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Why therapy can be so hard — and so worth it

EMOTIONS

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Zoe Romanowsky - published on 08/21/21

New research sheds more light on how psychotherapy is physical therapy for your brain.

Last month, Science Daily reported that even in the absence of pleasurable stimuli, mice can be taught to willfully dose themselves with dopamine (the feel-good neurotransmitter). This finding has huge implications for psychotherapy, so Aleteia asked Dr. Greg Popcak, founder and director of CatholicCounselors.com, to explain why this is so noteworthy.

“The study is significant because it’s been generally assumed that the body only produces dopamine when prompted to do so by some outside stimulus like a pleasurable activity, drugs, alcohol, etc.,” Popcak says. “This study shows that even with simple conditioning techniques the brain can be taught to give itself little boosts of ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters.” 

Popcak says that we see this all the time in therapy, but this study “adds additional biological support to the idea that we are not powerless over our emotions or circumstances. While it isn’t possible (or healthy) to make ourselves feel like bad situations are actually good, it is possible to teach our bodies to not feel so weighed down or hopeless in the face of challenging circumstances.”

To find out more about this, you may want to check out Popcak’s book, Unworried: A Life Without Anxiety,in which he discusses these ideas further. “Psychotherapy isn’t so much about “talking things out” anymore as it is about learning techniques that help your brain process stress more efficiently and problem-solve more effectively,” he says.

Scientists and researchers have been able to demonstrate since the 1990s that psychotherapy causes structural changes in the brain. “Using functional imaging technology (fPET, fMRI) we can see physical changes in brain function pre and post counseling,” says Popcak. “Therapy is hard the same reason any exercise is hard.  You aren’t just trying to learn new concepts.  You are building neural connections that didn’t previously exist and “beefing up” underdeveloped parts the brain so that they can manage your stress more effectively and stay ‘online’ when you are under pressure.”

These days, with so much going on in our lives and in the world around us, it’s helpful to know that seeking therapeutic help does more than just help us “talk it out” — it can provide us proper exercise for our brain to equip us to bear with our burdens and carry out our mission.

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PsychologyScience
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