“I’ve been in talk therapy for the past 20 years, and it never really worked for me……..” Sara, abuse survivor.
How many times have we heard this from our clients? Traditional talk therapies use the power of speech to better understand our experiences. The theory is that how we think affects how we feel; and so we can train ourselves to feel better by challenging and changing distorted thinking patterns. By talking about our feelings, issues and experiences, we can learn to re-frame our experiences, develop new ways of viewing things, and are able to consider new possibilities.
While this sounds good in theory, for many survivors, traditional talk therapy ---- cognitive therapy ----- has been less than effective. Some survivors of child sexual abuse have been “in therapy” for many years; and show little or no progress. Ironically, cognitive behavior therapy IS “evidence based” as documented by reams of research, and can be effective. But in actual practice, for many people, much of the time it is not.
Just talking about our problems does not change how we feel or behave. And challenging “cognitive distortions” --- the heart of cognitive therapy ---- is a rational, intellectual approach which is not effective for some, and turns many people “off.” It also requires many sessions of practice, and remembering to “use the tools;” which, when feeling stressed or upset, many folks forget to do.
While it feels good to talk and be heard, just talking about our problems does not necessarily create therapeutic change; and the “old tapes” just keep on playing their old messages of pain, shame, anxiety and unworthiness. For some people, talking and re-hashing painful experiences can reinforce the old limiting beliefs and patterns; and their problems can feel even worse.
Our brains have different parts; and the part that thinks is different from the part that feels. We think and make decisions with the frontal part of the brain called the PFC (pre-frontal cortex); while our feelings occur in the emotional mid-brain ----- the limbic system, consisting of tiny organs called the amygdala, thalamus, hypothalamus and hippocampus. When we’re under stress ---- think fight or flight response ---- our brains divert more blood from the PFC to the limbic (feeling) system; and we are not able to think rationally. Psychologist Daniel Goleman calls this “emotional hijacking:” when we feel stressed or upset or threatened, the limbic system “hijacks” our rational brains, and we literally “cannot think straight” ---- or make rational, intelligent decisions .
Talk therapies focus on cognitive (talk) strategies in the frontal part of the brain, where we think and make decisions; but they ignore the emotional limbic system ---- where feeling occurs. You’ve probably witnessed arguments where one person is trying to discuss things “rationally”, but is emotionally shut down --- with another person who is feeling emotionally, but “cannot think straight.” This is because these two systems ---- the “rational” thinking system and the emotional feeling system --- can inhibit and block each other. Thinking shuts down our feelings; and talk therapies, based on cognitive strategies, usually do not change how we feel or behave effectively or permanently.
This is part 1 of a 3 part series. Read this article in full on our web site, includes references and citations.
If you have experience rape, abuse, or assault recently, please get help immediately.