Therapy has been around since the time of Freud in the late 1800’s, and since then there has been vast developments in the field. To date there are over 400 different types of therapy identified. Each different type has a theoretical foundation on which the therapy is based, some of which have evidence based research on their efficacy. Often though, there has been a lack of solid research findings to back up how therapy actually works. Until now!
In the last two decades, there has been an explosion of information from the different branches of neuroscience giving us a much clearer idea of how the brain and nervous system work. Although there is still much that we don’t know, the amount of information revealed in the last 20 years is staggering, and a lot of it supports what we as therapists have known, perhaps instinctively, about our work with clients, but until now have been unable to satisfactorily explain.
The area of Interpersonal Neurobiology has made discoveries that support the (research and anecdotal) evidence that the therapeutic relationship is an important factor in therapeutic change. We now have a better idea of WHY.
There is lots of new evidence that the brain is a social organ, and that relationships with other people who have brains, can change the structure and wiring within the brain! Isn’t that fascinating? That we each are affected by each other when we communicate and spend time together.
Of course, this effect works both ways. Relationships aren’t always healthy, and our brains can be adversely affected by relationships that are abusive, chaotic or neglectful especially at times when there are a lot of developmental changes happening as is the case in childhood and adolescence.
It used to be thought that the brain, once developed, was fairly unchanging. This is not the case. Our brains are capable of making new connections, and therefore learning new things, throughout our lives. You can teach old dogs new tricks!
This is good news for those of us who have experienced less than optimal conditions when growing up. We can change the connections and networks in our brains that form the basis of the patterns of behaviour that we are used to – our habits – and learn new ways of behaviour and of interacting in relationships. We can change the patterns of attachment that were necessary for our survival when young, to more healthy ways of attaching to other people.
The therapeutic relationship is one way of providing an environment that allows us to do this. In a safe, consistent relationship with a therapist, we can learn to respond in different ways than our old habitual patterns, and learn new and more satisfying ways of being with other people. Stephen Porges, author of ‘The Polyvagal Theory’ goes as far as to say that ‘regulators of physiology are embedded in relationship’. He is saying that as social animals, we need other people to help regulate our bodies and our emotional state. This is what happens in therapy, our physiological state becomes more regulated, and we begin to make new connections within our brains, to replace the ones that were less helpful for us in our lives. Of course, this doesn’t happen overnight or without effort, but the consistent relationship with a therapist allows these changes to happen.
Porges, S, W. (2011). The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation. Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology
About the Author: Maggi
Maggi lives in a rural location in Lanarkshire with her German Shepherd, Solas. She enjoys nature, reading, dog training and sometimes having a duvet day cuddled up on the couch with Solas, enjoying chocolate (not for Solas though!)