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Cognitive-Behavioral Group Therapy for Panic Disorder in the General Clinical Setting: A Naturalistic Study With 1-Year Follow-Up

J Clin Psychiatry 1998;59:437-442

Background: Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is well documented in the treatment of panic disorder. As most investigators have studied selected patients without comorbid disorders, it is less clear how well the treatment will perform in the usual clinical setting for patients with comorbid disorders and with physicians who do not have training in CBT. During the last 6 years, we have offered CBT in outpatient groups for patients with panic disorder and agoraphobia. The purpose of this prospective study was to assess the outcome of group treatment and compare the results with those of studies that used individual treatment. We wanted to identify variables that might predict outcome at follow-up and to assess the number and characteristics of dropouts.

Method: Eighty-three consecutive patients with DSM-III-R panic disorder (56 women and 27 men; mean age = 34.5 years) were studied. Mean duration of panic disorder was 7.5 years. There was a high degree of comorbid major depression, social phobia, and psychoactive substance abuse/dependence. Treatment consisted of 4-hour group sessions conducted once a week for 11 weeks. More than half of the patients used antidepressant drugs. Degree of phobic avoidance, bodily sensations, anxiety cognitions, and depression were assessed at pretreatment, baseline, and end of treatment and at follow-up after 3 and 12 months.

Results: There was a large decrease in scores from start to end on all assessments. Sixty-three (89%) of 73 completers responded (ž 50% reduction in Phobic Avoidance Rating Scale scores). Gains were maintained and even improved upon at follow-up. The results are comparable with studies that used individual therapy. A high depression score at the end of treatment predicted poor outcome at 1-year follow-up. Twelve (14%) of 83 did not complete the program. The presence of severe personality disorders and ongoing alcohol or substance abuse or dependence was associated with poor outcome and high dropout rate.

Conclusion: CBT appears to be effective in the usual clinical setting, even in the hands of therapists without formal competence. Group therapy is a feasible arrangement, and the results from group treatment are comparable to those of individual approaches. Precise diagnosis and treatment of comorbid depression are of utmost importance. Patients with additional substance abuse or dependence, as well as severe personality disorders, may find this treatment modality less helpful.