It is a relatively new discovery within psychology that the brain physically changes throughout our lives (not just during childhood and adolescence as many previously supposed).
Just as the brain’s physical development can be harmed (eg certain types of severe childhood trauma can interfere with the development of the amygdala, which, in turn, is related to the development of borderline personality disorder (BPD) – click here to read my article on this), so, too, can its structure and functionality be repaired and enhanced by therapeutic interventions; the harnessing of the power of such beneficial interventions has come to be known as SELF-DIRECTED NEUROPLASTICITY.
Self-directed neuro-plasticity essentially involves us teaching ourselves to think and act in new ways that can positively shape and control the functioning of our physical brain, altering its structure to our advantage and ‘re-wiring’ it in helpful ways (click here to read my article about how the brain can ‘re-wire’ itself).
HOW THIS RELATES TO THE TREATMENT OF ANXIETY
A recent research study, conducted by the psychologist Schwartz, involved patients suffering from an anxiety disorder being treated with a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) technique (called ‘mindfulness‘). CBT, to explain it in very basic terms, is a form of therapy based on the premise that by changing how we think, we can change how we act and feel, and, furthermore, that many psychological disorders have at their heart a faulty thinking style that causes distress. CBT seeks to correct this faulty thinking style.
But back to Schwartz’s study. He found that those treated with CBT improved to about the same degree as would be expected had they been treated with medication. This having been established, Schwartz then arranged for these improved patients to be given a brain scan (specifically, for those interested, a PET scan, or positron emission tomography scan).
This revealed that certain NEURAL PATHWAYS in the brains of the patients had undergone significant change. Specifically, there was seen to be, after the CBT therapy had been completed, significantly greater activity in the patients’ ORBITAL FRONTAL CORTEX.
As research into neuroplasticity continues and more experiments, such as the one outlined above, are conducted, it is likely that more and more psychological disorders will be amenable to interventions that exploit the phenomenon of neuroplasticity, providing us all, even those with conditions thought to be deeply entrenched, a good deal of hope that we can get very significantly better.
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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).