work began as early as 1992 as a research faculty at Clark Atlanta University and supported by funding from US Army Research Laboratory.

An early exploration in 1993-1994 of VRT was done by Ralph Lamson a USC graduate then at Kaiser Permanente Psychiatry Group. Lamson began publishing his work in 1993. As a psychologist, he was most concerned with the medical and therapeutic aspects, that is, how to treat people using the technology, rather than the apparatus, which was obtained from Division, Inc. Psychology Today reported in 1994 that these 1993-1994 treatments were successful in about 90% of Lamson’s virtual psychotherapy patients. Lamson wrote in 1993 a book entitled Virtual Therapy which was published in 1997 directed primarily to the detailed explanation of the anatomical, medical and therapeutic basis for the success of VRT. In 1994-1995, he had solved his own acrophobia in a test use of a third party VR simulation and then set up a 40 patient test funded by Kaiser Permanente. Shortly thereafter, in 1994-1995, Larry Hodges, then a computer scientist at Georgia Tech active in VR, began studying VRT in cooperation with Max North who had reported anomalous behaviour in flying carpet simulation VR studies and attributed such to phobic response of unknown nature. Hodges tried to hire Lamson without success in 1994 and instead began working with Barbara Rothbaum, a psychologist at Emory University to test VRT in controlled group tests, experiencing about 70% success among 50% of subjects completing the testing programme.

In 2005, Skip Rizzo of USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, with research funding from the Office of Naval Research (ONR), started validating a tool he created using assets from the game Full Spectrum Warrior for the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder. Virtual Iraq was subsequently evaluated and improved under ONR funding and is supported by Virtually Better, Inc. They also support applications of VR-based therapy for aerophobia, acrophobia, glossophobia, and substance abuse. Virtual Iraq proved successful in normalization of over 70% of PTSD sufferers, and that has now become a standard accepted treatment by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. However, the VA has continued to emphasize traditional prolonged exposure therapy as the treatment of choice, and VR-based therapies have gained only limited adoption, despite active promotion by DOD, and despite VRT having much lower cost and apparently higher success rates. A $12-million ONR funded study is currently underway to definitively compare the efficacy of the two methods, PET and VRT. Military labs have subsequently set up dozens of VRT labs and treatment centres for treating both PTSD and a variety of other medical conditions. The use of VRT has thus become a mainstream psychiatric treatment for anxiety disorders and is finding increasing use in the treatment of other cognitive disorders associated with various medical conditions such as addiction, depression and insomnia.

Applications

Psychological Therapy

Exposure Therapy

Virtual reality technology is especially useful for exposure therapy – a treatment method in which patients are introduced and then slowly exposed to a traumatic stimulus. Inside virtual environments, patients can safely interact with a representation of their phobia, and researchers do not need to have access to a real version of the phobia itself. One of the primary challenges to the efficacy of Exposure therapy is recreating the level of trauma existing in real environments inside a virtual environment. Virtual Reality aids in overcoming this by engaging with different sensory stimuli of the patient while heightening the realism and maintaining the safety of the environment.

One very successful example of virtual reality therapy exposure therapy is the PTSD treatment system, Virtual Iraq. Using a head mounted display and a game pad, patients navigate a Humvee around virtual recreations of Iraq, Afghanistan, and the United States. By being safely exposed to the traumatic environments, patients learned to reduce their anxiety. According to a review of the history of Virtual Iraq, one study found that it reduced PTSD symptoms by an average of fifty percent, and disqualified over 75% of participants for PTSD after treatment. Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET) is also commonly used for treating specific phobias, especially small animal phobia. Commonly feared animals such as spiders can be easily produced in a virtual environment, instead of finding the real animal. VRET has also been used experimentally to treat other fears such as public speaking and claustrophobia.

Another successful study attempted treating 10 individuals who experienced trauma as a result of events during 9/11. Through repeated exposure to increasingly traumatic sequences of World Trade Centre events, immediate positive results were self reported by test subjects. In a 6 month follow up, 9 of the test subjects available for follow up maintained their results from exposure.

VRET offers a wide range of advantages compared to traditional exposure therapy techniques. Recent years have suggested an increase in familiarly and trust in virtual reality technology as an acceptable mirror of reality. A higher trust in the technology could lead to more effective treatment results as more phobics seek out help. Another consideration for VRET is the cost effectiveness. While the actual cost of VRET may vary based on the hardware and software implementation, it is supposedly more effective than the traditional in vivo treatment used for exposure therapy while maintaining a positive return on investment. Future research might pave an alternative to extensive automated lab or hospital environments. For instance, in 2011, researchers at York University proposed an affordable VRET system for the treatment of phobias that could be set up at home. Such developments in VRET may pave a new way of customised treatment that also tackles the stigma attached to clinical treatment. While there is still a lot unknown about the long-term effectiveness of the relatively new VRET, the future seems promising with growing studies reflecting the benefits of VRET to combat phobias.

Virtual Rehabilitation

The term virtual rehabilitation was coined in 2002 by Professor Daniel Thalmann of EPFL (Switzerland) and Professor Grigore Burdea of Rutgers University (USA). In their view the term applies to both physical therapy and cognitive interventions (such as for patients suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, phobias, anxieties, attention deficits or amnesia). Since 2008, the virtual rehabilitation “community” has been supported by the International Society on Virtual Rehabilitation.

Virtual rehabilitation is a concept in psychology in which a therapeutic patient’s training is based entirely on, or is augmented by, virtual reality simulation exercises. If there is no conventional therapy provided, the rehabilitation is said to be “virtual reality-based”. Otherwise, if virtual rehabilitation is in addition to conventional therapy, the intervention is “virtual reality-augmented.” Today, a majority of the population uses the virtual environment to navigate their daily lives and almost one fourth of the world population uses the internet. As a result, virtual rehabilitation and gaming rehabilitation, or rehabilitation through gaming consoles, have become quite common. In fact, virtual therapy has been used over regular therapeutic methods in order to treat a number of disorders.

Some factors to consider when virtual rehabilitation include cultural sensitivity, accessibility, and ability to finance the virtual therapy.

Advantages

Virtual rehabilitation offers a number of advantages compared to conventional therapeutic methods:

It is entertaining, thus motivating the patient:

  • Potential for involvement of the patients’ stimulus modalities for more realistic environments for treatment.
  • It provides objective outcome measures of therapy efficacy (limb velocity, range of movement, error rates, game scores, etc.).
  • These data are transparently stored by the computer running the simulation and can be made available on the Internet.
  • Virtual rehabilitation can be performed in the patient’s home and monitored at a distance (becoming telerehabilitation).
  • The patient feels more actively involved in the desensitisation.
  • The patient may “forget” they are in treatment or undergoing observation resulting in more authentic expressions.
  • Effective for hospitals to reduce their costs because of lowered cost of medicine and equipment.
  • Great impact of virtual reality on pain relief.

Disadvantages

Despite all the merits of VR therapy as listed in the sections above, there are pitfalls and obstacles in the development of widespread VR solutions.

  • Cost effectiveness:
    • VRET may show promising returns on investment but the fact remains that the true development cost of VRET environments depends heavily on the choice of hardware and software chosen.
  • Treatment effectiveness:
    • For the treatment to take effect, a patient should be able to successfully project and experience their anxiety in a virtual environment.
    • Unfortunately, this projection is highly subjective and personalised per patient; and outside the control of the therapists.
    • This limitation might adversely impact the therapy.
  • Migrating back to reality from virtual reality:
    • Another scepticism is the correlation between virtual reality and actual reality. If a patient successfully combats their phobia in a virtual environment, does that guarantee success in real life too?
    • Further, when treating more complicated ailments such as schizophrenia, there is inadequate projection on how delusions and hallucinations may translate from the real world to the virtual one.
  • VR sickness:
    • Movement in a virtual environment is said to cause visual discomfort.
    • Prolonged periods of exposure to VR may lead to side effects like dry eyes, headaches, nausea and sweating; symptoms similar to motion sickness.
  • Ethical and legal considerations:
    • Since VR is a relatively new technology, its ethical implications are not as comprehensive as other forms of treatment.
    • There is a need to formalize the limits, side effects, disclaimers, privacy regulations as we increase the breadth of impact of VR therapy; especially in matters related to forensic cases.
  • Acceptance by the medical community:
    • As VR-based therapy increases, it might pose a challenge to licenced therapists and medical professionals who may perceive VR as a threat.
    • After all, VR deviates from the pre-established norm of “talking cure”.

Therapeutic Targets

Depression

In February 2006 the UK’s National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommended that VRT be made available for use within the NHS across England and Wales, for patients presenting with mild/moderate depression, rather than immediately opting for antidepressant medication. Some areas have developed or are trialling.

At Auckland University in New Zealand, a team led by Dr. Sally Merry have been developing a computerised CBT fantasy “serious” game to help tackle depression amongst adolescents. The game, Sparx, has a number of features to help combat depression, where the user takes on a role of a character who travels through a fantasy world, combating “literal” negative thoughts and learning techniques to manage their depression.

Eating Disorders and Body Dysmorphia

Virtual reality therapy has also been used to attempt to treat eating disorders and body dysmorphia. One study in 2013 had participants complete various tasks in virtual reality environments which could not have been easily replicated without the technology. Tasks included showing patients the implications of reaching their desired weight, comparing their actual body shape to an avatar created using their perceived body size, and altering a virtual reflection to match their actual body size.

Gender Dysphoria

Early research suggests that virtual reality experiences may offer therapeutic benefits to transgendered individuals experiencing gender dysphoria. More experimentation and professional examination is needed before virtual reality could be prescribed as a treatment in practice. However, some transgendered individuals have engaged in what can be characterized as an anecdotally, alleviating form of self-administered, virtual sex reassignment therapy. Digital spaces offer a form of anonymous self-expression that trans individuals, due to exposure of discrimination and violence, are not fully granted to them in real life or IRL. The sophistication of virtual reality expands on these newfound liberties by providing an avenue for those with gender dysphoria to embody their gender identity, if it not accessible for them to do so in their real life. Through use of available VR videogames and chat rooms, those suffering from gender dysphoria can create avatars of themselves, interact anonymously, and work towards therapeutic goals.

Acrophobia

A study published in The Lancent Psychiatry proved that Virtual Reality therapy can help treat acrophobia. Over the course of the study, participants were introduced to intimidating heights in a Virtual Reality environment then asked to complete various activities at those heights while under the supervision and support of a coach. This study, although insufficient in terms of scope and scrutiny for direct adoption into remedial practices, surrounds future research and treatment modelling with promise, as a majority of the participants considered themselves no longer afraid of heights.

Physical Therapy

Stroke

Research suggests that patients who suffered from a stroke found Virtual reality (VR) rehab techniques in their Physical Therapy treatment plans very beneficial. Throughout a rehabilitation programme aimed to restore and/or retain balance and walking skills, patients who have suffered a stroke often must relearn how to control certain muscles. In most physical therapy settings, this is done through high intensity, repetitive, and task-specific practice. Programmes of this type can prove to be physically demanding, are expensive, and require several days of training per week. Additionally, regimens may seem redundant, and produce only modest and/or delayed effects in patient recovery. A physical therapy regimen using VR provides an opportunity to individualise training to fit the specific needs of the patient. While the exercises and movements required for proper motor learning can seem repetitive, using VR adds a level of intrigue and engagement for the patient. Training with VR enhances motor learning by giving the patient opportunities to practice their movements/exercise protocol in different VR environments. This ensures that patients are always challenged and may be better prepared to perform in their environments.

Feedback is an important element of physical therapy for patients recovering from stroke and/or other neuromuscular disorders. Within the scope of motor learning, receiving feedback during performance of a task improves the learning rate. According to a Cochrane Review, visual feedback, specifically, has been shown to aid in balance recovery for patients who have had a stroke. VR can provide continuous visual feedback that a physical therapist may not be able to during their sessions. Results have also suggested that in addition to improvements in balance, positive effects are also seen in walking ability. In one study, patients with VR training coupled with their physical therapy programme had better improvements in walking speed than others not using VR training. The most recent review about the effect of VR training on balance and gait ability showed significant benefits of VR training on gait speed, Berg Balance Scale (BBS) scores, and Timed “Up & Go” Test scores when VR was time dose matched to conventional therapy.

Parkinson’s Disease

Many studies (Cochrane Review) have shown that using VR technology during Physical Therapy treatments for patients with Parkinson’s Disease had positive outcomes. For patients with PD the VR therapy:

  • Increased gait and balance.
  • Improved functions of activities of daily living (ADL’s).
  • Improved quality of life.
  • Improved cognitive function.

It is speculated that these improvements occurred because the VR gave increased feedback to the patient regarding their performance during the VR sessions. VR stimulates a patient’s motor and cognitive processes, both of which may be impaired as a result of the disease. Another benefit of VR is that it replicates real life scenarios, allowing patients to practice functional activities.

Wound Care

Additionally, VR provides beneficial outcomes when it is implemented for patients who are receiving wound care rehabilitation. Studies have speculated that the more immersive the VR, the greater the experience and concentration the patient will have on the virtual environment. Equally important, VR has shown to reduce pain, anxiety and depressive symptoms, as well as an increasing their treatment adherence.

In other studies, the results point to the benefits of VR in relation to increased distraction, and patients reported less time thinking about pain, less intense pain and immersion, which facilitates care such as dressing changes and physiotherapy.

Wound dressing often generates a pain-provoking experience. Therefore, use of VR was related to more efficient dressings, increased distraction from the pain during procedures (e.g. dressing and physical rehabilitation) which reduced the patients’ stress and anxiety.

Cardiovascular

The use of VR and video games could be considered as complementary tools for physical training in patients with Cardiovascular diseases. Certain games designed for exercise have been shown to promote increases in heart rate, fatigue perception, and physical activity. In addition, it has been shown to reduce pain and increase adherence to physical therapy programmes in patients with cardiovascular diseases. Finally, Virtual reality and video games enhance motivation and adherence in cardiac rehabilitation programmes.

Occupational Therapy

Autism

Virtual reality has been shown to improve the social skills of young adults with autism. In one study, participants controlled a virtual avatar in different virtual environments and manoeuvred through various social tasks such as interviewing, meeting new people, and dealing with arguments. Researchers found that participants improved in the areas of emotional recognition in voices and faces and in considering the thoughts of other people. Participants were also surveyed months after the study for how effective they thought the treatments were, and the responses were overwhelmingly positive. Many other studies have also explored this occupational therapy option.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

A clinical trial published in the Journal of Attention Disorders found that school age children with ADHD who underwent a virtual classroom cognitive treatment series were able to achieve the same management of symptoms of impulsivity and distractibility as children who were medicated with a stimulant.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

It may also be possible to use virtual reality to assist those with PTSD. The virtual reality allows the patients to relive their combat situations at different extremes as a therapist can be there with them guiding them through the process. Some scholars believe that this is an effective way to treat PTSD patients as it allows for the recreation of exactly what they experienced. “It allows for greater engagement by the patient and, consequently, greater activation of the traumatic memory, which is necessary for the extinction of the conditioned fear.”

Stroke

Virtual reality also has applications in the physical side of occupational therapy. For stroke patients, various virtual reality technologies can help bring fine control back to different muscle groups. Therapy often includes games controlled with haptic-feedback controllers that require fine movements, such as playing piano with a virtual hand. The Wii gaming system has also been used in conjunction with virtual reality as a treatment method.

Chronic and Acute Pain

VR has been shown to be effective in immediately decreasing procedural or acute pain. To date there have been few studies on its efficacy in chronic pain. Such chronic pain patients can tolerate the VR session without the side effects that sometimes come with VR such as headaches, dizziness or nausea.

Rehabilitation

Virtual reality is also helping patients overcome balance and mobility problems resulting from stroke or head injury. In the study of VR, the modest advantage of VR over conventional training supports further investigation of the effect of video-capture VR or VR combined with conventional therapy in larger-scale randomised, more intense controlled studies. It shows the VR-assisted patients had better mobility when the doctors checked in two months later. Other research has shown similarly successful outcomes for patients with cerebral palsy undergoing rehab for balance problems.

Surgery

VR smoothly blurs the demarcation between the physical world and the computer simulation as surgeons can use latest versions of virtual reality glasses to interact in a three-dimensional space with the organ that requires surgical treatment, view it from any desired angle and able to switch between 3D view and the real CT images.

Efficacy

Randomised, tightly controlled, acrophobia treatment trials at Kaiser Permanente provided >90% effectiveness, conducted in 1993-94. Of 40 patients treated, 38 showed marked reduction in phobic reaction to heights and self-reported reaching their goals. Research found that VRT allows patients to achieve victory over virtual height situations they could not confront in real life, and that gradually increasing the height and danger in a virtual environment produced increasing victories and greater self-confidence in the patient that they could actually confront the situation in real life. “Virtual therapy interventions empower people. The simulation technology of virtual reality lends itself to mastery oriented treatment … Rather than coping with threats, phobics manage progressively more threatening aspects in a computer-generated environment … The range of applications can be extended by enhancing the realness and interactivity so that actions elicit reactions from the environments in which individuals immerse themselves”.

Another study examined the effectiveness of virtual reality therapy in treating military combat personnel recently returning from the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rauch, Eftekhari and Ruzek conducted a study with a sample of 42 combat servicemen who were already diagnosed with chronic PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). These combat servicemen were pre-screened using several different diagnostic self-reports including the PTSD military checklist, a screening tool used by the military in the determination of the intensity of the diagnosis of PTSD by measuring the presence of PTSD symptoms. Although 22 of the servicemen dropped out of the study, the results of the study concerning the 20 remaining servicemen still has merit. The servicemen were given the same diagnostic tests after the study which consisted of multiple sessions of virtual reality exposure and virtual reality exposure therapy. The servicemen showed much improvement in the diagnostic scores, signalling a decrease of symptoms of PTSD. Likewise, a three-month follow-up diagnostic screening was also administered after the initial sessions that were undergone by the servicemen. The results of this study showed that 15 of the 20 participants no longer met diagnostic criteria for PTSD and improved their PTSD military checklist score by 50% for the assessment following the study. Even though only 17 of the 20 participants participated in the 3-month follow-up screening, 13 of the 17 still did not meet the criteria for PTSD and maintained their 50% improvement in the PTSD military checklist score. These results show promising effects and help to validate virtual reality therapy as an efficacious mode of therapy for the treatment of PTSD.

VR combined real instrument training was effective at promoting recovery of patients’ upper-extremity and cognitive function, and thus may be an innovative translational neurorehabilitation strategy after stroke. In the study, the experimental group showed greater therapeutic effects in a time-dependent manner than the control group, especially on the motor power of wrist extension, spasticity of elbow flexion and wrist extension, and Box and Block Tests. Patients in the experimental group, but not the control group, also showed significant improvements on the lateral, palmar, and tip pinch power, Box and Block, and 9-HPTs from before to immediately after training.

Continued Development

Larry Hodges, formerly of Georgia Tech and now Clemson University and Barbara Rothbaum of Emory University, have done extensive work in VRT, and also have several patents and founded a company, Virtually Better, Inc.

In the United States, the United States Department of Defence (DOD) continues funding of VRT research and is actively using VR in treatment of PTSD.

Millions of funding is being put towards developments and early trials in the realm of virtual reality as companies race for FDA approval for their medical applications.

BRAVEMIND Software

In 2014, a virtual reality application used as a prolonged exposure (PE) therapy tool for military related trauma called BRAVEMIND was reported BRAVEMIND is as an acronym for Battlefield Research Accelerating Virtual Environments for Military Individual Neuro Disorders. VRET applications have been used to assist civilian populations with anxieties about flying, public speaking, and heights. BRAVEMIND has been studied in populations of military medics as well as survivors of military sexual assault and combat. This technology was developed by researchers at the University of the Southern California in collaboration with the US Army Research Laboratory.

In 2004, reports stated that 40% of military members experience PTSD but only 23% seek medical help. Emory physicians described one of the strongest indicators of PTSD to be avoidance, saying this inhibits those affected from seeking treatment. PE requires that the patient close their eyes and relate the pertinent episode in as much detail as possible. The methodology was based on the concept that in facing the event, the charge of the triggers may be attenuated over time. The VRET application BRAVEMIND differs from PE in that the patient does not reimagine the episode but instead wears a headset that places them in the familiar environment. This headset is equipped with two screens (one for each eye), headphones, and a position monitor that shifts the visual scene to match the patient’s head movements. Depending on the patient’s experience they may be standing or sitting on top of a raised platform with a bass shaker. This allows for vibrations that simulate the experience of riding a military vehicle. Other accessories such as joysticks or mock machine guns are given to the patients, if appropriate, to enhance realism.

The clinician introduces triggers, such as gunfire, explosions, etc. into the virtual environment as they see fit. The clinician can also adapt sound and lighting conditions to match the patient’s description. The researchers who developed the BRAVEMIND system reported that in a 20-patient trial, the patients’ scores on the diagnostic PTSD checklist-military version (PCL-M) dropped from 54.4 pre-treatment to 35.6 post-treatment after eleven sessions. In another clinical trial, consisting of 24 active-duty soldiers, it was reported that after 7 sessions 45% no longer were identified as positive for PTSD while 62% demonstrated symptomatic improvement. These experimental results were compared with those of alternative PE treatments.

The BRAVEMIND software has 14 different environments available including military barracks, Iraqi markets, and desert roads. Included in these are environments specific to military sexual trauma (MST). Designed environments such as US base settings, shower areas, latrines, remote shelters, and others were developed after consulting subject matter experts from Emory University.

Proponents of this research have said that with military based videogames being so prevalent, this technology may be more appealing to patients and reduce the stigma surrounding treatment. They also have argued that as research on PTSD unfolds, possible subtypes may respond to treatments differently, and therefore diversifying treatment options is best. Others have expressed reservations about the capacity to properly personalise VRET for individualised treatment and the use of ethnic stereotyping while developing Arab populated environments.

Treatment for Lesions

Virtual reality therapy has two promising potential benefits for treatment of hemispatial neglect patients. These include improvement of diagnostic techniques and as a supplement to rehabilitation techniques.

Current diagnostic techniques usually involve pen and paper tests like the line bisection test. Though these tests have provided relatively accurate diagnostic results, advances in VRT have proven these tests to not be completely thorough. Dvorkin et al. used a camera system that immersed the patient into a virtual reality world and required the patient to grasp or move object in the world, through tracking of arm and hand movements. These techniques revealed that pen and paper tests provide relatively accurate qualitative diagnoses of hemispatial neglect patients, but VRT provided accurate mapping into a 3-dimensional space, revealing areas of space that were thought to be neglected but which patients had at least some awareness. Patients were also retested 10 months from initial measurements, during which each went through regular rehabilitation therapy, and most showed measurably less neglect on virtual reality testing whereas no measurable improvements were shown in the line bisection test.

Virtual reality therapy has also proven to be effective in rehabilitation of lesion patients suffering from neglect. A study was conducted with 24 individuals suffering from hemispatial neglect. A control group of 12 individuals underwent conventional rehabilitation therapy including visual scanning training, while the VR group were immersed in 3 virtual worlds, each with a specific task. The programmes consisted of

  • “Bird and Ball” in which a patient touches a flying ball with his or her hand and turns it into a bird.
  • “Coconut”, in which a patient catches a coconut falling from a tree while moving around.
  • “Container” in which a patient moves a box carried in a container to the opposite side.

Each of the patients of VR went through 3 weeks of 5-day-a-week 30-minute intervals emerged in these programmes. The controls went through the equivalent time in traditional rehabilitation therapies. Each patient took the star cancellation test, line bisection test, and Catherine Bergego Scale (CBS) 24 hours before and after the three-week treatment to assess the severity of unilateral spatial neglect. The VR group showed a higher increase in the star cancellation test and CBS scores after treatment than the control group (p<0.05), but both groups did not show any difference in the line bisection test and K-MBI before and after treatment. These results suggest that virtual reality programmes can be more effective than conventional rehabilitation and thus should be further researched.

VR Advantages over IVE

The preference of VR exposure therapy over in-vivo exposure therapy is often debated, but there are many obvious advantages of virtual reality exposure therapy that make it more desirable. For example, the proximity between the client and therapist can cause problems when in-vivo therapy is used and transportation is not reliable for the client or it is impractical for them to travel as far as needed. However, virtual reality exposure therapy can be done from anywhere in the world if given the necessary tools. Going along with the idea of unavailable transportation and proximity, there are many individuals who require therapy but due to various forms of immobilisations (paralysis, extreme obesity, etc.) they can not physically be moved to where the therapy is conducted. Again, because virtual reality exposure therapy can be conducted anywhere in the world, those with mobility issues will no longer be discriminated against. Another major advantage is fewer ethical concerns than in-vivo exposure therapy.

Another advantage to virtual reality rehab over the traditional method is patient motivation. When presented with difficult tasks during a prolonged period, patients tend to lose interest in these tasks. This causes a decrease in compliance due to decreased motivation of completing a given task. VR rehab is advantageous in such a way that it challenges and motivates the patient to do more. With simple things like high scores, in-game awards, and ranks, not only are patients motivated to do their daily therapies, they are having fun doing it. Not only is this advantageous to the patients, it is advantageous to the physical therapist. With these high scores, and data the game or application collects, therapists can analyse the data to see progression. This progression can be charted and visually shown to the patient for increased motivation on their performance and the progression they have made thus far in their therapies. This data can then be charted with other participants doing similar tasks and can show how they compare to people with similar therapy regimens. This charted data in the programme or game can then be used by researchers and scientists alike for further evaluation of optimal therapy regimens. A recent study done in 2016 where a VR based virtual simulation of a city named Reh@City was made. This city in virtual reality evoked memory, attention, visuo-spatial abilities and executive functions tasks are integrated in the performance of several daily routines. This study looked at Activities of Daily Living in post stroke patients and found it to have more of an impact than conventional methods in the recovery process.

Concerns

There are a few ethical concerns concerning the use and development of using virtual reality simulation for helping clients/patients with mental health issues. One example of these concerns is the potential side effects and aftereffects of virtual reality exposure. Some of these side effects and aftereffects could include cybersickness (a type of motion sickness caused by the virtual reality experience), perceptual-motor disturbances, flashbacks, and generally lowered arousal. If severe and widespread enough, these effects should be mitigated via various methods by those therapists using virtual reality.

Another ethical concern is how clinicians should receive VRT certification. Due to the relative newness of virtual reality as a whole, there may not be many clinicians who have experience with the nuances of virtual reality exposure or VR programs’ intended roles in therapy. As such, VR technology should only be used as a tool for qualified clinicians instead of being used to further one’s practice or garner an attraction for new clients/patients.

Some traditional concerns with VR therapy is the cost. Since virtual reality in the field of science and medicine is so primitive and new, the costs of VR equipment would be a lot higher than some of the traditional methods. With medical costs growing at an exponential level this would be another cost that is added to the growing list of medical bills for a patients recovery process. Regardless of the benefits with VR rehab, the costs of the equipment and the resources for a VR setup would make it difficult for it to be mainstream and available to all patients including the indigent population. However, a new market of lower cost VR hardware is emerging, specifically with improved head-mounted displays.

In addition there are some issues which are related to VR that can arise from its use such as Social Isolation where the users can become detached from real-world social connections and the overestimation of a person’s abilities where users – especially the young – often fail to distinguish between their feats in real life and VR.

What is Schema (Psychology)?

Introduction

In psychology and cognitive science, a schema (plural schemata or schemas) describes a pattern of thought or behaviour that organises categories of information and the relationships among them. It can also be described as a mental structure of preconceived ideas, a framework representing some aspect of the world, or a system of organising and perceiving new information. Schemata influence attention and the absorption of new knowledge: people are more likely to notice things that fit into their schema, while re-interpreting contradictions to the schema as exceptions or distorting them to fit. Schemata have a tendency to remain unchanged, even in the face of contradictory information. Schemata can help in understanding the world and the rapidly changing environment. People can organise new perceptions into schemata quickly as most situations do not require complex thought when using schema, since automatic thought is all that is required.

People use schemata to organise current knowledge and provide a framework for future understanding. Examples of schemata include academic rubrics, social schemas, stereotypes, social roles, scripts, worldviews, and archetypes. In Piaget’s theory of development, children construct a series of schemata, based on the interactions they experience, to help them understand the world.

Brief History

“Schema” comes from the Greek word schēmat or schēma, meaning “figure”.

Prior to its use in psychology, the term “schema” had primarily seen use in philosophy. For instance, “schemata” (especially “transcendental schemata”) are crucial to the architectonic system devised by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason.

Early developments of the idea in psychology emerged with the gestalt psychologists and Jean Piaget: the term schéma was introduced by Piaget in 1923. In Piaget’s later publications, action (operative or procedural) schémes were distinguished from figurative (representational) schémas, although together they may be considered a schematic duality. In subsequent discussions of Piaget in English, schema was often a mistranslation of Piaget’s original French schéme. The distinction has been of particular importance in theories of embodied cognition and ecological psychology.

The concept was popularised in psychology and education through the work of the British psychologist Frederic Bartlett, who drew on the term body schema used by neurologist Henry Head. It was expanded into schema theory by educational psychologist Richard C. Anderson. Since then, other terms have been used to describe schema such as “frame”, “scene”, and “script”.

Schematic Processing

Through the use of schemata, a heuristic technique to encode and retrieve memories, the majority of typical situations do not require much strenuous processing. People can quickly organise new perceptions into schemata and act without effort.

However, schemata can influence and hamper the uptake of new information (proactive interference), such as when existing stereotypes, giving rise to limited or biased discourses and expectations (prejudices), lead an individual to “see” or “remember” something that has not happened because it is more believable in terms of his/her schema. For example, if a well-dressed businessman draws a knife on a vagrant, the schemata of onlookers may (and often do) lead them to “remember” the vagrant pulling the knife. Such distortion of memory has been demonstrated. (See Background Research below.)

Schemata are interrelated and multiple conflicting schemata can be applied to the same information. Schemata are generally thought to have a level of activation, which can spread among related schemata. Which schema is selected can depend on factors such as current activation, accessibility, priming and emotion.

Accessibility is how easily a schema comes to mind, and is determined by personal experience and expertise. This can be used as a cognitive shortcut; it allows the most common explanation to be chosen for new information.

With priming, a brief imperceptible stimulus temporarily provides enough activation to a schema so that it is used for subsequent ambiguous information. Although this may suggest the possibility of subliminal messages, the effect of priming is so fleeting that it is difficult to detect outside laboratory conditions.

Background Research

The original concept of schemata is linked with that of reconstructive memory as proposed and demonstrated in a series of experiments by Frederic Bartlett. By presenting participants with information that was unfamiliar to their cultural backgrounds and expectations and then monitoring how they recalled these different items of information (stories, etc.), Bartlett was able to establish that individuals’ existing schemata and stereotypes influence not only how they interpret “schema-foreign” new information but also how they recall the information over time. One of his most famous investigations involved asking participants to read a Native American folk tale, “The War of the Ghosts”, and recall it several times up to a year later. All the participants transformed the details of the story in such a way that it reflected their cultural norms and expectations, i.e. in line with their schemata. The factors that influenced their recall were:

  • Omission of information that was considered irrelevant to a participant;
  • Transformation of some of the details, or of the order in which events, etc., were recalled; a shift of focus and emphasis in terms of what was considered the most important aspects of the tale;
  • Rationalization: details and aspects of the tale that would not make sense would be “padded out” and explained in an attempt to render them comprehensible to the individual in question; and
  • Cultural shifts: the content and the style of the story were altered in order to appear more coherent and appropriate in terms of the cultural background of the participant.

Bartlett’s work was crucially important in demonstrating that long-term memories are neither fixed nor immutable but are constantly being adjusted as schemata evolve with experience. In a sense it supports the existentialist view that people construct the past and present in a constant process of narrative/discursive adjustment, and that much of what people “remember” is actually confabulated (adjusted and rationalised) narrative that allows them to think of the past as a continuous and coherent string of events, even though it is probable that large sections of memory (both episodic and semantic) are irretrievable at any given time.

An important step in the development of schema theory was taken by the work of D.E. Rumelhart describing the understanding of narrative and stories. Further work on the concept of schemata was conducted by W.F. Brewer and J.C. Treyens, who demonstrated that the schema-driven expectation of the presence of an object was sometimes sufficient to trigger its erroneous recollection. An experiment was conducted where participants were requested to wait in a room identified as an academic’s study and were later asked about the room’s contents. A number of the participants recalled having seen books in the study whereas none were present. Brewer and Treyens concluded that the participants’ expectations that books are present in academics’ studies were enough to prevent their accurate recollection of the scenes.

In the 1970s, computer scientist Marvin Minsky was trying to develop machines that would have human-like abilities. When he was trying to create solutions for some of the difficulties he encountered he came across Bartlett’s work and decided that if he was ever going to get machines to act like humans he needed them to use their stored knowledge to carry out processes. To compensate for that he created what was known as the frame construct, which was a way to represent knowledge in machines. His frame construct can be seen as an extension and elaboration of the schema construct. He created the frame knowledge concept as a way to interact with new information. He proposed that fixed and broad information would be represented as the frame, but it would also be composed of slots that would accept a range of values; but if the world did not have a value for a slot, then it would be filled by a default value. Because of Minsky’s work, computers now have a stronger impact on psychology. In the 1980s, David Rumelhart extended Minsky’s ideas, creating an explicitly psychological theory of the mental representation of complex knowledge.

Roger Schank and Robert Abelson developed the idea of a script, which was known as a generic knowledge of sequences of actions. This led to many new empirical studies, which found that providing relevant schema can help improve comprehension and recall on passages.

Modification

New information that falls within an individual’s schema is easily remembered and incorporated into their worldview. However, when new information is perceived that does not fit a schema, many things can happen. The most common reaction is to simply ignore or quickly forget the new information. This can happen on an unconscious level – frequently an individual may not even perceive the new information. People may also interpret the new information in a way that minimizes how much they must change their schemata. For example, Bob thinks that chickens do not lay eggs. He then sees a chicken laying an egg. Instead of changing the part of his schema that says “chickens do not lay eggs”, he is likely to adopt the belief that the animal in question that he has just seen laying an egg is not a real chicken. This is an example of disconfirmation bias, the tendency to set higher standards for evidence that contradicts one’s expectations. However, when the new information cannot be ignored, existing schemata must be changed or new schemata must be created (accommodation).

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) was known best for his work with development of human knowledge. He believed knowledge was constructed on cognitive structures, and he believed people develop cognitive structures by accommodating and assimilating information. Accommodation is creating new schema that will fit better with the new environment or adjusting old schema. Accommodation could also be interpreted as putting restrictions on a current schema. Accommodation usually comes about when assimilation has failed. Assimilation is when people use a current schema to understand the world around them. Piaget thought that schemata are applied to everyday life and therefore people accommodate and assimilate information naturally. For example, if this chicken has red feathers, Bob can form a new schemata that says “chickens with red feathers can lay eggs”. This schemata will then be either changed or removed, in the future.

Assimilation is the reuse of schemata to fit the new information. For example, when a person sees an unfamiliar dog, they will probably just integrate it into their dog schema. However, if the dog behaves strangely, and in ways that does not seem dog-like, there will be accommodation as a new schema is formed for that particular dog. With Accommodation and Assimilation comes the idea of equilibrium. Piaget describes equilibrium as a state of cognition that is balanced when schema are capable of explaining what it sees and perceives. When information is new and cannot fit into existing schema this is called disequilibrium and this is an unpleasant state for the child’s development. When disequilibrium happens, it means the person is frustrated and will try to restore the coherence of his or her cognitive structures through accommodation. If the new information is taken then assimilation of the new information will proceed until they find that they must make a new adjustment to it later down the road, but for now the child remains at equilibrium again. The process of equilibration is when people move from the equilibrium phase to the disequilibrium phase and back into equilibrium.

Self-Schema

Schemata about oneself are considered to be grounded in the present and based on past experiences. Memories are framed in the light of one’s self-conception. For example, people who have positive self-schemata (i.e. most people) selectively attend to flattering information and selectively ignore unflattering information, with the consequence that flattering information is subject to deeper encoding, and therefore superior recall. Even when encoding is equally strong for positive and negative feedback, positive feedback is more likely to be recalled. Moreover, memories may even be distorted to become more favourable, for example, people typically remember exam grades as having been better than they actually were. However, when people have negative self views, memories are generally biased in ways that validate the negative self-schema; people with low self-esteem, for instance, are prone to remember more negative information about themselves than positive information. Thus, memory tends to be biased in a way that validates the agent’s pre-existing self-schema.

There are three major implications of self-schemata. First, information about oneself is processed faster and more efficiently, especially consistent information. Second, one retrieves and remembers information that is relevant to one’s self-schema. Third, one will tend to resist information in the environment that is contradictory to one’s self-schema. For instance, students with a particular self-schema prefer roommates whose view of them is consistent with that schema. Students who end up with roommates whose view of them is inconsistent with their self-schema are more likely to try to find a new roommate, even if this view is positive. This is an example of self-verification.

As researched by Aaron Beck, automatically activated negative self-schemata are a large contributor to depression. According to Cox, Abramson, Devine, and Hollon (2012), these self-schemata are essentially the same type of cognitive structure as stereotypes studied by prejudice researchers (e.g. they are both well-rehearsed, automatically activated, difficult to change, influential toward behaviour, emotions, and judgments, and bias information processing).

The self-schema can also be self-perpetuating. It can represent a particular role in society that is based on stereotype, for example: “If a mother tells her daughter she looks like a tom boy, her daughter may react by choosing activities that she imagines a tom boy would do. Conversely, if the mother tells her she looks like a princess, her daughter might choose activities thought to be more feminine.” This is an example of the self-schema becoming self-perpetuating when the person at hand chooses an activity that was based on an expectation rather than their desires.

Schema Therapy

Schema therapy was founded by Jeffrey Young and represents a development of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) specifically for treating personality disorders. Early maladaptive schemata are described by Young as broad and pervasive themes or patterns made up of memories, feelings, sensations, and thoughts regarding oneself and one’s relationships with others. They are considered to develop during childhood or adolescence, and to be dysfunctional in that they lead to self-defeating behaviour. Examples include schemata of abandonment/instability, mistrust/abuse, emotional deprivation, and defectiveness/shame.

Schema therapy blends CBT with elements of Gestalt therapy, object relations, constructivist and psychoanalytic therapies in order to treat the characterological difficulties which both constitute personality disorders and which underlie many of the chronic depressive or anxiety-involving symptoms which present in the clinic. Young said that CBT may be an effective treatment for presenting symptoms, but without the conceptual or clinical resources for tackling the underlying structures (maladaptive schemata) which consistently organize the patient’s experience, the patient is likely to lapse back into unhelpful modes of relating to others and attempting to meet their needs. Young focused on pulling from different therapies equally when developing schema therapy. The difference between cognitive behavioural therapy and schema therapy is the latter “emphasizes lifelong patterns, affective change techniques, and the therapeutic relationship, with special emphasis on limited reparenting”. He recommended this therapy would be ideal for clients with difficult and chronic psychological disorders. Some examples would be eating disorders and personality disorders. He has also had success with this therapy in relation to depression and substance abuse.

What is Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy?

Introduction

Rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT), previously called rational therapy and rational emotive therapy, is an active-directive, philosophically and empirically based psychotherapy, the aim of which is to resolve emotional and behavioural problems and disturbances and to help people to lead happier and more fulfilling lives.

REBT posits that people have erroneous beliefs about situations they are involved in, and that these beliefs cause disturbance, but can be disputed with and changed.

Brief History

Rational emotive behaviour therapy (REBT) was created and developed by the American psychotherapist and psychologist Albert Ellis, who was inspired by many of the teachings of Asian, Greek, Roman and modern philosophers. REBT is the first form of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and was first expounded by Ellis in the mid-1950s; development continued until his death in 2007. Ellis became synonymous with the highly influential therapy. Psychology Today noted, “No individual—not even Freud himself—has had a greater impact on modern psychotherapy.”

REBT is both a psychotherapeutic system of theory and practices and a school of thought established by Ellis. He first presented his ideas at a conference of the American Psychological Association in 1956 then published a seminal article in 1957 entitled “Rational psychotherapy and individual psychology”, in which he set the foundation for what he was calling rational therapy (RT) and carefully responded to questions from Rudolf Dreikurs and others about the similarities and differences with Alfred Adler’s Individual psychology. This was around a decade before psychiatrist Aaron Beck first set forth his “cognitive therapy”, after Ellis had contacted him in the mid 1960s. Ellis’ own approach was renamed Rational Emotive Therapy in 1959, then the current term in 1992.

Precursors of certain fundamental aspects of rational emotive behaviour therapy have been identified in ancient philosophical traditions, particularly to Stoicists Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Zeno of Citium, Chrysippus, Panaetius of Rhodes, Cicero, and Seneca, and early Asian philosophers Confucius and Gautama Buddha. In his first major book on rational therapy, Ellis wrote that the central principle of his approach, that people are rarely emotionally affected by external events but rather by their thinking about such events, “was originally discovered and stated by the ancient Stoic philosophers”. Ellis illustrates this with a quote from the Enchiridion of Epictetus: “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them.” Ellis noted that Shakespeare expressed a similar thought in Hamlet: “There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.” Ellis also acknowledges early 20th century therapists, particularly Paul Charles Dubois, though he only read his work several years after developing his therapy.

Theoretical Assumptions

The REBT framework posits that humans have both innate rational (meaning self-helping, socially helping, and constructive) and irrational (meaning self-defeating, socially defeating, and unhelpful) tendencies and leanings. REBT claims that people to a large degree consciously and unconsciously construct emotional difficulties such as self-blame, self-pity, clinical anger, hurt, guilt, shame, depression and anxiety, and behaviours and behaviour tendencies like procrastination, compulsiveness, avoidance, addiction and withdrawal by the means of their irrational and self-defeating thinking, emoting and behaving.

REBT is then applied as an educational process in which the therapist often active-directively teaches the client how to identify irrational and self-defeating beliefs and philosophies which in nature are rigid, extreme, unrealistic, illogical and absolutist, and then to forcefully and actively question and dispute them and replace them with more rational and self-helping ones. By using different cognitive, emotive and behavioural methods and activities, the client, together with help from the therapist and in homework exercises, can gain a more rational, self-helping and constructive rational way of thinking, emoting and behaving.

One of the main objectives in REBT is to show the client that whenever unpleasant and unfortunate activating events occur in people’s lives, they have a choice between making themselves feel healthily or, self-helpingly, sorry, disappointed, frustrated, and annoyed or making themselves feel unhealthily and self-defeatingly horrified, terrified, panicked, depressed, self-hating and self-pitying. By attaining and ingraining a more rational and self-constructive philosophy of themselves, others and the world, people often are more likely to behave and emote in more life-serving and adaptive ways.

Beliefs about Circumstances, and Disputing the Beliefs

A fundamental premise of REBT is humans do not get emotionally disturbed by unfortunate circumstances, but by how they construct their views of these circumstances through their language, evaluative beliefs, meanings and philosophies about the world, themselves and others. This concept has been attributed as far back as the Roman philosopher Epictetus, who is often cited as utilising similar ideas in antiquity.

In REBT, clients usually learn and begin to apply this premise by learning the A-B-C-D-E-F model of psychological disturbance and change. The following letters represent the following meanings in this model:

  • A – The adversity.
  • B – The developed belief in the person of the Adversity.
  • C – The consequences of that person’s Beliefs i.e., B.
  • D – The person’s disputes of A, B, and C. In latter thought.
  • E – The effective new philosophy or belief that develops in that person through the occurrence of D in their minds of A and B.
  • F – The developed feelings of one’s self either at point and after point C or at point after point E.

The A-B-C model states that it is not an A, adversity (or activating event) that cause disturbed and dysfunctional emotional and behavioural Cs, consequences, but also what people B, irrationally believe about the A, adversity. A, adversity can be an external situation, or a thought, a feeling or other kind of internal event, and it can refer to an event in the past, present, or future.

The Bs, irrational beliefs that are most important in the A-B-C model are explicit and implicit philosophical meanings and assumptions about events, personal desires, and preferences. The Bs, beliefs that are most significant are highly evaluative and consist of interrelated and integrated cognitive, emotional and behavioural aspects and dimensions. According to REBT, if a person’s evaluative B, belief about the A, activating event is rigid, absolutistic, fictional and dysfunctional, the C, the emotional and behavioural consequence, is likely to be self-defeating and destructive. Alternatively, if a person’s belief is preferential, flexible and constructive, the C, the emotional and behavioural consequence is likely to be self-helping and constructive.

Through REBT, by understanding the role of their mediating, evaluative and philosophically based illogical, unrealistic and self-defeating meanings, interpretations and assumptions in disturbance, individuals can learn to identify them, then go to D, disputing and questioning the evidence for them. At E, effective new philosophy, they can recognise and reinforce the notion no evidence exists for any psychopathological must, ought or should and distinguish them from healthy constructs, and subscribe to more constructive and self-helping philosophies. This new reasonable perspective leads to F, new feelings and behaviours appropriate to the A they are addressing in the exercise.

Psychological Dysfunction

One of the main pillars of REBT is that irrational and dysfunctional ways and patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving are contributing to human disturbance and emotional and behavioural self-defeatism and social defeatism. REBT generally teaches that when people turn flexible preferences, desires and wishes into grandiose, absolutistic and fatalistic dictates, this tends to contribute to disturbance and upset. These dysfunctional patterns are examples of cognitive distortions.

Core Beliefs that Disturb Humans

Albert Ellis has suggested three core beliefs or philosophies that humans tend to disturb themselves through:

“I absolutely MUST, under practically all conditions and at all times, perform well (or outstandingly well) and win the approval (or complete love) of significant others. If I fail in these important—and sacred—respects, that is awful and I am a bad, incompetent, unworthy person, who will probably always fail and deserves to suffer.”“Other people with whom I relate or associate, absolutely MUST, under practically all conditions and at all times, treat me nicely, considerately and fairly. Otherwise, it is terrible and they are rotten, bad, unworthy people who will always treat me badly and do not deserve a good life and should be severely punished for acting so abominably to me.”“The conditions under which I live absolutely MUST, at practically all times, be favorable, safe, hassle-free, and quickly and easily enjoyable, and if they are not that way it’s awful and horrible and I can’t bear it. I can’t ever enjoy myself at all. My life is impossible and hardly worth living.”
Holding this belief when faced with adversity tends to contribute to feelings of anxiety, panic, depression, despair, and worthlessness.Holding this belief when faced with adversity tends to contribute to feelings of anger, rage, fury, and vindictiveness.Holding this belief when faced with adversity tends to contribute to frustration and discomfort, intolerance, self-pity, anger, depression, and to behaviours such as procrastination, avoidance, addictive behaviours and inaction.

Rigid Demands that Humans Make

REBT commonly posits that at the core of irrational beliefs there often are explicit or implicit rigid demands and commands, and that extreme derivatives like awfulising, low frustration tolerance, people deprecation and over-generalisations are accompanied by these. According to REBT the core dysfunctional philosophies in a person’s evaluative emotional and behavioural belief system, are also very likely to contribute to unrealistic, arbitrary and crooked inferences and distortions in thinking. REBT therefore first teaches that when people in an insensible and devout way overuse absolutistic, dogmatic and rigid “shoulds”, “musts”, and “oughts”, they tend to disturb and upset themselves.

Over-Generalisation

Further, REBT generally posits that disturbed evaluations to a large degree occur through over-generalisation, wherein people exaggerate and globalise events or traits, usually unwanted events or traits or behaviour, out of context, while almost always ignoring the positive events or traits or behaviours. For example, awfulising is partly mental magnification of the importance of an unwanted situation to a catastrophe or horror, elevating the rating of something from bad to worse than it should be, to beyond totally bad, worse than bad to the intolerable and to a “holocaust”. The same exaggeration and overgeneralising occurs with human rating, wherein humans come to be arbitrarily and axiomatically defined by their perceived flaws or misdeeds. Frustration intolerance then occurs when a person perceives something to be too difficult, painful or tedious, and by doing so exaggerates these qualities beyond one’s ability to cope with them.

Secondary Disturbances

Essential to REBT theory is also the concept of secondary disturbances which people sometimes construct on top of their primary disturbance. As Ellis emphasizes:

“Because of their self-consciousness and their ability to think about their thinking, they can very easily disturb themselves about their disturbances and can also disturb themselves about their ineffective attempts to overcome their emotional disturbances.”

Origins of Dysfunction

Regarding cognitive-affective-behavioral processes in mental functioning and dysfunctioning, originator Albert Ellis explains:

“REBT assumes that human thinking, emotion, and action are not really separate or disparate processes, but that they all significantly overlap and are rarely experienced in a pure state. Much of what we call emotion is nothing more nor less than a certain kind—a biased, prejudiced, or strongly evaluative kind—of thought. But emotions and behaviors significantly influence and affect thinking, just as thinking influences emotions and behaviors. Evaluating is a fundamental characteristic of human organisms and seems to work in a kind of closed circuit with a feedback mechanism: First, perception biases response, and then response tends to bias subsequent perception. Also, prior perceptions appear to bias subsequent perceptions, and prior responses appear to bias subsequent responses. What we call feelings almost always have a pronounced evaluating or appraisal element.”

REBT then generally proposes that many of these self-defeating cognitive, emotive and behavioural tendencies are both innately biological and indoctrinated early in and during life, and further grow stronger as a person continually revisits, clings and acts on them. Ellis alludes to similarities between REBT and the general semantics when explaining the role of irrational beliefs in self-defeating tendencies, citing Alfred Korzybski as a significant modern influence on this thinking.

REBT differs from other clinical approaches like psychoanalysis in that it places little emphasis on exploring the past, but instead focuses on changing the current evaluations and philosophical thinking-emoting and behaving in relation to themselves, others and the conditions under which people live.

Irrational Beliefs

REBT proposes four core irrational beliefs;

  1. Demands: The tendency to demand success, fair treatment, and respect (e.g. I must be treated fairly).
  2. Awfulizing: The tendency to consider adverse events as awful or terrible (e.g. It is awful when I am disrespected).
  3. Low Frustration Tolerance (LFT): The belief that one could not stand or tolerate adversity (e.g. I cannot stand being treated unfairly).
  4. Depreciation: The belief that one event reflects the person as a whole (e.g. When I fail it shows that I am a complete failure).

Other Insights

Other insights of REBT (some referring to the ABCDEF model above) are:

  • Insight 1:
    • People seeing and accepting the reality that their emotional disturbances at point C are only partially caused by the activating events or adversities at point A that precede C.
    • Although A contributes to C, and although disturbed Cs (such as feelings of panic and depression) are much more likely to follow strong negative As (such as being assaulted or raped), than they are to follow weak.
    • As (such as being disliked by a stranger), the main or more direct cores of extreme and dysfunctional emotional disturbances (Cs) are people’s irrational beliefs – the “absolutistic” (inflexible) “musts” and their accompanying inferences and attributions that people strongly believe about the activating event.
  • Insight 2:
    • No matter how, when, and why people acquire self-defeating or irrational beliefs (i.e. beliefs that are the main cause of their dysfunctional emotional-behavioural consequences), if they are disturbed in the present, they tend to keep holding these irrational beliefs and continue upsetting themselves with these thoughts.
    • They do so not because they held them in the past, but because they still actively hold them in the present (often unconsciously), while continuing to reaffirm their beliefs and act as if they are still valid.
    • In their minds and hearts, the troubled people still follow the core “musturbatory” philosophies they adopted or invented long ago, or ones they recently accepted or constructed.
  • Insight 3:
    • No matter how well they have gained insights 1 and 2, insight alone rarely enables people to undo their emotional disturbances.
    • They may feel better when they know, or think they know, how they became disturbed, because insights can feel useful and curative.
    • But it is unlikely that people will actually get better and stay better unless they have and apply insight 3, which is that there is usually no way to get better and stay better except by continual work and practice in looking for and finding one’s core irrational beliefs; actively, energetically, and scientifically disputing them; replacing one’s absolute “musts” (rigid requirements about how things should be) with more flexible preferences; changing one’s unhealthy feelings to healthy, self-helping emotions; and firmly acting against one’s dysfunctional fears and compulsions.
    • Only by a combined cognitive, emotive, and behavioural, as well as a quite persistent and forceful attack on one’s serious emotional problems, is one likely to significantly ameliorate or remove them, and keep them removed.

Intervention

As explained, REBT is a therapeutic system of both theory and practice; generally one of the goals of REBT is to help clients see the ways in which they have learned how they often needlessly upset themselves, teach them how to “un-upset” themselves and then how to empower themselves to lead happier and more fulfilling lives. The emphasis in therapy is generally to establish a successful collaborative therapeutic working alliance based on the REBT educational model. Although REBT teaches that the therapist or counsellor is better served by demonstrating unconditional other-acceptance or unconditional positive regard, the therapist is not necessarily always encouraged to build a warm and caring relationship with the client. The tasks of the therapist or counsellor include understanding the client’s concerns from his point of reference and work as a facilitator, teacher and encourager.

In traditional REBT, the client together with the therapist, in a structured active-directive manner, often work through a set of target problems and establish a set of therapeutic goals. In these target problems, situational dysfunctional emotions, behaviours and beliefs are assessed in regards to the client’s values and goals. After working through these problems, the client learns to generalise insights to other relevant situations. In many cases after going through a client’s different target problems, the therapist is interested in examining possible core beliefs and more deep rooted philosophical evaluations and schemas that might account for a wider array of problematic emotions and behaviours. Although REBT much of the time is used as a brief therapy, in deeper and more complex problems, longer therapy is promoted.

In therapy, the first step often is that the client acknowledges the problems, accepts emotional responsibility for these and has willingness and determination to change. This normally requires a considerable amount of insight, but as originator Albert Ellis explains:

“Humans, unlike just about all the other animals on earth, create fairly sophisticated languages which not only enable them to think about their feeling, their actions, and the results they get from doing and not doing certain things, but they also are able to think about their thinking and even think about thinking about their thinking.”

Through the therapeutic process, REBT employs a wide array of forceful and active, meaning multimodal and disputing, methodologies. Central through these methods and techniques is the intent to help the client challenge, dispute and question their destructive and self-defeating cognitions, emotions and behaviours. The methods and techniques incorporate cognitive-philosophic, emotive-evocative-dramatic, and behavioural methods for disputation of the client’s irrational and self-defeating constructs and helps the client come up with more rational and self-constructive ones. REBT seeks to acknowledge that understanding and insight are not enough; in order for clients to significantly change, they need to pinpoint their irrational and self-defeating constructs and work forcefully and actively at changing them to more functional and self-helping ones.

REBT posits that the client must work hard to get better, and in therapy this normally includes a wide array of homework exercises in day-to-day life assigned by the therapist. The assignments may for example include desensitisation tasks, i.e. by having the client confront the very thing he or she is afraid of. By doing so, the client is actively acting against the belief that often is contributing significantly to the disturbance.

Another factor contributing to the brevity of REBT is that the therapist seeks to empower the client to help himself through future adversities. REBT only promotes temporary solutions if more fundamental solutions are not found. An ideal successful collaboration between the REBT therapist and a client results in changes to the client’s philosophical way of evaluating himself or herself, others, and his or her life, which will likely yield effective results. The client then moves toward unconditional self-acceptance, other-acceptance and life-acceptance while striving to live a more self-fulfilling and happier life.

Applications and Interfaces

Applications and interfaces of REBT are used with a broad range of clinical problems in traditional psychotherapeutic settings such as individual-, group- and family therapy. It is used as a general treatment for a vast number of different conditions and psychological problems normally associated with psychotherapy.

In addition, REBT is used with non-clinical problems and problems of living through counselling, consultation and coaching settings dealing with problems including relationships, social skills, career changes, stress management, assertiveness training, grief, problems with aging, money, weight control etc. More recently, the reported use of REBT in sport and exercise settings has grown, with the efficacy of REBT demonstrated across a range of sports.

REBT also has many interfaces and applications through self-help resources, phone and internet counselling, workshops & seminars, workplace and educational programmes, etc. This includes Rational Emotive Education (REE) where REBT is applied in education settings, Rational Effectiveness Training in business and work-settings and SMART Recovery (Self Management And Recovery Training) in supporting those in addiction recovery, in addition to a wide variety of specialised treatment strategies and applications.

Efficacy

REBT and CBT in general have a substantial and strong research base to verify and support both their psychotherapeutic efficiency and their theoretical underpinnings. Meta-analyses of outcome-based studies reveal REBT to be effective for treating various psychopathologies, conditions and problems. Recently, REBT randomised clinical trials have offered a positive view on the efficacy of REBT.

In general REBT is arguably one of the most investigated theories in the field of psychotherapy and a large amount of clinical experience and a substantial body of modern psychological research have validated and substantiated many of REBTs theoretical assumptions on personality and psychotherapy.

REBT may be effective in improving sports performance and mental health.

Limitations and Critique

The clinical research on REBT has been criticised both from within and by others. For instance, originator Albert Ellis has on occasions emphasized the difficulty and complexity of measuring psychotherapeutic effectiveness, because many studies only tend to measure whether clients merely feel better after therapy instead of them getting better and staying better. Ellis has also criticised studies for having limited focus primarily to cognitive restructuring aspects, as opposed to the combination of cognitive, emotive and behavioural aspects of REBT. As REBT has been subject to criticisms during its existence, especially in its early years, REBT theorists have a long history of publishing and addressing those concerns. It has also been argued by Ellis and by other clinicians that REBT theory on numerous occasions has been misunderstood and misconstrued both in research and in general.

Some have criticised REBT for being harsh, formulaic and failing to address deep underlying problems. REBT theorists have argued in reply that a careful study of REBT shows that it is both philosophically deep, humanistic and individualised collaboratively working on the basis of the client’s point of reference. They have further argued that REBT utilises an integrated and interrelated methodology of cognitive, emotive-experiential and behavioural interventions. Others have questioned REBTs view of rationality, both radical constructivists who have claimed that reason and logic are subjective properties and those who believe that reason can be objectively determined. REBT theorists have argued in reply that REBT raises objections to clients’ irrational choices and conclusions as a working hypothesis and through collaborative efforts demonstrate the irrationality on practical, functional and social consensual grounds. In 1998 when asked what the main criticism on REBT was, Albert Ellis replied that it was the claim that it was too rational and not dealing sufficiently enough with emotions. He repudiated the claim by saying that REBT on the contrary emphasizes that thinking, feeling, and behaving are interrelated and integrated, and that it includes a vast amount of both emotional and behavioural methods in addition to cognitive ones.

Ellis has himself in very direct terms criticised opposing approaches such as psychoanalysis, transpersonal psychology and abreactive psychotherapies in addition to on several occasions questioning some of the doctrines in certain religious systems, spiritualism and mysticism. Many, including REBT practitioners, have warned against dogmatising and sanctifying REBT as a supposedly perfect psychological panacea. Prominent REBTers have promoted the importance of high quality and programmatic research, including originator Ellis, a self-proclaimed “passionate sceptic”. He has on many occasions been open to challenges and acknowledged errors and inefficiencies in his approach and concurrently revised his theories and practices. In general, with regard to cognitive-behavioural psychotherapies’ interventions, others have pointed out that as about 30-40% of people are still unresponsive to interventions, that REBT could be a platform of reinvigorating empirical studies on the effectiveness of the cognitive-behavioural models of psychopathology and human functioning.

REBT has been developed, revised and augmented through the years as understanding and knowledge of psychology and psychotherapy have progressed. This includes its theoretical concepts, practices and methodology. The teaching of scientific thinking, reasonableness and un-dogmatism has been inherent in REBT as an approach, and these ways of thinking are an inextricable part of REBT’s empirical and sceptical nature.

I hope I am also not a devout REBTer, since I do not think it is an unmitigated cure for everyone and do accept its distinct limitations. (Albert Ellis).

Mental Wellness

As would be expected, REBT argues that mental wellness and mental health to a large degree results from an adequate amount of self-helping, flexible, logico-empirical ways of thinking, emoting and behaving. When a perceived undesired and stressful activating event occurs, and the individual is interpreting, evaluating and reacting to the situation rationally and self-helpingly, then the resulting consequence is, according to REBT, likely to be more healthy, constructive and functional. This does not by any means mean that a relatively un-disturbed person never experiences negative feelings, but REBT does hope to keep debilitating and un-healthy emotions and subsequent self-defeating behaviour to a minimum. To do this, REBT generally promotes a flexible, un-dogmatic, self-helping and efficient belief system and constructive life philosophy about adversities and human desires and preferences.

REBT clearly acknowledges that people, in addition to disturbing themselves, also are innately constructivists. Because they largely upset themselves with their beliefs, emotions and behaviours, they can be helped to, in a multimodal manner, dispute and question these and develop a more workable, more self-helping set of constructs.

REBT generally teaches and promotes:

  • That the concepts and philosophies of life of unconditional self-acceptance, other-acceptance, and life-acceptance are effective philosophies of life in achieving mental wellness and mental health.
  • That human beings are inherently fallible and imperfect and that they are better served by accepting their and other human beings’ totality and humanity, while at the same time they may not like some of their behaviours and characteristics.
    • That they are better off not measuring their entire self or their “being” and give up the narrow, grandiose and ultimately destructive notion to give themselves any global rating or report card.
    • This is partly because all humans are continually evolving and are far too complex to accurately rate; all humans do both self-defeating/socially defeating and self-helping / socially helping deeds, and have both beneficial and un-beneficial attributes and traits at certain times and in certain conditions.
    • REBT holds that ideas and feelings about self-worth are largely definitional and are not empirically confirmable or falsifiable.
  • That people had better accept life with its hassles and difficulties not always in accordance with their wants, while trying to change what they can change and live as elegantly as possible with what they cannot change.

Book: The Little CBT Workbook

Book Title:

The Little CBT Workbook: A Step-By-Step Guide to Gaining Control of your Life.

Author(s): Dr. Michael Sinclair and Dr. Belinda Hollingsworth.

Year: 2012.

Edition: First (1st), UK Edition.

Publisher: Crimson Publishing.

Type(s): Paperback and Kindle.

Synopsis:

Introducing essential Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) techniques, this practical workbook allows readers to explore the key principles behind CBT and discover how to apply them to improve their lives. With interactive exercises and checklists, this is suitable for self-teaching or for supplementing a CBT course.

Book: CBT Journal for Dummies

Book Title:

CBT Journal for Dummies.

Author(s): Rob Wilson and Rhena Branch.

Year: 2012.

Edition: First (1st).

Publisher: Wiley.

Type(s): Hardcover.

Synopsis:

Keep track of the progress you are making with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a hugely popular self-help technique that teaches you how to break free from destructive or negative behaviours and make positive changes to both your thoughts and your actions. CBT Journal For Dummies offers a guided space for you to keep a record of your progress, used in conjunction with either CBT For Dummies and/or alongside consultation with a therapist.

This book features an introduction to CBT, followed by a guided 100-day journal. Each chapter focuses on a new CBT technique, with information on how to use the journal space and assessment advice. Topics covered include; establishing the link between thoughts and feelings; preventing ‘all or nothing’ thinking; turning mountains into molehills; focusing on the present; using emotional reasoning; avoiding over-generalising; thinking flexibly; keeping an open mind; assessing the positives; coping with frustration; tackling toxic thoughts; naming your emotions; comparing healthy and unhealthy emotions; working through worry; defining your core beliefs; adopting positive principles; and much more.

  • Has a removable band, leaving a discreet black journal.
  • The small trim size makes it perfect to use on the go.
  • A CBT ‘thought for the day’ appears on alternate blank pages.
  • Content is progressive, encouraging you to keep working through the following days.
  • Coverage is generalized enough to be applicable to every user of CBT.