Psychotherapy Physically Changes Brain Activity in Social Anxiety Patients

Talk therapy can help improve the symptoms of mild, moderate, or extreme cases of anxiety, but just what exactly does it do to the brain? That’s what a group of Canadian researchers sought to discover in a recent study.

Both medication and talk therapy can alleviate the symptoms and general wellbeing of patients with social anxiety disorder—a common disorder in which one is affected by marked fear of social interaction and harsh judgment by others. In the field of psychological science, much is known about the medically-induced changes to the brains of patients with social anxiety disorder, yet little research on the neurological effects caused by psychotherapy to treat the disorder has been documented. To help fill this gap, a team of scientists from McMaster University and Ryerson University, led by researcher David Moscovitch from the University of Waterloo, conducted a new study to identify the types of physical changes the brain actually undergoes as a result of this therapy. Their findings will appear in a future publication of the journal Psychological Science.

To start, the research team recruited a group of 25 patients with social anxiety disorder from a local clinic in Ontario, and tracked their progress as they underwent 12 weekly sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy. Throughout the duration of the patients’ therapy, the researchers used electroencephalograms (EEGs) to measure and record the electrical activity of the patients’ brains known as delta-beta coupling, which rises in tandem with increased anxiety. As a control, the researchers compared the results of the 25 psychotherapy patients with that of two control groups who did not receive psychotherapy—one group of students who tested low for symptoms of social anxiety, and one group of students who tested extremely high for the disorder.

The patients received EEGs twice prior to treatment commencement, once during treatment, and twice post-treatment. In comparison, the control groups were given EEGs during moments of rest and moments of induced high stress. In addition, researchers gathered assessments on all the participants’ levels of fear and anxiety.

When researchers compared the data, the positive results of psychotherapy were clear. Prior to therapy, the patients’ rate of delta-beta coupling were far above that of the low-anxiety group and resembled that of high-anxiety group. By the middle of treatment, the easing of the patients’ brain activity corresponded to both the clinicians’ reports and the patients’ self-reports of their symptoms. By the end of treatment, the patients’ EEGs were similar to those of the low-anxiety group.

The researchers’ study helped demonstrates that psychotherapy can change the biology of anxiety in the brain, allowing future researchers to develop more effective treatment methods. However, further research will also need to demonstrate whether psychotherapy, in conjunction with medication or without medication, can cause physical changes in the brain. Nonetheless, the researchers explained in a recent press release by the Association of Psychological Science that their findings show how psychotherapy is an important part of the treatment program and its long-lasting effects.

In order to successfully change the emotions and behavior of a person with social anxiety disorder, the brain must also undergo physiological improvement to make those changes permanent. While pharmaceutical regimens can cause these neurological changes during treatment, psychotherapy teaches the patient to identify their unhealthy thinking patterns and then challenge them—in effect, rewiring their own brains for long-term improvement.

Source: HealthDay, Robert Preidt, ‘Talk Therapy’ Can Alter Brain Activity, Research Shows, February 16, 2011

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