Cognitive Therapy Can Change Your Brain

Can thinking really change how your brain actually works? Well, at the University of Toronto, Dr. Mayberg, Zindel Segal, and their colleagues discovered just that. In their research they had been using brain imaging to measure activity in the brains of depressed adults. They separated the depressed individuals into two groups: one group received the generic anti-depressant drug for Paxil and the other group underwent 15-20 sessions of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). In CBT, my specialty, these clients learned not to catastrophize, or imagine the worst possible outcome in distressing situations. An example of catastrophizing is concluding from a poor job interview that you will never find a good job. At the conclusion of the study, the researchers found that that both groups’ depression had lifted. However, the only “drug” that CBT group received was their own thoughts.

As the researchers scanned the group’s brains again, they were expecting to find that cognitive-behavioral therapy and the drug worked in the same manner in the brains. To their surprise they found that they were “dead wrong”.

They found that the anti-depressant worked by lowering the activity in the limbic system, the brains center of emotion. In contrast, CBT, according to Dr. Mayberg, worked by “rewiring” the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that is in charge of logic, analysis, and higher thought. CBT worked because it taught the brain to “adopt different thinking circuits”. So, with CBT people feel better because they learn to think differently. Their brains are learning to look at situations in a more rational and balanced manner. And when people look at things in a more balanced way, instead of negative extremes, they tend to feel better. So, using the above example, is it not better and more balanced to remind yourself that you don’t know how the next job interview will go but that there are some good reasons to think that you are qualified for the position?

This study helps explain why there tends to be a high relapse in depression and anxiety when people stop taking their medications, if this is the only form of treatment. Unfortunately, medications do not teach you how to think differently and behave differently. Although, medications can be helpful and appropriate in helping people reduce intense emotions, they may not be sufficient. It is in therapy where you can learn the tools to feel better in the future by learning to use your skills of logic and reasoning. So, naturally as you learn these skills your likelihood of relapsing back into depression and anxiety is reduced, which has also been supported by research.

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