Does therapy really work?

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Not so long ago, scientists believed human neurological development stopped around the time we entered late adolescence. However, research in the 1990s, also referred amongst neuroscientists as the “Decade of the Brain” showed that our brains continue to create new neurons and new neuronal connections throughout the course of our lives.

PET scans and MRIs have since verified that meditation, mindfulness practices, and experiences of emotional attachment significantly influence the creation of new neuronal pathways in the human brain.

So, it appears that experiences alter our brains – not just in childhood but throughout the course of our lives. Whenever we learn something new – and this includes new perspectives, attitudes, or behaviors – we actually change the structure of our brains!

Interpersonal neurobiology – also known as IPNB – is an interdisciplinary examination of how significant life experiences change the ways our brains work and how our relationships can be used to change the neurological systems in our brains.

IPNB, which was developed by Dr. Siegel and Dr. Allan Schore, is an interdisciplinary examination of how significant life experiences change the ways our brains work and how our relationships can be used to change our brains and neurological systems.

*In short, IPNB is the study of how our brains grow and are influenced by our personal relationships.

The Importance of Our Relationships

Although some of us may be less socially inclined than others, as human beings we are all social creatures. We are “hardwired” to connect with one another, and one way we connect is through our emotions. Recent studies have shown that our brains and bodies are inseparable from the emotions that animate us.

*When we fail to develop healthy connections with other people, we experience emotional distress in a variety of forms. 

From this it follows that our emotional and psychological health and well-being rely on the cultivation of relationships with other people in order for our emotions to enrich our lives rather than us becoming slaves to our emotions.

The Effects of Childhood Emotional Trauma

Emotional and psychological trauma is commonly caused by extraordinarily stressful life events. Circumstances that shatter our sense of security and make us feel helpless and vulnerable. When we experience emotionally traumatic events, especially if these experiences occur during childhood, the trauma can wreak havoc on our relationships and our lives, including leading to long-standing anxiety and stress, feelings of rejection and abandonment, and continual dissatisfaction and distrust of close, intimate relationships.

While traumatic events commonly involve a threat to one’s personal safety, any event that causes one to feel overwhelmed or alone can be traumatic, even if no physical harm is involved. In fact, the basis of much neurosis is the emotional disconnect that occurs when a child feels the need to isolate him or herself from painful experiences.

When children’s emotions are ignored, discounted, humiliated, or punished, children learn at an early age that displaying their emotions isn’t acceptable. This experience can be considered traumatic, as many children not only isolate their emotions from external reality but also cut themselves off from their emotions internally as a result.

While these defensive mechanisms may work for a child who’s trying to protect himself or herself from external threats or internal pain, these coping mechanisms also set a child up for a lifetime of emptiness, loneliness, and emotional isolation.

Interpersonal Neurobiology and Effective Psychotherapy

A great deal of time and energy has been spent exploring the implications of IPNB for the healing of trauma and the restoration of the internal emotional awareness most people discard during childhood.

It has been discovered recently that traumatic events can actually alter the genes of infants.

If traumatic experiences can change our genetic code as well as the neurons and neuronal pathways in our brains, then it follows that “positive” experiences have the potential to restore our brains and bodies to emotional and physical health.

Since experiencing truly healthy relationships is such a powerful catalyst for the transformations at the heart of the healing process, psychotherapists and other mental health professionals involved in the IPNB field have been focusing their efforts on healing trauma by creating positive and secure relationship influences that create physical brain change as well as psychological healing.

A therapist familiar with the underlying principals of interpersonal neurobiology attempts to create emotional safety for his or her clients, demonstrate vulnerability through the transparent revelation of information, as well as help clients move beyond simply talking about experiences to taking part in an emotional exchange in the here and now.

From this perspective, the purpose of psychotherapy is to create the emotional safety necessary for an individual’s defense mechanisms to become unnecessary. When this occurs, an individual can feel safe enough to reveal to the therapist and to themselves the inner emotions and feelings that have been locked away since childhood.

As therapy progresses, further safety, trust, intimacy, and enjoyable interactions lead clients to change their expectations for interpersonal interactions from failure, disappointment, and fear to closeness, confidence, joy, and personal satisfaction.

By recreating individuals’ concepts of relationships, both with others and with themselves, (trauma counseling and) psychotherapy that incorporates IPNB techniques can provide individuals new emotional experiences that can lead to substantial, positive, and lasting.

Written by Pilar Placone

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About Jennifer Shay, LCSW, ACSW

Licensed Clinical Social Worker
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