Notes from ABCT 50: The Future of Psychology & the Third Wave

By Erin Heath, New Harbinger Publications Blog Editor

The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) Annual Convention is a four-day conference devoted to bringing the cognitive behavioral community together to “stimulate thinking about the myriad issues that surround cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and how it intersects with other disciplines,” as the organization puts it. New Harbinger staff have returned to our Oakland office, letting the experience of the conference sink in.

People come to ABCT every year because they are passionate about shaping the future of psychology. Many mental health professionals gave fascinating presentations on recent studies and clinical trials. From looking at mental illness stigma in Latin-American churches to resilience in gender and sexual minorities, it was clear that these are people who are unsatisfied with the status quo of psychology. They are working hard to test the effectiveness of various treatments and make them more available to underserved populations.

Above: Presentation on resilience in gender and sexual minorities.

The experts at ABCT are devoted to understanding human thought, the tiny transactions and chemical transfers that happen within a split second in our brains, and the patterns that we develop and sustain over decades—and then extrapolating their meanings. These forward thinkers have one attribute in common: their careers revolve around the task of easing human suffering in the most intimate, immediate way—to ease the suffering within our minds and bodies.

ABCT is also an opportunity for the experts to reconnect with the psychology field: where it’s been and where it’s going. One subject of particular interest was the symptom-focused diagnostic model that’s been prevalent in psychology for many years. At a lunch in between sessions, our publisher Matthew McKay, PhD, commented on how he suspects there will not be a DSM-6. In fact, in 2013, he said that the DSM-V was dead on arrival. He wrote a letter at that time, stating:

The DSM is a topographical symptom map that doesn’t point to the actual causes—underlying mechanisms—that drive and maintain disorders. –Matthew McKay, PhD

Psychology and behavioral therapy have made a bold step into the third wave, moving away from diagnosing mental disorders by discrete, closed lists of symptoms and providing treatment plans that target the disorder and not the individual. Instead, practitioners are developing approaches that treat the whole individual by considering personality, lifestyle, history, and other factors, alongside symptoms.

During the conference, Matthew McKay and Catharine Meyers (New Harbinger’s Vice President of Development, who is responsible for acquiring books and determining our publishing direction) also met with Thomas Lynch, PhD, whose work on Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy (RO-DBT) directly counters the DSM-V’s categorization of disorder symptoms and treatment. RO-DBT—a single intervention—treats a variety of disorders and maladaptive behaviors that are the product of the rigid, inflexible inhibitory control that Lynch calls “emotional overcontrol.” In Lynch’s words, overcontrolled patients, including individuals who suffer from anorexia nervosa and chronic depression, are “silent sufferers.” Instead of treating one discrete disorder with a one-size-fits-all treatment plan, RO-DBT penetrates the underlying emotional problem of the individual and addresses it using self-inquiry and flexible responding. At the end of the lunch, Catharine remarked, “RO-DBT is the evidence-based complement to Brené Brown’s ideas of vulnerability.”

Above: A book signing with Cedar Koons, MSW, LCSW.

More and more, traditional therapeutic approaches are incorporating practices such as acceptance of difficult emotions and negative thoughts, and mindfulness. Third wave therapies encourage mental health professionals to traverse the journey of recovery and coping alongside their clients more as equals than as authority figures. One of the pillars of third wave practice is teaching clients skills aimed at living values-based lives—meaning the client identifies what’s important to them (e.g., spending quality time with family, working on creative work, or reconnecting with nature), and then makes decisions and participates in activities that align with those values. This encourages clients to accept difficult internal experiences and learn the skills to cope with them instead of fighting against them. At one point, Steven Hayes, PhD, likened the third wave to a literal wave—water moves out and back in, and then the same molecules go back together to make another wave.

Third wave [cognitive behavioral therapy] touches our hearts as much as it touches the hearts of those who we’re working with. –Steven Hayes, PhD

Above: a panel discussion on ACT, DBT, and CBT with Kelly Koerner, PhD, Steven Hayes, PhD, and David Harlow, PhD.

The second day of the convention focused on the effects of mental illness on diverse racial, religious, and class populations. Presenters raised difficult questions about why communities across different cultures, classes, gender identities, and sexualities face different challenges—and how to address these differences to provide meaningful treatment and change to their lives.

Researchers and psychologists are acknowledging that all human beings are different, and that’s okay. We are working on listening to each other better. At one of the special interest group meetings, the moderator announced that diversity will be the theme of the 2017 ABCT conference. New Harbinger Publications has been taking diversity seriously for quite some time, and the trend seems to be intensifying. For example:


As Hayes noted in a mindfulness and acceptance therapy workshop for obesity, conducting these studies, refining them, trying them over again, and deriving meaning from them is how therapy evolves. Gatherings like ABCT are instrumental in progressing and exchanging intellectual currency. New Harbinger Publications is committed to furthering this evolution by publishing the voices of thought leaders in psychology.

We’ll see you at ABCT in 2017.

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