Medication and psychotherapy are used to treat people with social anxiety, a common disorder in which people experience overwhelming fear of interacting with others and of being harshly judged. But there's been far less research on the neurological effects of psychotherapy (talk therapy) than on medication-induced brain changes.
The new Canadian study included 25 adults with social anxiety disorder who underwent 12 weekly sessions of group cognitive behaviour therapy, which is meant to help patients identify and challenge their unhealthy thinking patterns.
These clinical group patients were compared to two control groups who tested either extremely high or low for symptoms of social anxiety but received no psychotherapy.
Study on social anxiety disorder
All of the participants underwent a series of electroencephalograms (EEGs), which measure brain electrical interactions. The researchers focused on the amount of delta-beta coupling, which increased with rising anxiety.
Before treatment, the clinical group's delta-beta correlations were similar to those of the high-anxiety control group and much higher than those of the low-anxiety control group. When measured at a point about midway through psychotherapy, improvements in the patients' brains matched symptom improvement reported by both doctors and patients.
After they completed psychotherapy, the patients' EEG results were similar to those of the low-anxiety group.
The study is scheduled for publication in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science.
"Lay-people tend to think that talk therapy is not 'real,' while they associate medications with hard science and physiologic change," said lead author Vladimir Miskovic, a McMaster University doctoral candidate.
"But at the end of the day, the effectiveness of any program must be mediated by the brain and the nervous system. If the brain does not change, there won't be a change in behaviour or emotion."
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