Enduring Effects of Cognitive Therapy

Lynne Taetzsch Health Guide
  • Finding the right combination of medications to treat our bipolar disorder is the first line of treatment, and often the best hope of continued good functioning. Since chemical and electrical changes in our brains cause our bipolar symptoms, changing these chemical states can provide a solution.

    However, there is much evidence to suggest that the process can work the other way around as well. What we think can change our brain’s activity not only while we are doing the thinking, but in an enduring way. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article (1/19/2007) by Sharon Begley, research in two areas has brought light to this topic: the use of cognitive therapy in treating depression, and EEG tests of the brains of monks as they meditate.
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    Some of you may have already used cognitive therapy to help manage your symptoms. Basically, what you do is catch yourself when you start thinking negatively, and head it off at the pass.

    Here's an example of a negative thinking train: “My spouse (girlfriend, boyfriend) seemed awful moody at lunch today. He/she is probably unhappy with me. Maybe he/she is thinking about leaving me, or has already found someone else. This always happens to me. I’m going to be alone again, and probably forever.” Boom, you’re in a depression!

    Cognitive therapy would suggest that when you have the first thought about the spouse being moody at lunch, you recognize that this could have happened for any number of reasons. You stop the train of negative thoughts, and instead perhaps decide you will ask the spouse about it at dinner before jumping to any conclusions.

    In studies of patients with depression, results of brain scans after cognitive therapy treatment suggest that the brain is rewired in a positive way. Thoughts alone were responsible for the changes, as these patients were not given anti-depressants.

    According to the WSJ article, “since the 1990s, the Dalai Lama had been lending monks and lamas to neuroscientists for studies of how meditation alters activity in the brain.” In a recent study, eight monks with years of meditation experience and ten volunteers who were given a crash-course in meditation were hooked up to EEGs while focusing on sending compassion and loving kindness to all living beings.

    The volunteers showed a slight increase in gamma wave activity, but the monk’s signals were much stronger. The amazing part, however, is that the signal in the monk’s brains never died down even when they were not meditating. Their brains were “marked by waves associated with perception, problem solving and consciousness.”

    What does this mean for those of us suffering with a mental illness? The fact that our brain function can be influenced in a permanent way by our thinking is pretty amazing, and offers great hope for an alternative to medication. This is especially important for those who are not helped by available drugs or who cannot take them for one reason or another. But for all of us, it opens a door to more control over our own mental health.
Published On: February 22, 2007