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The Magic of Psychotherapy

Before we start talking about therapists and therapy let's talk about surgeons. I can not help but admire surgeons, superhuman professionals who can cut you open, access the deepest parts of your body, and excise, connect, interrupt, or patch up something. Modern medicine, as amazing as it is, rarely provides curative interventions. We treat and manage a whole host of chronic conditions, but pretty much only some surgical procedures, antibiotics, and maybe just a handful more medications or interventions in total can provide us with a cure and the cure is indeed divine.


As breathtaking and complex as it may be, almost every surgical intervention at its core represents a rather simple concept: cutting something out or mending, repairing, and patching something up. It might take scientists a decade or more to develop a new antibiotic but eventually you are to swallow a pill for a certain number of days, it will kill the bacteria, and then you're done.


So what about psychotherapy? Is it real? where does it fit ? and what do therapists do? Wow, they do literally nothing aside from listening and (more or less) talking!?  Almost awkwardly mundane ! Nothing is cut out, nothing is swallowed, nothing new is introduced to the chemical composition of your body, yet you walk away feeling different. Numerous personal accounts affirm that therapy was key catalyst for transformative positive change to their emotional well-being, relationships, and overall quality of life.


Is it MAGIC!?  Well, yes and no… Let’s dive in.


As much as some of the core principles of surgery can boil down to something relatively simple (cutting out the tumor), playing with the mind tends to be endlessly complex, individually unique, and intellectually challenging. Being human, I share similar anatomy with all other humans—my brain has two hemispheres, each with five lobes, etc.—but my mind is infinitely unique.


So how are they connected, the brain and the mind? And how can altering your mind result in this long-lasting change and healing?


We frequently refer to the brain as the physical organ responsible for processing information and controlling bodily functions, while the mind refers to the subjective experiences, thoughts, and consciousness that arise from brain activity. It is intuitive that your brain structure and/or chemistry can and will change your mind. Affecting your chemistry with something as gentle as a cup of caffeinated tea or as intense as cocaine, opioids, or psychoactive medications can change how you feel and think. Changing your brain structure after brain injury, stroke, or due to a brain tumor, scarring tissue, etc., can also result in a significant change in your emotional state, your personality, cognition, etc., AKA a change in your mind.


Okay, changing your brain changes your mind, but can changing your mind change your brain? YES! changing your mind can indeed lead to changes in your brain. This concept is known as neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life in response to learning, experience, or environmental changes.


Changing your mind by for example adopting new beliefs, learning new skills, or maybe intentionally altering your behaviors, involves engagement in different patterns of thinking. These changes in mental activity can lead to alterations in the brain's structure and function. Therapeutic interventions like mindfulness and meditation have been shown to induce changes in brain structure and function, particularly in areas associated with emotional regulation and stress response.


In therapy, we are playing with the abstract concept of one’s thoughts, emotions, imagination, memories, and senses—we are playing with the mind and we are changing it. No, we are not “just talking”; we are searching for new insights, we are bringing the unconscious to consciousness, interrupting old patterns, and developing new patterns of thinking, feeling and behavior… we are changing the mind, and along the way, we are changing the brain as well. We do have data, science, and experience that back this up… but where is the magic part?


Although there are many different forms of therapy, the key to a successful therapeutic process is the strength of the relationship and a genuine connection between the therapist and the patient. The connection! The magic is in connection, but in order to successfully connect the patient and the therapist need to "click". What does that even mean? Well if my new therapist reminds me of my old boss who bullied me into quitting and caused me numerous sleepless nights, we might not have a chance, but if he/she is wearing a shirt with the same shade of blue my beloved grandma used to wear, we might be on a good track from the very first appointment. I might work better with male therapist VS a female one etc etc etc. Variabilities are endless. This is why therapy process is half science, half art, and a just little bit of magic. Trust your gut and “shop around”. This "click" involves just so much more than the examples of transfer listed above and when you find a therapist that “clicks”. When you experience that visceral feeling telling you that you are heard, understood and cared for, then you will know you found a good therapist for you.

MIlos Starovic MD


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