Man in therapy session using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Neuroplasticity: How CBT Changes Your Brain

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy provides an extremely effective treatment for many psychological problems. In fact, the relationship between Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and neuroplasticity means that the work you do in changing your thoughts also physically changes your brain. Your brain remains malleable throughout your life, and this neuroplasticity allows you to leave negative or unhelpful ways of thinking behind. Here’s how this therapy can change your brain for the long term.

Does CBT sound like the answer to your unhelpful thoughts and behaviors? Make an appointment with The Lukin Center today to get started.

Is the Way the Brain Functions Set by Genetics?

Most children learn early on that their genetic code determines certain facts about themselves, such as their eye color, hair color, and blood type. In fact, your genes do determine many more things about your physical makeup, including the physical properties of your brain. 

Yet, even before birth, your environment begins to alter your body and brain. What’s more, the choices you make and the thoughts you choose to hold onto can continue to alter the structure of your brain over time. So, while the genes set the baseline, what you do, think, and experience in the world all work together to determine how your brain is structured and how it functions in each moment after that. 

What Is Neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity is your brain’s ability to change. The structure of the brain can change physically to such an extent that it shows up on fMRI images. Because of documented proof of the relationship between Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and neuroplasticity, CBT is considered an evidence-based therapy that works.

Neuroplasticity and Anxiety

One research study explored Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and neuroplasticity in people being treated for social anxiety. In this study, participants with social anxiety disorder received one of two treatments – CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) or ABM (Attention Bias Modification). Before and after the treatment period, they had MRIs to show the current structures of their brains. The researchers also used tests to determine changes in the function of the subjects’ brains. 

The results were that both the brain’s structure and function had changed for the people who were treated with CBT. The amygdala, which processes threatening stimuli, decreased in both volume and sensitivity. Whereas before, these participants’ brains had quickly rushed into fight or flight mode, they now experienced reduced social anxiety. This investigation into Cognitive Behavioral Therapy seemed to show that the reason for the improvements was that their thoughts and actions learned through CBT changed their brains’ structure. In addition, it changed the function of how their brains naturally responded to perceived threats.

Neuroplasticity and Mood

The structure of your brain can also affect your mood, leading to depression or its reversal. While no one knows precisely why some people get depressed, and others don’t, the stress model of depression has often been used. This model says that depression happens when chronic stress negatively alters the brain.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and neuroplasticity can work together to alter your brain but in a different way. With your psychotherapist, you practice changing your thoughts and behaviors. Over a short treatment period, your brain begins to change, now tending toward neutral thoughts rather than negative ones. 

In depression, CBT can cause brain changes like improved connectivity between various parts of the brain, increased activity in certain parts of the brain, and reduced threat responses in the amygdala. What that means is that your brain becomes more active in helpful ways and less overreactive to minor threats. These changes allow your mood to shift away from depression.

Antidepressants and Chemical Changes in the Brain

Antidepressants can be extremely helpful for many people who have depression. These medications often make it possible for people to participate constructively in their psychotherapy. Although it is not certain why these chemicals work, the evidence shows that they do typically make it easier for people to engage in their treatment.

Yet, antidepressants are usually a short-term solution to depression. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and neuroplasticity offer a long-term answer because of the changes it makes to your brain. In addition, you learn techniques that you can apply again if you ever need to due to changes in your circumstances or environment. 

How Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Promotes Neuroplasticity

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy & Neuroplasticity infographic

So, how do Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and neuroplasticity change the structure and function of your brain? The steps of CBT create these changes through ongoing practice. As you work to adopt different ways of thinking and behaving, your brain responds by adapting to those new thoughts and behaviors. Here are the goals of CBT and how this treatment works.

Goals of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

It would be nice if you could change your circumstances so that life is easier. Sometimes, that is possible, at least to some extent. However, more likely, there are many parts of your life that you cannot change. Instead, you need to become better at taking control of how you think about those things. Then, with more helpful thought patterns, you can more easily choose behaviors that improve your life. As this transformation takes place through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and neuroplasticity, your mood may improve, and your anxiety may decrease.

In simplest terms, one might say that the goals of CBT are to help you:

  • Work toward goals that matter to you
  • Get involved and engaged in your daily life
  • Do things you enjoy

CBT Basics

Screenshot from What is the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Triangle? video

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a highly structured form of therapy. The duration of treatment is usually relatively brief, often lasting weeks or months instead of the years required for many other forms of therapy. 

CBT is based on a few core ideas. First, it assumes that psychological difficulties come partly from unhelpful thoughts. Second, it recognizes that the unhelpful behavior patterns you learn also create the potential for psychological problems. Finally, if you learn better ways to cope with these problems, your symptoms diminish, and you become more effective in living life as you choose.

Changing Thoughts in CBT

If you choose to engage in CBT, your psychotherapist can teach you how to change the way you think. First, you learn how to recognize the thoughts that impact your perceptions and the behaviors you choose. Next, you evaluate those thoughts, looking for cognitive distortions that are making your life more difficult to manage. Once you see these distortions, you can choose thoughts that are more helpful and accurate.

CBT also involves learning and practicing problem-solving skills. You may spend time thinking about how others behave and what motivates them so that you can get a clearer perspective of your world. As you change the way you think, you tend to become more confident in yourself and what you can do. As you get more information about more helpful ways of thinking, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and neuroplasticity work together to create new neural pathways in your brain. 

Changing Behaviors in CBT

Your CBT therapist can also help you change behaviors directly. They may assist you in facing your fears rather than avoiding them. This could involve talking about things you fear or physically going somewhere that feels frightening to you. As you speak with your therapist, you can work together to create strategies for changing the behaviors that keep you stuck in emotional distress.

Other techniques for changing behaviors through CBT include:

  • Role-playing
  • Learning and practicing mindfulness techniques
  • Exposure therapy
  • Journaling
  • Practicing coping strategies

Through a short period of therapy and at-home practice, you learn things that will change your way of thinking and behaving. Your brain begins to change as your thoughts and actions become more helpful to you in reaching the goals you have for your life. This Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and neuroplasticity come together to impact your life positively, allowing you to be calmer, more at ease, and more satisfied.

Changing the Brain by Changing Thoughts and Behaviors

At The Lukin Center, we help people in New Jersey and surrounding areas improve their psychological health by changing the ways they think and behave. Specializing in evidence-based treatments such as CBT, we aim to provide you with effective solutions to your depression, anxiety, or other psychological issues. 

Our expertise in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and neuroplasticity allows us to help you learn how to live a better life. Our psychotherapists work together with you, putting your needs and goals first to help you develop the thought and behavior patterns that will facilitate your mental well-being. 

Because CBT has been proven effective time after time, we offer it to those who want to improve their daily functioning and enjoyment of life. With Cognitive Behavioral Therapy acting to change your neural pathways, your brain can change in ways that reduce or eliminate depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems.

Over the course of your treatment, we seek to educate you so that you can help yourself in the future as well. Because we recognize that the brain can change, we provide the treatments that will use this neuroplasticity to help you create new, more helpful ways of thinking, behaving, and living in the world. In the end, you become emotionally stronger and psychologically healthier. 

Would you like to learn more about how CBT can foster positive neuroplasticity? Contact us now for your first appointment at the Lukin Center.