Can you imagine if people were embarrassed or ashamed to do physical therapy after being in a serious car accident? We might think, “I hope my friends and family don’t find out I hurt my leg,” or “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I get my leg better myself?”
How unfortunate that we treat the brain so differently from the rest of the body. The truth is that the brain is an organ, like any other. We can have liver problems, kidney problems, stomach problems or muscle problems, but when it comes to brain problems, all of a sudden there is a whole lot of blame and shame.
I’d like to share an alternative, and healthier, way of understanding mental health problems and the healing that occurs with therapy.
Our brains are truly amazing organs. Language, music, science, technology and art are all possible because of our brains. We aren’t born with all of these abilities, however. We learn them. Unlike other organs, the brain takes more than 20 years to become mature.
Even after they become “mature,” however, brains continue to learn, adapt and change throughout our lives. At the age of 60, you could decide to learn to play the guitar, even having never plucked a string before. It would take a lot more work than if you had started learning at the age of 5, but if you took lessons and practiced, your brain would change and learn.
Most mental health problems are due to a combination of genetics and life experiences.
Mental health problems certainly run in families, but genetics are not the whole explanation. Trauma, upbringing and poverty are among many factors that can influence brain development and changes. We also know that brains have an incredible capability for overcoming or adapting even to severe brain injury. If someone has a stroke, a part of his or her brain actually dies, and that person can lose the ability to talk or walk. With physical therapy and speech therapy, however, other parts of the brain are recruited, new wiring and new connections are made, and abilities can return.
Similarly, people who have severe anxiety can learn new ways of thinking and interpreting the world or can strengthen their control of attention and focus. People with depression can learn how to move through a process of grieving for a terrible loss, learn healthy interpersonal skills or learn how to improve their self esteem. People with hallucinations can learn how to recognize the hallucinations as symptoms and learn how to accept them or distract from them. When this learning occurs, the brain actually physically changes, and the improvements in symptoms tend to be long lasting.
Learning is what really should be occurring in psychotherapy.
There are many types of therapy out there, and we are identifying what specific therapy interventions are most helpful for specific problems.
In the mental health business, we call these “evidence-based practices,” and we now have them for anxiety, depression, psychosis, trauma, substance abuse, behavior problems in children, suicidal tendencies, eating disorders and more.
If I have convinced you that teaching your brain new things can be a good way to solve problems, you may be ready to start looking for a therapist.
Here is some additional advice: Be wary of the therapist who says “I do this type of therapy” and proceeds to do the same type of therapy with every person who comes in their door, regardless of the main problem.
The first step should be getting a good understanding of what the problem is, often with the help of learning about a diagnosis. Then the therapist should be able to present you with a well-thought out plan for what interventions will be most helpful. The plan should be backed up by research and should make sense about how it is going to work. I always encourage people to do their own research, as well. In the age of the internet, you never have to just take the expert’s word for it; look it up.
If you are struggling with a mental health problem, please know that there are many effective treatments available, including therapy.
I and most of the people I know have benefited from therapy, and I can definitively say that taking action to become healthier and happier is the strong, and smart, thing to do.
Dr. Brian Allender is a psychiatrist and the chief medical officer at Valley Cities Behavioral Health Care.