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    Talk therapy for addiction treatment: How it works?

    Talk therapy is the backbone of an integrated addiction treatment programme. Talk therapy helps people with substance use disorder deal with negative thoughts and feelings and make positive changes. The proper name for talk therapy is psychotherapy.

    What is talk therapy?

    What is talk therapy

    Talk therapy aims to help you look at and react differently to thoughts and feelings and change how you behave when automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) threaten to overwhelm you.

    Talk therapy is structured, and it follows an agenda that you draw up together with your mental health therapist. The goal is to find practical solutions to current problems. You also get given homework assignments to complete between therapy sessions.

    What is the point of talk therapy?

    Modern psychodynamic psychotherapy – known as talk therapy – is based on scientific methods that are highly effective for treating substance use disorder. Talk therapy has distinctive features that include several basic building blocks:

    • focuses on emotions and relationships
    • identifies recurring themes and patterns of thought
    • discussions on past experiences
    • focuses on the therapy relationship
    • explores attempts to avoid distressing thoughts and feelings
    • explores fantasy life or fantasy thoughts

    Who benefits from talk therapy?

    Talk therapy helps people with various mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, PTSD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders and substance use disorder.

    Talk therapy is also beneficial for people living with or recovering from chronic illnesses, such as cancer, heart disease, obesity, and Parkinson’s disease.

    How does talk therapy work?

    Research studies show that talk therapy is an effective strategy to help people gain control over psychological and physical symptoms of addiction. So much so, most medical insurance companies will pay for therapy sessions as part of an addiction treatment programme.

    There is a growing body of evidence that suggests talk therapy not only has a significant and lasting effect on your mental health, brain changes can also be measured.

    An evidence-based study conducted over eight years showed there was more neural connectivity between the amygdala and areas in the prefrontal cortex that govern higher-order thinking and executive function in the group that took medicine and participated in talk therapy at the same time. The group that took only medicine showed no brain structure change.

    The study concluded that brain changes from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) were linked to a significant improvement in mental disorder symptoms.

    Multiple neuroscience studies suggest that as patients learn to regulate their emotions, brain changes occur in the prefrontal cortex that is the epicentre of executive function. In addition, scientific studies show that positive change and patient growth continues to develop after talk therapy ends.

    These changes are attributed to the fact that psychotherapy provides patients with the tools to function better, feel better about themselves, and eliminate or reduce mental disorder symptoms.

    The scientific model of talk therapy aims to not only reduce psychiatric symptoms but to also:

    • foster positive psychological capacity and resources,
    • improve self-esteem,
    • change distorted views of self and others,
    • help patients find greater satisfaction in relationships, and
    • master life’s challenges.

    Types of talk therapy used for addiction treatment

    How does talk therapy work

    Talk therapy is grouped into several broad categories. A holistic addiction treatment programme usually includes more than one type.

    Cognitive Behavioural Therapies (CBT)

    Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is goal-oriented therapy that focuses on the link between your thoughts (cognition) and your actions (behaviour). CBT aims to help you change thought patterns that cause unhealthy, unproductive and destructive behaviour.

    Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) helps you find connections between your thoughts, feelings and actions, and it helps increase awareness of how these things impact your recovery from addiction. CBT aims to turn unhealthy, unproductive and destructive behaviour into positive change.

    CBT gives you the tools to identify automatic negative thoughts (ANTs). Negative thoughts are impulsive reactions to past experiences and real or misplaced feelings that make you fearful, anxious and doubt yourself. Drugs or alcohol are often used to self-medicate these painful feelings and emotions.

    Guided by a CBT therapist, you’ll revisit painful memories and learn new, positive behaviours to replace drugs or alcohol that you used to cope with your feelings and emotions.

    In addition to treating a substance abuse disorder, CBT is also used to treat co-occurring mental illnesses such as:

    • depression
    • anxiety disorder
    • bipolar disorder
    • schizophrenia
    • attention deficit disorder (ADD)
    • obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
    • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
    • eating disorder

    Dialectic Behaviour Therapy (DBT)

    Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) is a form of cognitive behaviour therapy, but the focus is on developing skills to regulate emotions, handle stress better and improve relationships. The main difference between CBT and DBT is dialectic behaviour therapy helps people who are inclined to self-harm due to volatile thoughts and uncontrollable, intense emotions.

    DBT was initially developed to treat borderline personality disorder (BPD), but it’s proven effective in treating many mental health disorders.

    DBT teaches you that your past and current experiences are real and gives you the tools to accept yourself and your life with its unique challenges and difficulties. DBT sessions are led by a psychologist or trained DBT counsellor and work best with one-on-one therapy sessions.

    DBT and CBT are often combined in an individualised addiction treatment programme. Both therapy techniques require you to do homework after each session.

    Psychodynamic therapy

    Psychodynamic therapy focuses on certain life events and past and present relationships that affect your current feelings, emotions and behaviour. Psychodynamic therapy helps you acknowledge and understand automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) and repressed emotions that cause internal physical and mental conflict.

    Psychodynamic therapy aims to give you tools to resolve internal conflict and improve relationships, boost your self-esteem and allow you to make better life choices. It’s a popular treatment for mental disorders that have symptoms of depression and anxiety.

    You’re encouraged to speak openly in therapy sessions and to face difficult memories, experiences or fantasies. Psychodynamic therapy also involves exploring your behaviour and how you react to specific events or situations. Psychodynamic therapy isn’t a “quick fix”. It usually takes months and even years to get lasting benefits.

    Humanistic/experiential therapy

    Humanistic/experiential therapy differs from CBT and DBT because it focuses on your nature rather than your behaviour. The emphasis is on the whole person, including positive and negative attributes.

    Humanistic therapy aims to help you grow, heal and self-actualise through self-exploration. You can benefit from this type of psychotherapy if you live with low self-esteem, depression, anxiety disorder and panic disorders.

    Humanistic therapy consists of two therapy techniques:

    Gestalt therapy helps you focus on “here-and-now” feelings rather than on the root cause of your feelings. Your therapist will use creative and experiential methods to arouse emotions in different situations, including guided re-enactments, role-playing and exaggerated movements.

    Person-centred therapy works on the basis that you’re capable of deciding for yourself what psychological areas you want to explore. This type of therapy uses a “non-directive” approach and gives you the freedom to explore your identity, feelings, emotions or experiences in a safe, supportive environment. Person-centered therapy is much like old-fashioned talk therapy; you get to do the talking, and your therapist listens with empathy, respect and warmth.

    Is talk therapy a waste of time and money?

    When you’re in the throes of an addiction, talking to a stranger about your fears and worries is not something you may want to do. You may be wondering how “just talking” can help when you have a disease that’s changed how your brain works and functions. You may also be worried about the cost of talk therapy if your medical insurance doesn’t cover your sessions.

    We can’t go into too much detail about the body of research that supports the benefits of talk therapy in one short article. Instead, we encourage you to do more research on the topic to better understand how talk therapy works and how it can benefit you or a loved one.

    Once you know more about the science and the objectives behind different types of psychotherapy, your attitude towards it may change, and you’ll embrace the process.

    Watch this video: Is talk therapy a waste of time?


    We’re here to help.

    Contact us today if you’d like a confidential and free chat with one of our highly-trained addiction professionals at White River Manor in South Africa.

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