How to Treat Psychosis with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Psychosis (CBTp)
Many think that psychosis cannot be targeted with cognitive behavioral therapy, but that is not the case. There is a specific form of therapy that was developed for psychosis called CBTp. One important point to mention is that the symptoms are only targeted when they are distressing to the client and they interfere with their functioning or safety, not because one believes them to be untrue or abnormal. The main tenet is to join with the client and build rapport while not directly challenging their psychosis, which is referred to as working within their belief system. Once this is established, gradually helping them think differently about some of their experiences or beliefs is possible, but not in all cases. In some cases, the therapy is used to help them live their life and meet their goals in spite of their experiences or beliefs.
One useful technique with this therapy is to help them feel less stigmatized and normalize some of their experiences. There are specific websites out there that detail stories and list famous people out there who have struggled with psychosis, which can be very helpful for the client to read about. One such website is intervoiceonline.org.
Another very practical technique is helping them set smart and realistic goals. This can be done by asking what their goals are and developing a shared goal that can be accomplished. For example instead of “wanting the voices to stop” a smart goal could be “by the fourth session I will have learned and used two different coping strategies that reduce how much distress the voices cause from 100% to 75%”.
Other strategies that CBTp utilizes are coping strategy enhancement. First you figure out what they already are using to cope and figure out if they need to be refined or improved. Helping them figure out the time of day to use these strategies is important. They are likely to be most helpful when their voices are triggered, such as certain times of the day, a specific place, a certain smell, or certain feeling. Some strategies that can be useful to use before their voices are triggered include progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, and practicing mindfulness of the present moment such as identifying things in the room. Strategies that can be helpful once the voices are already triggered include: using an ipod and listening to a feel good songs playlist; playing the look, point and name; using sub vocal speech or singing under one’s breath which can interrupt the voices; focusing on voices (hearing out in order to change relationship with voice); entering into dialogue with them, and setting specific times for listening to voices.
When targeting voices in sessions, there are several main goals. One is to help the client understand how their beliefs and thoughts relate to the voices and influence their feelings, mood, and coping. Another is to help them identify their beliefs about their voices. Helping
them explore evidence for and against their distressing beliefs is important. One can also develop behavioral experiments to test out the reality of their belief. Helping them generate alternative explanations and thoughts about their voices is also helpful. Providing behavioral interventions to reduce distress associated with their voices is key as well. Lastly, helping them change their relationship to their voices is important.
As you can see, there are many strategies that can be useful for this presenting problem.
The key it to present it in a way that is collaborative with the client and doing so in a trusting professional relationship. Meeting the client where they are at is important. It is also helpful to keep in mind that these techniques take some time to work and for the client to be able to use them, so patience is key as well.
Nicole Bosse, PsyD
Staff Psychologist, Lindner Center of HOPE