What did the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche mean when he wrote, “Love is not consolation. It is light”? Perhaps Nietzsche was referring to the healing power of the human bond, healing not by eliminating the sufferer’s pain, but by illuminating the path and by empathically walking along on the journey toward healing. Psychological studies have consistently shown that it is the power of the therapeutic relationship, not so much theory or technique, which helps individuals work through the psychological pain that results from neglect, abuse, trauma and loss.
What is it about the therapeutic relationship that heals? Simply put: love. It is the human bond that promotes growth, both emotionally and physically. Recent studies by Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D., at the Child Trauma Academy in Houston provide a window into how therapeutic interactions between psychologists and patients can lead to healthy brain development by creating new neural connections. Throughout our lives, the neural connections in our brains continually develop, deplete and replenish. After repeated use, connections become wired together into habitual responses that can be strengthened or replaced, eliminating problematic behaviors and forming new adaptive ones.
The brain also develops in a hierarchy, from automatic physical responses to more complex social functions such as empathy. Until our automatic responses are well regulated, our more complex social responses cannot develop adequately. Children who are raised under conditions of deprivation, inconsistency or traumatizing events without protection often have difficulty with anxiety or impulsivity, and with developing healthy attachments. Symptoms may persist into adulthood with difficulty regulating emotions, managing addictive impulses and maintaining relationships.
Dr. Perry says a healthy therapeutic relationship, one that communicates acceptance, compassion, and consistency, helps calm the stress response in patients and promotes the ability to bond and relate socially. These complex functions occur via neurotransmitters and hormones such as oxytocin, the so-called “bonding hormone,” which is released when romantic couples or parents and children relate empathically. Similarly, the processes that take place within the therapeutic relationship are far more complex than just talking. But how do the biological processes inside the brain correlate with actual therapeutic interactions?
To promote bonding and psychological growth, the psychologist must provide an environment that is safe, nurturing and attuned to the patient’s specific needs. Regardless of the patient’s psychological development, psychotherapy is more successful when the patient feels understood and accepted. The attuned psychologist communicates this by making eye contact and by verbally and nonverbally mirroring the patient. For example, nodding one’s head in acknowledgement or shaking one’s head in disbelief or sadness. Verbal responses such as “Mmm hmm” or “I can understand why you are so upset” also validate the patient and encourage communication. Interpretations that link past and present lead to greater insight and can also bond doctor and patient. Another type of mirroring is empathically matching facial expressions. In cases where patients have learned to hide their feelings, so that their facial expressions do not match their words, the psychologist can promote a feeling of validation and emotional congruence by reflecting back a more accurate facial expression, teaching the patient that it is safe to reveal and experience one’s true self.
In an environment of empathy and validation, patients learn to regulate their emotions, increase resilience to trauma and strengthen their sense of personal identity. It is the therapeutic relationship that leads to healthy brain development and lasting personal growth. The patient’s ability to bond can then be extended to other relationships, and the number of healthy attachments can increase exponentially, spreading love like illuminating light. As Pulitzer prize-winning author Edith Wharton sees it, “There are two ways of spreading light; to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” The therapeutic bond is the mirror that reflects light along the path to healing so that the patient’s own light can grow and shine brightly like the Sun.
- Perry, B. D. (2009). Examining Child Maltreatment Through a Neurodevelopmental Lens: Clinical Applications of the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 14, 240-255.
- Silberschatz, G. (Ed.)(2005). Transformative Relationships: The Control-Mastery Theory of Psychotherapy. New York: Routledge.
- West, C. (2007). Level of Oxytocin in Pregnant Women Predicts Mother-Child Bond. Observer, Association for Psychological Science, November 2007.
- The Big ‘O’ Isn’t Orgasm. Reuniting: Healing With Sexual Relationships. www.reuniting.info/science/oxytocin_health_bonding.
For more information, contact Dr. Catherine Neighbors, Licensed Clinical Psychologist, at (775) 322-4451.