Effective Therapy: Use Your Mind to Change Your Brain!

A young doctor with a magnifier is standing and looking at the brain model hanging above her hand at the blurred laboratory background. The concept of innovative approach in brain researching.

Most of us would agree that therapy is effective when a therapist helps a person address, deal with, and eventually heal from powerful emotional wounds. In my last two blogs, I invited readers to consider the symptoms that indicate someone might benefit from therapy along with the many different forms of therapy out there.

Let’s explore what to look for in an effective therapist. In my last blog, I highlighted information from Cozolino’s book, “The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy: Healing the Social Brain,” pending with one of his powerful statements. Researchers found that…the quality of the emotional connection between patient and therapist was far more important than the therapist’s theoretical orientation. Later he says, “The value of someone who is willing to go with us to the ground zero of our pain, a witness to our horror, should never be underestimated. Communicating our story to another encourages us to articulate a traumatic experience that may be represented in our brains only as a fragmented collection of images, bodily sensations, and emotions. Once we have a conscious and articulated story, we gain the possibility of integrating the many aspects of what happened to us in order to find a way to heal.

Understanding How We Heal

Important in understanding how any of us heal is an awareness and appreciation of the mind and how the mind is different from the brain. Cozolino says many of us do not even think about the fact that we have a mind. He said it is remembering that we have a mind and some power over it that involves effort and discipline. “This is why many people go through life never having noticed they have [a mind], let alone knowing they can change it or use it to their advantage.” He says the person’s mind creates an incessant stream of words, thoughts, and images.

Typically it is the work of the therapist to guide a person to notice the thoughts and feelings created by their mind. In doing so, they can consider how accurate and useful these are and whether or not they should believe them. While the brain evolved to help a person deal with potential danger… “the speed, intensity, and negative bias of all the thoughts it generates is going too far. In many ways, the cortex has grown too smart for our own well-being. The good news is that while brains evolved over eons, we can change our mind in an instant. It may take decades for that instant to happen, but when it happens, our mind is capable of discovering new ways of being.”

Therapy And Its Effectiveness

As far as therapy and its effectiveness, Cozolino states that, “Because our brains are social organs and interwoven with the brains of those around us, relationships have the power to heal us. Psychotherapy is successful in large part because of the therapist’s empathic abilities and the client’s belief in the therapist’s humanity and skill. Through the installation of optimism and hope, a therapist (or any healer) uses powerful mechanisms of mind to reshape the brain.”

In the book, “Train Your Mind Change Your Brain,” author Sharon Begley chronicles her journey to understand how scientists have discovered that the mind is capable of changing the brain. The quest for discoveries in this realm of science has a history as far back as the early 1900s. But the journey to open scientist’s minds to the idea that brains are capable of being changed was no easy task. “So convinced were neuroscientists that the adult brain is essentially fixed that they largely ignored the handful of (admittedly obscure) studies suggesting that the brain is actually malleable and shaped by experience.”

One of the most intriguing studies shared in this book involved a group of patients suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, OCD, a disorder defined by the National Institute of Mental Health as “… a common, chronic, and long-lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts (obsessions) and/or behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.”

OCD Therapy

We may associate this with people we have met who are compelled to wash their hands repeatedly or count the number of steps they take to get to the car and are unable to stop these compulsive behaviors. Some innovative therapists decided to show patients suffering from OCD their brain scans, highlighting where in their brains there were patterns that showed electrical malfunctioning. When patients were able to visualize this electrical malfunctioning and concentrate on changing the wiring, i.e. use their minds to change the brains, within a few weeks the electrical malfunctions in their brains radically changed and their OCD symptoms dramatically decreased or disappeared altogether!

There is much evidence now that people have the power to use their minds to change their brains. When therapy is healthy and appropriate, providing a safe place for a person to do the work of changing the way their brain functions creates healing opportunities and ways to a healthier new life. This is the way all therapy should be.

Potential Problems

One of the huge problems in the world of therapy is that not all therapists are as capable or ethical as they need to be to facilitate these healing processes. Some are poorly trained, some are poorly supervised or even refuse to be in supervision, some are misguided in their approaches, some do not manage the power they have over their clients, some are even sociopaths. We will examine some of this in my next blog.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. To what extent have you considered that there can be degrees of health in the therapeutic relationship? How does that awareness impact your ideas about therapy?
  2. How do you react to the information about how powerful the mind is in being able to change the brain?
  3. What are the implications when considering the relationship between a therapist and a patient/client?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute