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So You Want to Understand Your Brain on Psychotherapy?

The popular board game Life, created in the 1800s, is designed to take players through a simulation of life taking place from childhood through adulthood. In it are a number of life events and milestones as well as challenges that can take place in different life stages. Since the game’s creation, we’ve seen and experienced major historical events, unique stressors that come with technological advances, as well as continuing to experience similar stressors to those who lived during the game’s early days. Sometimes these problems can feel overwhelming, and it can be difficult to balance intense emotions, our thoughts, and actions. Having a good support network can provide some ways of making these challenges easier, but sometimes we may need a different type of support.

Psychotherapy, often called talk therapy, therapy, mental health counseling, etc., is one method of working through many of life’s stressors, increasing self-awareness, learning coping skills, and working towards creating a meaningful and happier life. This below shows some, but not all, of the reasons people may seek therapy as well as potential outcomes and benefits.

Reasons people go to therapy: Improve communication; Increased self-awareness Emotional management; Feelings of sadness, anger, grief, etc.; Managing stressors

Outcomes/Benefits: Mindfulness; Improved concentration ; Increase self-esteem/confidence; Self-awareness; Improved motivation

So, what is psychotherapy, and what are models of intervention? Therapy is a process of working with a licensed professional (Psychologist, Licensed Professional Counselor, Clinical Social Worker, Licensed Marriage/Family Therapist) to achieve any combination of the reasons listed above. Within therapy exist a large number of models, or types, of intervention. These include but aren’t limited to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), Psychodynamic, Trauma-Focused CBT(TF-CBT), and Eye Movement, Desensitization, and Reprocessing (EMDR).

Brains have neuroplasticity which means that they continue developing throughout life. We can actually enhance neuroplasticity, and psychotherapy is one of those ways. Many of the interventions incorporate some type of mindfulness, or awareness of emotions and thoughts. Therapists can help clients develop mindfulness skills, and mindfulness has been shown to help ease feelings of anxiety, intense worry, and depression to name a few. While mindfulness alone can be positive, it’s one part of many of the techniques used in therapy. A 2016 study led by David Creswell, PhD., at our own Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) explored how mindfulness can change brain structures in people experiencing anxiety. There were 35 adult job-seeking participants, and they were invited to either an intensive three-day mindfulness retreat or three-day relaxation retreat with no mindfulness component. All participants were given brain scans before and after the retreats as well as four months later as a follow-up. He and his team were specifically looking at resting neural connection and whether or not mindfulness impacted them, and they focused on the parts of the brain associated with mind-wandering and executive control. They believed that focusing on these neural pathways in the brain could help improve emotional management, stress resilience, and stress-related health outcomes (Creswell, 2016.)

When looking at the brain scans, the team found that there was more neural connection in the brain scans of those who were in the mindfulness-based group. This was a positive finding because the connection took place in the brain region associated with attention and executive control, which supported their overall hypothesis. These findings led them to believe that exploring mindfulness more could shed light on how it can be used to help people improve things like emotional management, executive functioning, stress tolerance, and overall health. Creswell’s mindfulness study is just one of many that are taking a deeper look at how things like mindfulness and many other practices taught in psychotherapy. As we continue to deepen our understanding of how the brain works, we can continue to develop and fine-tune therapeutic interventions that can help us grow on both mental and biological levels.


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