Target the Whole-brain to Rewire Anxiety
Are you reaching the Whole-brain in your work as a psychotherapist?
This is the second part of a two part blog, if you are just joining us then please click here to read part one.
Emotional pain responses are hardwired into the lower brain regions of all mammals – and fortunately, we’ve had neuroscience breakthroughs that now help guide us in how to alter this neural wiring and raise emotional intelligence about the roots of anxiety. The region charged with activating emotional pain responses is what I call the BOTTOM Brain and it runs the body’s nervous system, enabling quick getaways or shutdowns to perceived danger. The vagus nerve connects brain and body; enabling rapid shutdown to survive or return to internal safety, referred to as neuroception, to thrive. The vagus nerve can be used for intentionally creating rapid shifts to calmer states. By understanding how the brain connects, communicates and changes itself, it becomes possible to learn new skills to rewire and update neural-circuits involved in fear and panic emotional pain responses.
If you are wondering whether your current interventions are brain-based and neuro-effective, you can take this quiz.
Therapists self-study- Are you reaching the Whole-brain in your work as a psychotherapist?
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TOP-down and BOTTOM-up Interventions for Change
Psychological treatment has the longest duration effect for reducing anxiety and stress, especially by integrating interventional approaches so that the whole brain is targeted for change. Common approaches to treat anxiety should combine TOP-down interventions such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and BOTTOM-up experiential processes such as Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, Progressive Relaxation exercises, Hypnotherapy, Tapping, use of motor, eye-movements or sounds.
Combining talk (a cognitive intervention) and action (experiential interventions) such as Mindfulness or Hypnotherapy or those mentioned above will provide the most effective result in the shortest time-frame, as this twofold approach utilizes the whole brain and its dual processing capabilities (TOP and BOTTOM) to promote neural change or rewiring.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is the most researched evidence-based treatment approach for anxiety disorders and stress. In my 27 plus years as a licensed clinical psychologist, I meet with new clients and ask how prior treatments for anxiety have left them and whether they experienced any resolution in their problems. If they haven’t benefited from Cognitive Behavioral Psychotherapy for their anxiety disorder, I explain that it was not because of them; rather, it was likely due to the drawbacks inherent in talk-only therapies, which are lacking a whole brain-body approach to change. They experienced no immediate relief or long-term resolution, because the intervention didn’t target the root of their emotional problems, which is their BOTTOM Brain. Similarly, sometimes a client reports that they felt worse during psychotherapy so they stopped going. They blamed themselves for failing to think more rationally or positively. When they avoided being exposed to their irrational fears, they found temporary relief; but this avoidance experience was at the price of long-term resolution.
Prolonged Exposure Therapies increase the brain’s fear responses. When confronting a feared object or situation, anxiety increases. In these exposure therapies clients often feel helpless to control their anxiety, still thinking anxiety management or control is what is needed. When unable to control the anxiety, it is normal to want to stop and avoid anxiety altogether and be free of physical and emotional discomfort. But avoiding a stimulus never truly frees the client, because the brain wires in the fear-avoid responses. Both common sense and psychotherapists suggest that a person must feel the fear to get better; yet experiencing too much anxiety wires in more fear responding. Often clients say their medical doctors tell them they have to learn to live with anxiety because it is normal, and there’s no magic pill to alleviate it altogether. Sometimes clients look for alcohol or illicit drugs for anxiety reduction, which is still a form of avoidance.
When something is avoided, it becomes easier to avoid. But it’s not usually possible to avoid a stimulus forever; so, for lasting change, what’s needed is a new approach using brain science. Thus, empowering yourself or your clients to rewire what is going on in the mind, brain, and body will better conquer anxiety.
Also featured in April is the “Playing the Brain for Change’’ Teleconference where you can learn to have brain-changing conversations about anxiety. Participation earns credits toward a certification in Emotional Pain Intervention (EPI®).
Play the Brain for Change Teleconference from MindWorks Psychology featuring Dr. Elizabeth Michas presenting the Emotional Pain Intervention (EPI®) brain-changing conversation guide for therapists and the Brain as an Organ of Change and Transformation system.
As a bonus Teleconference participants can immediately download Dr. Michas’ new book Play The Brain For Change: How to Activate the Vagus Nerve and Use Neuroplasticity for Quick and Lasting Change.