Aleteia logoAleteia logo
Tuesday 28 September |
Saint of the Day: St. Wenceslaus
home iconLifestyle
line break icon

Why therapy can be so hard — and so worth it


delcarmat | Shutterstock

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, 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.

Support Aleteia!

If you’re reading this article, it’s thanks to the generosity of people like you, who have made Aleteia possible.

Here are some numbers:

  • 20 million users around the world read every month
  • Aleteia is published every day in seven languages: English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, and Slovenian
  • Each month, readers view more than 50 million pages
  • Nearly 4 million people follow Aleteia on social media
  • Each month, we publish 2,450 articles and around 40 videos
  • We have 60 full time staff and approximately 400 collaborators (writers, translators, photographers, etc.)

As you can imagine, these numbers represent a lot of work. We need you.

Support Aleteia with as little as $1. It only takes a minute. Thank you!

Daily prayer
And today we celebrate...

Top 10
The Sinai Peninsula and the Dead Sea Rift
J-P Mauro
Experts now believe Sodom was destroyed by a meteor
Fr. Michael Rennier
The purpose of life according to J.R.R. Tolkien
crisis man
Marzena Devoud
Advice from 3 monks for overcoming acedia
Giovanna Binci
He’s autistic, she has Down syndrome, and they’re wonderfully hap...
Christ and the woman taken in adultery
Daniel Esparza
What Jesus wrote
Cathedral Duomo
Philip Kosloski
Will souls in Hell receive resurrected bodies?
J-P Mauro
Fr. Kapaun’s remains returned to Kansas after 70 years
See More
Get Aleteia delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.