Medical research suggests that many forms of mental illness begin with chemical changes deep inside the brain. These little signals that misfire, over and over again, could be responsible for the thoughts people have and the ways in which they react to their surroundings. While it’s hard to see the damage with the naked eye, brain scans can even demonstrate how portions of the brain work a little differently when a mental illness is in play. These scans are especially dramatic in people who have a history of drug abuse, as portions of the brain just seem to go dark when drugs are in use.
While brain imaging studies seem to suggest that amending chemistry is the only way to help a damaged brain to heal, some experts believe that just changing the way people think could help them to behave more appropriately and feel a little better about life. That’s what Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is designed to do, and studies of this practice suggest that it could be a radical new way in which to help brain cells to heal.
The National Association of Cognitive Behavioral Therapists suggests that CBT focuses on the thoughts that drive a person’s actions. Where other therapies might focus on external triggers, such as the behaviors of others or the situations a person encounters, CBT sessions are designed to delve into the thoughts a person has during different types of situations.
Often, when a mental illness is in play, the thoughts that race through a person’s head are far from positive. People with addictions, for example, might face the persistent belief that they’re the most unattractive person in the room, no matter what room they’re standing in. They might believe that they’re not smart enough to hold a decent conversation or talented enough to hold the attention of another person. These kinds of beliefs can keep people trapped in drug use, as they might need drugs to soothe the distress these thoughts can cause.
CBT is designed to help people to change those thoughts, and when the thoughts change, the behavior will also change. It’s a challenging goal, and yet, CBT is capable of bringing these results to life in no time at all. In fact, the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy suggests that people with mental illnesses like anxiety often need only six or 12 sessions in order to change their ways. Some people need longer periods of time in treatment, of course, but some really can get better in almost no time at all.
Typical Individual Sessions
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is sometimes provided in individual sessions, involving only a client and a therapist. The two form a tight team that works together in order to fight the problems at hand, meaning that the client is far from passive in these sessions.
In fact, clients are asked to contribute to almost every aspect of their care, including:
- Setting treatment goals
- Ranking problems by order of importance
- Assessing the effectiveness of therapy
- Terminating therapy when the goals have been met
- Changing the plan when improvement isn’t taking place
In an individual session, a client might be asked to describe a situation that’s likely to take place within the next week, and then describe the thoughts that might take hold during that event. The client is then asked to challenge the validity of that thought and determine how important that thought really is. If the thought is valid, the client might then determine how to act upon the thought, or whether to just allow it to pass by is best. Then, the client might be encouraged to think of replacement ideas that could be used to crowd out thoughts that aren’t valid.
At the end of the session, the client will have a complete plan of action that could be used when that event takes place. The client might also have homework assignments and exercises to complete between sessions, so that the skills learned in therapy can be strengthened even when the client is outside of the therapy room.
An article in PsychCentral suggests that sessions like this last about 50 minutes, and most clients attend just once per week. People in addiction programs, however, might go to therapy much more frequently, due to the severity of the problems they face.
CBT in Groups
While CBT provided in a one-on-one setting can be powerful, it’s also a useful intervention to provide in a group setting. When several people come together to work on a similar issue, they’re often adept at spotting moments of misinformation and lies. They have an insider’s perspective on the issue at hand, and they may be able to provide insights that a therapist just can’t see. Peers might also be helpful in role-play sessions, allowing a person to really reenact a particular moment that causes distress.
Group settings might also be helpful for skill building. Since CBT requires people to change the way in which they think, they sometimes need to work on their anger management abilities, communication skills and emotional control. Skill-building sessions might allow people to do just that, and they can be provided in group settings.
Measuring the Success
While most people who participate in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy suggest that they come away from the work with an enhanced ability to control negative thoughts and an increased ability to control compulsions they once thought were totally unmanageable, scientists suggest that the therapy can actually amend the way the brain functions on a cellular level. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, brain scans performed on people who have been through CBT demonstrate healing and improved functioning, when compared to scans performed before the therapy began. Just talking and thinking can be vital.
But other research conducted on CBT as a therapy for specific mental illnesses has demonstrated a remarkable amount of success in changing the way people act. Even if their brain cells don’t change, and even if a brain scan shows nothing at all, these studies suggest that the choices people make can be dramatically improved with the inclusion of CBT.
In a study in the journal The Lancet, for example, researchers studied people who had a form of mental illness known as health anxiety. These people developed serious physical symptoms that they were certain were part of a life-threatening mental illness, even when doctors determined that the people were healthy. In this study, CBT was found effective in reducing the number of symptoms people felt, and the number of times they asked for treatment for illnesses that weren’t visible to trained clinicians. The therapy helped them to behave appropriately, all because they had healthier thoughts.
In a similar study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, researchers looked at 56 women who had bulimia, placing some in a CBT group, some in another therapy group and some on a waiting list. Those who got CBT showed a significant improvement, the researchers said, while those who were on the waiting list didn’t improve at all. Specifically, the treated women reduced the number of times they binged on food, all because they had better control over their thoughts.
Similar results have been seen in people who get CBT for drug use and addiction issues, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). They gain control over their use, and the therapy also helps to address the underlying issues that can sometimes spark a drug problem. In the beginning, the therapy was designed to help people who had an addiction to cocaine, the NIDA says, but now the therapy has been used to treat other addictions, including addictions to:
Even addictions to prescription painkillers and sedatives, along with novel drugs like bath salts, could be amended with sessions of CBT provided by a trained professional. As long as clients are willing to work hard and be honest in therapy, they could make gains they just never thought possible.
CBT at The Oaks at La Paloma
At The Oaks at La Paloma, we believe in using therapies that have been scientifically proven to be effective. Since an article in Clinical Psychology Review suggests that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is one of the most studied forms of therapy available, and almost all studies have provided positive results, it’s the kind of therapy we feel comfortable providing to our clients in need.
As a Dual Diagnosis center, we’re equipped to assist with the mental illnesses that lie beneath an addiction, and often, that means we tailor our CBT sessions to address two or even three issues at the same time. Our counselors can provide individual sessions, but we also tend to lean on group work from time to time, as we think it’s best for addicted people to learn from and lean on one another as well.
If you’d like to learn more about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy at The Oaks at La Paloma, or find out how we incorporate mental health into everything we do, please call. We’re here to help you understand your options and gain control over your life. Just call.