Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is superior to mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (CT) for reducing symptom severity in patients with prolonged grief disorder, results from a randomized trial showed.

While patients receiving grief-focused CBT had a superior response compared with those receiving MT, participants in both groups experienced a significant reduction in symptoms 6 months after treatment.

“We emphasize that these results do not suggest that mindfulness-based therapy was not effective in treating grief-focused CBT, but rather that grief-focused CBT was relatively more effective in reducing prolonged grief disorder, depression, and grief-related cognitions than mindfulness-based cognitive therapy,” investigators, led by Richard Bryant, PhD, of the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, wrote.

Prolonged grief disorder can affect up to 10% of bereaved individuals and is associated with increased suicide risk, cancer, immunological dysfunction, cardiac events, and functional impairment.

One barrier to treatment for individuals with prolonged grief disorder is that the treatment process can be emotionally painful. Between 15% and 25% of patients with prolonged grief offered grief-focused CBT decline to participate because they are reluctant to focus on painful emotions surrounding the death of their loved one.

To compare grief-focused CBT with mindfulness-based CT, another psychotherapeutic treatment, investigators recruited 100 adults aged 18-70 years between 2012 and 2022.

Participants who met the criteria for prolonged grief disorder were randomized on a 1:1 basis to receive either grief-focused CBT (n = 50) or CT (n = 50). All assessors were blinded to the treatment condition.

Therapy in both groups included 11 weekly 90-minute individual sessions.

Participants were assessed posttreatment at the 6-month mark for prolonged grief disorder symptom severity with the Prolonged Grief (PG)-13 Scale. They were also assessed for symptoms of depression, anxiety, and self-reported quality of life.

Grief-focused CBT entailed education on prolonged grief disorder, monitoring of daily thoughts, revisiting the death memory for several sessions, reframing maladaptive grief-related thoughts, writing a letter to the deceased loved one, relapse prevention strategies, and goal setting.

Mindfulness-based CT was adapted to problematic grief and began with psychoeducation about prolonged grief disorder. The additional sessions entailed mindfulness-orienting exercises, meditation, body scans, and how mindfulness practices can be used to tolerate aversive emotions and thoughts or to manage grief reactions.

Participants were assessed at the end of their treatment and had a mean age of 47, and 87% were female. The majority (71%) were White, and 21% were African, Indigenous Australian, and Pacific Islander.

While participants in both groups had similar outcomes posttreatment, at the 6-month follow-up, grief-focused CBT led to more significant reductions in scores on the PG-13 scale compared with mindfulness-based CT (mean difference, 7.1 points; 95% CI, 1.6-12.5; P = .01) with a large between-group effect size (0.8; 95% CI, 0.2-1.3).

PG-13 scores range from 11 to 55, with higher scores indicating greater prolonged grief disorder severity.

Of note, both treatment groups had a significant reduction in prolonged grief disorder symptoms (mean difference, 11.3; 95% CI, 8.6-14.1; P < .001), with a large effect size (1.2; 95% CI, 0.9-1.5).

Grief-focused CBT also led to greater reductions in depression at 6 months as measured by the Beck Depression Inventory (mean difference, 6.6; 95% CI, 0.5-12.9; P = .04). Investigators noted that this finding was unexpected and “suggests that the greater reduction of depression in participants receiving grief-focused cognitive behavior therapy may be attributed to the superior reductions in prolonged grief disorder severity, thereby leading to downstream decreases in depression.”

The investigators noted several study limitations. Most participants were White, which limits the generalizability of the results to other races and ethnicities. Therapists were not blinded to treatment conditions, and investigators did not monitor participants’ therapeutic exercises that were to be practiced posttreatment until the 6-month mark.

The study was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council. Bryant served on the ICD Eleventh Revision Working Group on the Classification of Stress-Related Disorders. No other disclosures were reported.

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