It has recently been discovered that talk therapy can actually help us heal some of the regions of our brain that have been impacted by trauma. In other words, therapy can create actual physical healing of the brain.
In a study conducted in Hungary, it was found that people with PTSD had a somewhat shrunken hippocampus compared to those without PTSD.
The hippocampus is an area of the brain involved in learning, memory and emotional regulation. So the smaller hippocampus seems to correspond to some of the difficulties that people with PTSD experience, such as problems with learning, memory and emotional control.
The PTSD group then did just 12 weeks of talk therapy (they used Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), and the results were quite amazing. What the researchers found was that the volume of the hippocampus had actually increased, and was now closer to normal.
Along the way they also found an associated genetic healing, which was increased expression of a gene that regulates the stress hormone cortisol. In other words, cortisol, which prepares us for fight or flight, had calmed down.
You’d expect that these biological changes should predict that the people in the group would become emotionally healthier, and that is exactly what the researchers found. In fact, the greater the improvement in these two measures of biological health, the greater the improvements in PTSD and emotional health. One predicted the other very closely.
This is great news because it shows that therapy makes a difference not just to our emotions, but to our fundamental biology. It also reflects the remarkable power of our brains to reflect, support and maintain the emotional healing that therapy brings us. This in turn helps us stay not just happier, but healthier.
At the moment there is no similar study using IFS therapy, but it’s hoped to set one up in the near future. My guess is that IFS creates at least as much neurological and genetic healing as in the Hungary study, in part because IFS is particularly suited to healing trauma, whereas CBT is a much more general form of therapy.
So the good news is that the physiological damage that trauma inflicts is not permanent. As therapy heals your emotional life, by some magical alchemy it also heals your body and brain.
You can read a report of the original study here.