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Neurobiology of Change

By Janice Finerty

How does psychotherapy work? What actually happens when people change? Can people really change? Recently, the field of neuroscience has proven the idea of neuroplasticity, the idea that the brain is not doomed to rigidity into adulthood but is changeable and adaptable throughout one’s life span.

The brain and central nervous system are interconnected by nerve cells known as neurons that make up billions of connections referred to as neural networks. These networks become a complex map of our life experience. In the most ideal human experience, a person can create a calm space where they can reflect on troubling experiences and come to a resolution or understanding, both in their thoughts and in their body, which is experienced through a renewed sense of peace and calmness. Sometimes those neural networks can become rigid, losing the ability to easily form new, more adaptable connections.
This can be the case when symptoms of anxiety, depression, or unresolved trauma or grief become a problem. We can even explain how problematic interpersonal dynamics are mapped on our neuronal connections.

Psychotherapy can actually restructure and remap those neural connections. This change can be promoted in therapy through interpersonal connection within the therapeutic relationship as the therapist provides mindful attunement, allowing the client to explore thoughts and emotions. As this process takes place, fears, anxieties and other distressing emotions can be re-experienced and resolved within the therapeutic relationship. A similar experience promotes neural healing for children. A child re- experiences his stressful thoughts, emotions or past experiences through play in the presence of a play therapist who provides emotional attunement or assistance in finding a resolution to a negative narrative that continues to trigger the old traumatic memory networks that cause the negative symptoms to persist.

Homework assigned in therapy can promote further neural change outside the counseling office. Tasks that create neural flexibility include:

It can be most beneficial to realize that tolerating some level of anxiety through the therapeutic process can indicate that the neural change is taking place. It is always appropriate to verbalize anxieties associated with the process to your therapist. If this thought creates discomfort you can be assured it is creating neural change.