The new method consists of therapists going through a patient’s thought process to help work on their issues. PHOTO: Annie Arnone
The new method consists of therapists going through a patient’s thought process to help work on their issues.

Photo: Annie Arnone

New research helps treat anxiety patients

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By Hanna Lee

Motivational interviewing, a therapy method that helps patients with substance abuse issues resolve their inner conflicts regarding change, may help treat anxiety. According to a new study, this technique contributes to improving long-term results in patients with severe generalized anxiety disorder.

The study is led by York University professor Henny Westra and is the result of a five-year clinical trial. Michael J. Constantino, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Martin Antony, chair of psychology at Ryerson, are also researchers in the study.

“We have effective treatment for anxiety problems … but not everyone benefits from that,” Antony said. “There are lots of researchers around the world who are looking for ways to enhance the effects of treatments so larger amounts of people can benefit from them. One approach is through motivational interviewing.”

The method was first mentioned in a 1983 academic paper on alcoholism. Patients suffering from substance abuse found it difficult to change their lifestyles because of the social and personal benefits attached to using substances, according to Antony.

Therapists would then talk through patients’ thinking to find out the cause of this resistance and how to resolve it. This method became known as motivational interviewing.

In most cases, motivational interviewing is not a form of therapy on its own. However, it prepares patients for therapy so they are more open to receiving treatment.

“It helps people look at the costs and benefits of changing. A lot of people think change isn’t possible — this therapy can help people recognize that it is,” Antony said.

Westra’s study found that there was a 23 per cent dropout rate in patients being treated with cognitive behavioural therapy, which is when therapists help patients understand how their thoughts influence their behaviour. However, when used in conjunction with motivational interviewing, that rate dropped to 10 per cent.

“Resolving some of that ambivalence before starting treatment is one way of keeping treatment, so [patients] become more committed to it,” Antony said.

Motivational interviewing also deals with resistance to therapy differently. Typically, when patients oppose or argue with a particular method of treatment, therapists push the method harder and patients become even more resistant to it. Through motivational interviewing, therapists find less confrontational ways to approach patients.

“We found that a more supportive, gentle approach to resistance in therapy leads to better results,” Antony said.

Although it is not a new technique, using it to treat anxiety is a recent development in mental health research.

Westra’s study is “one of the largest studies on the effects of motivational interviewing combined with cognitive therapy for people with generalized anxiety,” Antony said. “We know it’s interfering with people’s lives. Coming up with ways to help people’s quality of life ultimately helps people feel better and function better.”

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