12 Jul Can Talking to a Psychologist Help?
“Can talking to a Psychologist Help? This is an interesting question that many people contemplate before seeing a Psychologist. How can talking possibly help me?? Could it actually make me feel worse? In reflecting on these questions, I was reminded of working with traumatized children in residential units in Ireland. As an Australian Psychologist working in Northern Ireland, I was privy to the long term effects of inter-generational trauma across families and communities. Talking was often avoided; but people continued to struggle with pain and trauma remained unprocessed.
However, talking continues to be a popular medium we automatically “go to” when we feel emotional pain. Allowing our emotional pain to be witnessed, acknowledged and held by another can be very therapeutic, as it becomes real and contained. Once we have a name for the pain and we can begin to develop a narrative for ourself, take charge of it and take meaning from it. However, I believe talking is all about timing. Before we see a Psychologist, we need to be ready and this is all about timing.
I worked with an excellent Art Psychotherapist for many years and she used the medium of art to help children with extensive trauma process their experiences. When she felt they were ready they would transition onto me for “talking therapy”. Before they made the transition, we needed to agree that were cognitively able (adequate comprehension skills, emotional vocabulary etc) and could tolerate the idea of talking. Often talking was very threatening to children with complex trauma. They experienced “talking” from adults as screaming tirades of abuse or scathing criticisms, so their association with talking was commonly a very negative one. Others were forced to use their voice to expose stories of pain and shame through well meaning health professionals, when they were simply not ready. Talking was rarely their chosen medium, so my office was littered with sensory toys (squishy balls, puppets, toys to fiddle with, play doh), a small trampoline, a balance board, fluffy rugs, weighted plush dogs and shaggy pillows of different texture etc. When children were engaged in these other activities, they felt more comfortable talking and when the timing was right they progressed well. When reflecting on adults seeking talking therapy I am interested as a Psychologist in the science behind why talking helps. We need to know something will work before we commit to it.
The idea of “Neuroplasticity” has revolutionized our understanding of how talking helps to change the brain’s patterns and thus our behaviour. Neuroplasticity is that idea that our brain is far more malleable (plastic) than we once thought. Our brain is changeable, even into late adulthood and new neurons continue to form. This is hopeful news for those suffering with chronic mental health issues and recent research has revealed that talking therapy can help by altering neural pathways. Structural changes for depressed people have been shown in the brain following 6 months of psychotherapy with increased neural connectivity between parts of the brain that regulate fear and the frontal lobe which controls decisions and problem solving- often called our “logical and thinking brain”. In basic terms, this means that the brain is re-learning how to react to fear and anxiety. So rather than breaking out in a panic attack or plummeting into a depressed mood, our brain has created a new connection to our problem solving center. This gives us an opportunity to stop and think before our body and brain responds, often in an unhelpful or habitual way. Other studies have indicated that feeling safe and supported by a therapist can further support these brain changes, as we learn best when we feel safe and in control. The idea of connection and science are important to Psychologists who work with trauma or any mental health issue. There are some useful books on this topic, but one I really enjoyed was “The Brain that changes itself: Stories of personal triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science” Norman Doidge.