Helping the Brain Grow

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Science of the mind and its implications for the treat-ment of emotional disorders

By Lucy Barish

Until about 15 years ago, scientists believed humans were born with all the brain cells (neurons) they would ever have. However, with new methods in brain imaging, they have learned that the brain does, indeed, grow. This is called neuroplasticity, and they have discovered new ways to help brains grow into greater resilience and mental health.

We know that cavemen, who had to face the dangers of saber-toothed tigers, developed an effective way to deal with such dangers-the famous "fight or flight" response. The part of the brain in the more primitive limbic system, particularly the amygdala, the seat of emotion, would signal danger, causing cortisol, a stress hormone, to flow through their bodies, causing quick, hopefully life-saving decisions.

Although we modern humans have a prefrontal cortex that enables us to learn, reason, make decisions and execute them, we still have a primitive limbic system that can cause us to perceive dangers where there are none, causing anxiety and other emotional problems such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, agoraphobia (fear of the outside world), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and, of course, depression.

Scientists have also discovered that a child's view of the world is formed in the first six years of life based upon how they are seen and treated and what they see, as well as caregivers' attitudes and behaviors. This world "map" is unconscious. If parental figures are good enough, a benign view of the world develops. If not, constant fear makes the amygdala hyperalert and hypervigilant, constantly on the lookout for danger, along with inflammation of the body and consequent physical illnesses.

More and more articles are being published that show that anti-anxiety and anti-depression medications, both older and newer, are not as helpful as first thought and often come with significant side effects. Of course, there are situations in which medication is vital, but understanding the brain and its ability to change and grow as well as methods to induce growth is vital to the psychotherapist. While talk therapy and understanding the early history that has caused a client to perceive the world and feel in dysfunctional ways is vital, it is also very important to take how the brain changes into account.

In an earlier article, I discussed the importance of life coaching as a part of psychotherapy, which many therapists discount. However, they can teach clients to change their brains, helping them become more mindful of their emotional reactions and understand how to make them less reactive and more positive.

One way is to breathe and cue. When a client becomes anxious and/or depressed, deep breathing can help dispel hyperarousal and the fight or flight response when paired with positive words such as "I am safe" or other calming thoughts. When done in an effortful way and with determination, new, healthier tracks can be laid down in the brain, enabling them to become more resilient and emotionally balanced.

This is actually what we do when we learn a new habit, skill or sport, for example. Old negative tracks, or "tapes," degrade and disappear.

Furthermore, scientists have discovered that activities such as meditation, spiritual practice, including prayer, regular exercise and healthy eating and sleeping practices, as well as massage, yoga, tai chi, etc., go a long way toward dispelling anxiety and depression with only positive side effects. Thus, psychotherapists really need to know more about these areas in order to educate clients.

Psychotherapists also need to be especially mindful about their own inner thoughts and feelings and those of their clients. Scientists have discovered what they call "mirror neurons" on each side of the brain. Put simply, these mirror neurons make it possible for us to know our own emotional and physical states and thus know those of others, leading to empathy. A high degree of empathy and attention to the facial and bodily expressions of their clients helps psychotherapists know them and mirror back to them the true selves they see beyond the emotional issues.

Other methods based upon neurological as well as integration of emotional pain and trauma, are eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, especially helpful for PTSD, and a somewhat newer one, EFT tapping, in which a statement of the issue is made and meridian (acupuncture) points are repeatedly tapped to facilitate neurological changes.

It is very good news that we can change our brains to become more positive and calm so we can live fuller, happier lives with greater inner peace and physical health.

Lucille Barish is a licensed clinical social worker. For further information, contact her at 212-362-7146.

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