Psychological therapies do not often get credited with causing neurological change. For years, the brain and mind were thought to be fundamentally different. Psychology focused on psychological change in the mind, while medicine adhered to physical change in the brain. We now know that the brain and mind are really the same. When the brain changes, our mind changes and vice versa. Thus, when a patient undergoes psychological therapy, neurological alterations occur. These changes happen in various parts of the brain. Synaptic changes, neural networks and neurotransmitter levels are also impacted.

How is PTSD Experienced?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) causes neurological alterations in various parts of the brain. Most notably, brain areas associated with memory and emotions are disturbed. Discrete brain structures can change when someone experiences a traumatic event. Abnormalities in the pre-frontal cortex, hippocampus, amygdala, and anterior cingulate cortex are common.

Someone who experiences or witnesses a traumatic event may have any number of the following symptoms:

  • recurring nightmares
  • flashbacks
  • hypervigilance
  • upsetting memories
  • difficulty recalling memories
  • physical reactivity
  • feelings of isolation, guilt, shame, anger, sadness, anxiety and fear
  • continual negative thinking
  • insomnia
  • depersonalization or derealization
  • avoidance
  • relationship problems

PTSD causes functional impairment in relationships, work, and school and makes life difficult.

What Treatments Work?

Psychiatric medications may help relieve some of the symptoms but is unlikely to cure PTSD. Psychological therapies have been found to effectively alleviate PTSD symptoms. In particular, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy has been shown to resolve PTSD symptoms. Randomized clinical trials in patients with PTSD demonstrated EMDR as an effective treatment. We know that psychological therapies help based on patient and therapist reports; however, few studies have researched how PTSD therapies impact specific brain regions.

Brain Change with EMDR

In a recent study, neurological changes occurred among 19 patients undergoing EMDR therapy. This study compared grey matter volume (GMV) among 19 healthy controls using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). Patients showed significant changes in GMV after receiving EMDR therapy. They had a significant increase in GMV in the hippocampal gyrus, which is responsible for memory, and a significant decrease in GMV in the left thalamus region. After EMDR therapy, most patients no longer met the criteria for PTSD.

Patients and the control participants underwent a baseline MRI and psychiatric examination. Patients received 3 months of EMDR therapy and both groups were re-evaluated after 3 months. MRI and psychological testing revealed that EMDR therapy reduced PTSD. MRI results indicated brain morphology changes associated with traumatic processing.

What is exciting about these kinds of studies is that they prove psychological therapies make neurological change. Even though counseling may be challenging and sometimes long, patients learn new ways of coping, gain insight into their problems, and experience improved brain functioning.

EMDR Therapy

How Do I Begin PTSD Therapy?

Dr. Mazzei has many years of experience treating PTSD. She has helped many people overcome traumatic experiences using EMDR and other effective therapies. If you are interested in starting counseling, contact her today at (847) 386-8829 to schedule an initial consultation.

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