Neuroscience and Epigenetics

In this post, I would like to shed a light on this topic from neuroscience and epigenetic perspectives.

You may have heard that therapy helps you feel better, see things from different angles, or improve your interpersonal skills. However, you might not realize how much impact you have over your own well-being. Thus, it will be beneficial to explain what’s happening underneath the hood. The psychotherapy that you receive could indeed create neurologic and epigenetic changes.

This infographic created by the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine helps you visualize and understand the information provided in this post.

Prior to discovering epigenetics, it was thought that people who inherited “bad genes” were destined to develop illness and there was nothing much they could do. However, as we discover more about epigenetics and neuroplasticity, we’ve realized that each one of us could have quite a large impact over the way our genes are expressed. 

Neuroplasticity refers to how flexible our neurons are in the terms of  our neurons’ ability to rewire their connections. In the past, people thought that once we became adults, our brains couldn’t change any more.  However, new research shows that our neurons have plasticity, meaning they are susceptive to change and that we can develop new neural pathways at any age.  If you don’t use a particular connection, you will lose it as it weakens over time.  That’s why it’s important to create positive connections through therapy.

Since our genes are expressed or suppressed in response to how we live and practice self-care, psychotherapy is one of those influencing factors that could change gene expression by promoting behavioral change.  My clients state that learning about this mechanism gives them hope and a sense of control over their lives.  They said that they can visualize how their small efforts accumulate over time and create longer lasting changes, which in turn motivates my clients to try something new.

Since my therapeutic approach applies this knowledge, my sessions entail more than just me passively listening to my clients’ stories. In addition to that, we review my clients’ lifestyles and identify which of their behaviors that might hinder their personal growth. During each weekly session, my client and I explore together what kinds of changes they would like to try.  For example, they can make changes to their diet, adjusting their exercise routine, or improving their quality of sleep.

Additionally, my clients can try reducing their stress levels by saying “No” to unrealistic requests from other people or reduce the inner critical voices in their minds. In fact, it’s important not to engage with the inner critical voice, since it causes neurons to fire together, which makes the neural pathway stronger and solidifies the negative connections.  For this reason, I teach my clients to leave the inner critical voice aside and instead say something like, “I can take care of myself, so I no longer need your help” to the inner critical voice.  Over time, my clients have been impressed with how effective this strategy is to eliminate the inner critical voice. (Please note: there are additional small steps that clients go through, which would vary on a case by case basis.)

Before graduating from therapy, my clients sometimes ask me if they would forget the things they learned.  It is reassuring for them to hear that those new neural pathways and new epigenetic modifications they have created will stay with them, especially if they continue practicing those changes.  Furthermore, these changes become so ingrained that we can pass down some of our epigenetic changes to our children.  Therefore, through receiving therapy and making changes to your life, you are actually changing the way your genes are expressed and creating new connections between your neurons. 

Arden, J. B. (2019). Norton series on interpersonal neurobiology. Mind-brain-gene: Toward psychotherapy integration.  (pp. 59-89) W. W. Norton & Company