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Prof Psychol Res Pr. 2010 Jun;41(3):228-235.

A Pilot Study of Psychotherapist Trainees' Alpha-Amylase and Cortisol Levels During Treatment of Recently Suicidal Clients With Borderline Traits.

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University of Nevada, Reno.


Psychotherapists often experience stress while providing psychotherapy, in particular when working with difficult presentations such as suicidality. As part of a larger study on the treatment of recently suicidal college students with borderline traits, 6 therapists in training collected their own salivary samples for alpha-amylase (AA) and cortisol (C) analyses immediately before and after sessions with 2 selected clients. On average, samples were collected for the same therapist-patient dyad throughout the year-long study to ensure that data reflected therapist responses across stages of treatment. Therapists also completed a working alliance questionnaire and rated perceived session difficulty immediately after each selected session. Contrary to expectations, therapists demonstrated elevated levels of stress as measured by AA and C at presession relative to postsession levels. Greater session difficulty was related to more pronounced declines in AA, whereas a stronger working alliance was linked to more pronounced reductions in C. Results suggest that physiological stress responses while working with recently suicidal clients with borderline traits occur primarily in terms of session anticipatory anxiety, whereas AA and C changes may be affected differently by factors such as session difficulty and working alliance. This is a pilot study, limited by its sample size, but the design, findings, and inclusion of physiological measures present an initial step in an essential line of research.

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