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Psychotherapy normalizes emotion processing and regulation in the brain

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Posted March 31, 2017

Psychotherapy is a central treatment for social anxiety disorder. Image credit: polinar-clinic.com via Wikimedia, CC-BY-SA-4.0

Social anxiety is more common than one might think. As many as one in ten people are affected by it during their lifetime and they usually get no support at all. For some reason it is considered just something that one has to deal with. Now scientists from the University of Zurich proved that psychotherapy can help coping with social anxiety disorder.

This new study revealed that psychotherapy can normalize key brain structures involved in emotion processing and regulation. People usually do not understand that there are some structural flaws in brain involved in the social anxiety disorder. People suffering from it do not just feel uncomfortable in every day social situations, but they actually go through some intense suffering and it does impair their quality of life. For example, many people do not like talking in front of a large audience. However, most of them can deal with it just fine as the initial nervousness passes. People with social anxiety disorder cannot do it at all. Unless they go through psychotherapy.

Psychotherapy actually is a central treatment for social anxiety disorder, but scientists could not really explain why or how it is working. This study revealed that psychotherapy actually changes key brain structures that are involved in processing and regulating emotions. In other words, brain affected by social anxiety disorder has impaired regulation of excessive anxiety by frontal and lateral brain areas. Psychotherapy tries to restore the balance between cortical and subcortical brain areas. Scientists analysed the brain of people with social anxiety disorder before and after the treatment, using magnetic resonance imaging. And, sure enough, scientists were able to detect changes that correspond to the results of the treatment and how the patients feel afterwards.

Annette Brühl, one of the researchers from the study, said: “We were able to show that structural changes occur in brain areas linked to self-control and emotion regulation”. The more successful the treatment was, the bigger changes happened in the structure of the brain. For example, if treatment was so successful that the person now can give public speeches without much difficulty, scientists would see very vivid changes in some areas of the brain.

People with social anxiety disorder are usually advised to just face their fears. However, proper help in a shape of psychotherapy is much more beneficial as it can normalize some function of the brain related to regulation of emotions.

Source: uzh.ch

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