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Can Counseling Change Your Brain?


A recent study led by psychiatrist Jakob Koch of Christian-Albrechts University in Kiel, Germany suggesting that effective psychotherapy with depressed clients is associated with changes at the brain’s cellular level, increasing the production of a key brain protein that assists in creating neural pathways.

The study included a modality called Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT) which looks through the lens of both cognitive and interpersonal issues. It is one of the short term therapies that have been proven to be effective for the treatment of depression. Short term usually involves up to 20 sessions and maintains a focus on 1-2 key issues that seem to be most closely related to the depression.

More important than the modality, there seems to be a bond between the client and the therapist. There is a lot known about the power of oxytocin, the hormone of love, to bond people together but oxytocin can also be an ally to encourage therapeutic change.

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According to Linda Graham, MFT and trainer on the integration of relational psychology, mindfulness and neuroscience, it is “the neurochemical basis of the sense of safety and trust that allows clients to become open to therapeutic change.”

Daniel Siegel, MD, one of the pioneers in this field has been trying to point out for years that that there is potential for the growth of new brain cells via relationships. The power of the “relationship” is not to be underestimated.

Important relationships can do immense damage or they can facilitate profound healing. Most psychotherapists/counselors are aware that the therapeutic relationship is one that can provide a safe place for emotional and psychological healing. Many therapists believe that by providing a stable and nurturing environment, there is the potential for a corrective experience that the client can integrate into his life.

This study is the beginning to help people harness the power of therapy and relationship to help heal depression. Far more research is needed, including explanations of relapses of depression even in those under psychotherapeutic care. However, this study shines some light on the possibility that counseling can change the brain.