Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the leading treatments for a number of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.
A significant number of studies have shown it to be one of the most effective forms of therapy, and now a new report indicates the non-pharmacological treatment may even change the brain in key regions linked to processing and regulating emotions in people with anxiety.
The findings help explain why CBT is so effective at treating anxiety disorders and how these disorders may affect the brain.
Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental health issues a person can experience, with approximately one in 10 people being affected during their lifetimes. These disorders may vary, but they are characterized by fears and anxieties that significantly impair a person’s life or cause notable suffering.
CBT techniques for social anxiety disorder aim to treat this by teaching patients to apply new strategies to better face social events and interacting with others throughout the day.
For the study, a team of researchers from the University of Zurich, Zurich University Hospital, and the University Hospital of Psychiatry Zurich collaborated to examine how successful treatment of an anxiety disorder may affect the brain.
The team says patients with social anxiety disorder frequently show impairment in regulation of excessive anxiety in the frontal and lateral brain areas. They theorized that successful treatments would help restore the balance between these areas and other regions of the brain.
To test this, they followed a number of patients suffering from social anxiety disorder over a 10-week course of CBT. The participants underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) before and after they underwent treatment.
“We were able to show that structural changes occur in brain areas linked to self-control and emotion regulation,” said Dr. Annette Brühl, head physician at the Center for Depression, Anxiety Disorders and Psychotherapy at the University Hospital of Psychiatry Zurich (PUK).
The researchers say the level of changes seen in the brains of participants was directly tied to the level of success in treatment. Those who showed stronger recoveries also showed more changes in the brain. The team also says they were able to discern that brain regions linked to processing emotions showed better interconnectivity after the treatment.