Brief Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Interventions for Psychosis

October 31, 2016

Psychiatrists who treat patients with psychosis in institutional, community, and crisis settings provide evaluations and medication management, but rarely consider psychotherapeutic interventions. However, such interventions can be critical in recovery.

We are at a crossroads in our understanding and approach to psychosis. Biological paradigms and treatments are narrow in their understanding of psychoses and limited in their ability to promote recovery. There is evidence that some psychotic experiences are “normal,” some are traumatogenic, and many are self-limiting and growth-promoting.1

Psychiatrists who treat patients with psychosis in institutional, community, and crisis settings provide evaluations and medication management but rarely consider psychotherapeutic interventions.2 However, such interventions can be critical in recovery. Current guidelines recommend cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as evidence-based psychotherapy for schizophrenia.3,4

Principles of therapy for psychosis

CBT for psychosis (CBTp) follows the general principles and approach of therapy for depression and anxiety with some modifications to address positive psychotic symptoms, cognitive deficits, and stigma associated with psychosis. The stages of therapy include building a therapeutic alliance, developing a formulation, specific interventions to build skills to address symptoms and improve functioning, relapse prevention to enhance resilience, and specific interventions to address stigma.

Ideally CBTp consists of at least 10 sessions over a 6-month period with specially trained therapists. Although CBTp is not widely available, a variety of CBTp-based interventions can be used widely. These components, which take 5 to 20 minutes, are clinically effective.5 The mnemonic CUT-PAR (connect, understand, teach, practice, ask, review) denotes the basic framework of these interventions (Table 1). A deeper connection with a psychotic patient is possible when the psychiatrist has a compassionate attitude, mental state of mindfulness, and uses a variety of strategies as detailed in the Table. Understanding the problem includes turning the existing problems into an actionable plan and enhancing motivation to take action. The take-home work is tailored to the patients’ cognitive and motivational capacities and can be as simple as reading given material or rating mood in different situations.

Asking for feedback reduces the power differential and allows the psychiatrist to change his or her intervention or style. The importance of feedback is even more important when a patient is from a different cultural background.6 The patient reviews the session, and the psychiatrist adds to it. The psychiatrist may want to provide index cards or a notebook for the patient to write down what was learned in the session as well as any take-home assignments.

Managing delusions

The CBT approach to delusions is based on the principle of collaborative empiricism. The psychiatrist approaches the delusional belief with an open mind and in a spirit of discovering the truth-akin to the method of a true scientist. There are 8 targets for interventions in delusions.

1 The first is addressing distress associated with delusions through empathic exploration. Mary, a 32-year-old woman, believes that men are entering her house at night and talking about rape. The psychiatrist might say, “It must be very scary for you at night when you are hearing this talk about rape.” Such a response helps the individual lower her defensive stance and discuss her distress. The follow-up would be to bring up any existing coping mechanisms with a question such as “Can you tell me what helped you to deal with this situation for the past 3 weeks?” Psychiatrists often find useful information about the unique coping strategies of their patient. In the above scenario, Mary found prayer to be helpful in protecting her.

2 Sometimes a lack of real-world information can contribute to the development of delusions, and an intervention to explain how things work in the real world can sow a patient’s doubt of the delusion or change how a patient responds to a delusional belief. Annie, a 35-year-old woman, stopped taking her antipsychotic medication because she believed that the pharmacy had given her a different-colored pill to poison her. In this instance, the psychiatrist educated Annie about generic medications and about the FDA, which monitors every aspect of medication manufacturing, distribution, and dispensing. Once Annie learned about the oversight of pharmacies, she agreed to go back on the medication as a trial.

3 A third area in which one can intervene is by narrowing the sphere of delusional thinking with specific questions. Peter, a 40-year-old man, came into the office anxious and mildly agitated because of a persecutory delusion that people were trying to run him off the road on his walk to the clinic. The psychiatrist asked him whether he felt safe sitting in the office. Peter responded that he did feel safe. With subsequent questions, he reported feeling safe in waiting areas, parking lots, and even the side street-the delusions were activated when he was alone on a busy street. Peter was able to recognize the reason for his distress. He acknowledged that by avoiding busy streets he would be less distressed. He left the session with a sense of better control over his situation.

4A fourth area is to evaluate the evidence for and against a particular delusion by asking the patient to think of himself as a prosecutor and present evidence for the delusion; the psychiatrist is the defense attorney who looks for gaps in the evidence. Then the roles can be reversed. After the discussion, the psychiatrist asks the patient for his perspective on his delusional ideas.

5A fifth area of intervention is to ascertain the origin of the delusion. The patient is asked to describe the origin and the progression of the delusional ideas. The onset of delusions is usually fraught with doubt about the delusion itself. Once these doubts are unearthed, they can be strengthened.

6A sixth intervention is to address the utility of the delusion for the individual. An interesting example of this intervention was given by Dr. Aaron T. Beck.7 He described a patient with a grandiose delusion of being Jesus Christ. Dr. Beck asked his patient to come up with a list of the benefits of being Christ and then asked him to think about the downsides. The patient realized that it meant he would be crucified. The outcome of the intervention was that a doubt was sown in the mind of the patient about the utility of this belief.

7A seventh area of intervention is judicious self-disclosure. Jason, a 50-year-old man, refused to take showers because of a belief bordering on delusion that he would get pneumonia from taking a shower. The origin for the belief was his childhood experience of getting wet in the rain and contracting pneumonia. This delusion was activated by the boarding home operator who insisted that Jason take showers frequently. The psychiatrist used self-disclosure to inform Jason that he had been taking showers every day for decades and never developed pneumonia. The patient’s homework was to take showers twice a week for 2 weeks, to which he agreed.

8 The final intervention is to address the theme underlying the delusional belief-in persecutory delusions it is safety, and in grandiose delusions it is trying to overcome a perceived personal weakness. The outcome for any intervention varies and includes that the client feels he is being listened to, feelings of relief, a stronger therapeutic relationship, weakening of delusional belief, a change in dysfunctional behavior, and facilitation of adaptive behavior.



The first step in dealing with hallucinations is a detailed evaluation that includes the triggers, content, beliefs about hallucinations, stigma associated with hallucinations, and behaviors of acting out or resisting command hallucinations (Table 2). If the hallucinations have positive content and the patient is not distressed by them, no intervention is necessary. For stigma and demoralization, referring patients to websites such as a hearing-voices network can provide access to stories of individuals with voices and encourage them to join a local hearing-voices group.8 Command hallucinations can be addressed by finding alternative behaviors that are more adaptive. For example, a patient called her mother several times at night to scream at her because of derogatory voices. A substitute behavior was found: disconnecting the phone at night and talking into it when upset.

The outcome of interventions for voices can include learning more about triggers to avoid, enhanced ability to control the voices, being able to ignore the commands, or learning to accept them without letting them interfere with functioning.

Disorganized thinking

Disorganized thinking interferes with communication, and anxiety worsens disorganization. Addressing anxiety is one way to reduce disorganized thinking. The psychiatrist takes on the role of a coach and employs strategies such as changing the topic, enhancing support, narrowing the focus of conversation, and using breathing meditation techniques or progressive relaxation. When disorganization is present without anxiety, the intervention is to bring it to the patient’s attention by using an “I” statement, such as “I am having difficulty understanding what you are saying. Can you limit what you say to 3 or 4 sentences and wait for me to respond or clarify.” The psychiatrist also keeps his talk to 3 or 4 sentences. If the patient is open to feedback, the psychiatrist lets the patient know when the conversation is clear and when it is not.

Medication nonadherence

Medication nonadherence rates are as high as 47% to 95% among patients with schizophrenia, and optimal utilization of medication is an important part of the recovery process.9,10 The task of the psychiatrist is to identify, acknowledge, validate the medication, and empower patients to make medication decisions in a shared decision-making model. Subjective adverse effects described by the patient are given as much importance as the objective ones observed by the psychiatrist, and medication is framed as a tool to reduce distress and improve functioning-and not as an end in itself. Some of the more specific techniques used to facilitate medication decisions are an evaluation of cost-to-benefit of medication, linking medication decisions to life goals, and complementing information from the patient with objective information from peers or other support systems following the patient’s preferences wherever possible.


When added to medication management visits, CBT interventions improve the therapeutic alliance, reduce stigma associated with psychosis, build skills to self-monitor and manage symptoms, reduce reliance on medication, and promote recovery. Moreover, these interventions reinforce skills learned by patients who undergo formal CBTp. Psychiatrists will find the extra few minutes spent with the patient to be personally enriching and professionally satisfying while improving outcomes and satisfaction for patients and their families.


Dr. Pinninti is Professor of Psychiatry, School of Osteopathic Medicine of Rowan University, Stratford, NJ; Dr. Gogineni is Professor of Psychiatry, Cooper Medical School of Rowan University. The authors report no conflicts of interest concerning the subject matter of this article.


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