How Talk Therapy Works
The Many Benefits of Talk Therapy
Studies show treatment can help with pain, sleep disorders, and even heart disease.
By Nancie George
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Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, can play a critical role in treating many emotional and mental health conditions such as depression and bipolar disorder. According to a new study, even a few sessions with a therapist can lower the risk of suicide among at-risk individuals.
The study analyzed health data from more than 65,000 people who had previously attempted suicide, nearly 6,000 of whom received six to ten talk therapy sessions at suicide prevention clinics. During the first year, people who received talk therapy were 27 percent less likely to attempt suicide again. After five years, there were 26 percent fewer suicides in the same talk therapy group.
"We know that people who have attempted suicide are a high-risk population and that we need to help them. However, we did not know what would be effective in terms of treatment,” study author Annette Erlangsen, DPH, an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Mental Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says in a statement. “Now we have evidence that psychosocial treatment — which provides support, not medication — is able to prevent suicide in a group at high risk of dying by suicide.”
Research has shown that talk therapy can have many other potential benefits, even physical ones. Among them:
Less back pain.Group cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) significantly improves chronic low back pain, according to a 2010 study published in The Lancet. CBT is a proactive form of psychotherapy that aims to reframe negative, self-destructive thoughts to produce positive behaviors.
For the study, 701 people with chronic low back pain received either six 90-minute CBT sessions with standard treatment, which included tips on staying active and medication best practices, or standard treatment alone. During the group CBT sessions, people discussed their thoughts about doing physical activity, and reframed negative thoughts about back pain and its consequences. The sessions also tried to help people get over their fear of injuring themselves further and learn safe ways to get active again. People who received CBT with standard treatment had a significant improvement in pain and disability scores.
Improved end-of-life care.A 2011 study found that dignity therapy, a short-term psychotherapy that focuses on a person’s accomplishments and hopes for loved ones, can improved quality of life (QOL) among people receiving end-of-life care.
During a dignity therapy session, a therapist engages the patient in a conversation about the important aspects of their lives and what they want to be remembered for. The conversation is then transcribed and given to the patient to decide if they want to share it with family and friends.
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For the study, 441 patients received either dignity therapy, standard palliative care, or client-centered care. People who received dignity therapy were more likely to say that the therapy was helpful to them and reported improved QOL and an increased sense of dignity. Patients said the therapy also changed how their family members saw and appreciated them.
Better heart health, less depression.Heart failure patients with depression have four times the risk of dying, and more than a million U.S. adults have both heart failure and clinical depression. Why the heart disease-depression link? Depression triggers chronic inflammation that increases heart-disease risk. Depression after a heart attack or stroke is common and can contribute to additional heart damage.
Research suggests that a combination of talk therapy and biofeedback, an alternative medicine technique, may improve health outcomes among heart failure patients with depression. Preliminary research published in the Journal of Cardiac Failure showed a lower risk of heart-related hospitalization or death and an improvement in QOL and depression symptoms in people who received the combined treatment. The biofeedback involved tracking skin temperature as it related to an individual’s attempts at controlling stress and negative emotions with muscle relaxation.
More restful sleep.About one in five American adults has insomnia, which can be treated with medications or therapy. CBT in particular has been shown to help people with symptoms of insomnia. Research has found that even short-term CBT, in person and by phone, improved seniors’ sleep for up to six months.
“Most people with chronic insomnia develop sleep-preventing behaviors and associations with the bedroom that make it more difficult to sleep,” writes Robert Rosenberg, DO, in his Everyday Health column. “In CBT, we attempt to reverse sleep-preventing behaviors and restructure attitudes about sleep … In the end, combining behavioral and cognitive treatments is by far the most successful and lasting therapy available.”
Talk and drug therapy for severe depression.People with major depressive disorder (MDD) may benefit the most from a combination of cognitive therapy and antidepressants, reports a 2014 study published in JAMA Psychiatry.
More than 450 adults with MDD received either antidepressant medications alone — the most common depression treatment — or a combination of cognitive therapy and antidepressants for up to 42 months until they recovered. The study found that people with severe but non-chronic depression who received both drug and talk therapy had better recovery rates than those who received only drug therapy (72.6 percent versus 62.5 percent, respectively).
Video: The Benefits of Therapy
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