Peter Emanuel Sifneos, MD, was a psychiatrist known for his pioneering work in brief therapy and psychosomatic medicine. He advocated for recording sessions between psychotherapists and the people they were working with, a practice believed to both allow people to see the progress they were making in treatment and help aspiring therapists learn how to work with people more effectively.
Sifneos was born on October 22, 1920, on the island of Lesbos. He graduated from Athens College and earned a degree in chemistry at the Sorbonne in Paris. After that, he escaped from Nazi-occupied France to the United States and finished his education at Harvard Medical School, completing the program in 1946. He worked as a psychiatrist for the United States Army in Frankfurt, Germany, before returning to Boston in the 1950s to train as a psychoanalyst at the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Sifneos worked at Massachusetts General Hospital. In the 1970s, he taught as a visiting professor at the University Psychiatric Clinic in Oslo. During his time there, he conducted some of the first psychotherapy research that had ever been done in Norway. Sifneos presented his work internationally and devoted much time to training psychotherapists in short-term therapy work over the following few decades. He was awarded an honorary doctoral degree by the University of Athens in 1998 and continued teaching until 2007.
Contributions to Psychology
One of Sifneos’ greatest contributions to the field of psychology was the development of a short-term psychoanalytic treatment. Historically, most psychoanalysts treated people on a long-term basis that could continue for years, but Sifneos had success using a short-term treatment model of about six sessions. He developed Short-Term Anxiety-Provoking Psychotherapy (STAPP) in the 1960s and early 1970s. STAPP applies psychoanalytic principles by teaching how conflicts forming the core of problematic symptoms are reenacted unconsciously. It also provides people with tools for resolving future conflicts independently. STAPP is designed for people who feel themselves to be both resilient and motivated and can be highly effective when used correctly.
Sifneos was also interested in psychosomatic medicine. When treating patients who presented with psychosomatic issues, he noticed they often had difficulty describing their feelings. He coined the term alexithymia to describe the condition. It is still used today, enabling both researchers and clinicians to better understand how to help people with that issue.
Recording therapy sessions on video was another one of Sifneos’ interests. Research in this area was particularly pioneering, because psychotherapy was considered a very private matter at the time. Since Sifneos was willing to record his sessions with the consent of the people in therapy and share them in lectures and seminars, viewers could obtain a better understanding of his therapeutic process by watching his work directly.
Books by Peter Sifneos
Sifneos was a prolific writer, publishing 125 articles on a variety of topics including psychotherapy, psychotherapy training, mental health, and psychosomatic issues. He also served as the editor-in-chief of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics for almost 20 years. Books written by Sifneos include:
- Ascent from Chaos: A Psychosomatic Case Study
- Short-term Anxiety-provoking Psychotherapy: A Treatment Manual
- Short-term Psychotherapy and Emotional Crisis
- Short-term Dynamic Psychotherapy: Evaluation and Technique
- Frankel, F., et al. (2010, May 13). Peter Emanual Sifneos. Harvard Gazette. Retrieved from http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/05/peter-emanuel-sifneos
- Marquard, B. (2009, February 10). Peter Sifneos, 88; Psychiatrist found new therapy approaches. Globe Newspaper Company. Retrieved from http://archive.boston.com/bostonglobe/obituaries/articles/2009/02/10/peter_sifneos_88_psychiatrist_found_new_therapy_approaches/?page=2