Help Your Way

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Why does talk therapy work?

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It works because your brain is magical.

What’s so amazing about it?

Your brain changes itself from moment to moment to cope with and master the experiences of everyday life. Therapy takes advantage of this amazing ability of the brain—the ability to change itself.

And just like when you start to exercise, you burn more calories even when you are not working out, when therapy is working it is not only working when you are with your therapist. You are literally changing your brain in your everyday life.

How does this happen?

Each neuron in your brain is always receiving information from all the other neurons that connect to it. This information tells it whether or not to fire. The neuron “weighs” the cues to fire and those to not fire, and “decides” whether or not to fire. While this is happening, the neuron is also “learning,” by “noticing” which neurons tend to fire with it most often, and becoming more sensitive to those neurons.

For example, if water is flowing down a hill, at first it seems to flow all over the hill. Gradually the water gathers into larger and larger rivulets and streams. The brain works the same way.

As energy flows through the system (in the form of electricity) those neurons that tend to fire together become even more likely to fire together in the future. A pattern of neurons firing in the brain is self-reinforcing—the more it repeats the more it tends to repeat. And connections that are not used tend to fade away.

Why does this happen?

Whether social ecological, biological or mechanical, all systems follow the same law, called the Constructal Law. This law says that over time, systems tend to organize themselves so that energy can flow more freely. When it comes to human behavior, this means that, over time, behaviors and interactions will tend to become more automatic and to require less forethought—for better or for worse!

So if you want to change the pattern, you have to create new connections–a new channel for the energy to flow. By focusing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in new ways the brain reshapes itself, and relationships reshape themselves.

Can you do this on your own?

Of course, you already do. You make changes in your own life every day. After all you are not the same person you were 10 years ago.

The point is, even serious emotional and behavioral issues are almost never permanent. For example, if you are feeling seriously depressed, part of the problem is that it seems like nothing will ever get better. This is a false, but very powerful perception, and is part of what is called the “disease” of depression.

Likewise, difficult habits and patterns like addictions, family conflict, and out of control behaviors may seem like they require a miracle to change. But the real miracle is within you, and within your relationships themselves.

Families and other social groups act in many ways just like the brain of the individual. Each individual interaction is like the neuron firing, triggering other reactions around it, and recreating a larger pattern. A skillful therapist can help you to discover opportunities — points of ambiguity and openness to change. These are the confluences where a small change can have reverberating effects in many areas of your life.

Perhaps you will discover places where new channels may already be opening, and by redirecting energy they will deepen on their own—no shoveling required! Creating new and positive thought patterns, habits, and interactions can begin to crowd out or take away the power of negativity. Sometimes there is a “dam” that needs to be removed, or redesigned to better manage emotional overflow — we may need to examine our limiting beliefs about ourselves, or shore up our coping skills or social supports.

In short, the brain, like any living system, changes itself from moment to moment. Therapy can help direct and intensify this process to achieve a positive transformation in your life and relationships.

Filed under Featured by Kathleen Levenston @ 5:24 pm

How do you know if therapy is working?

shutterstock_125143307 (2)Change can sometimes be elusive. Humans are not simple creatures, and we can alternate between periods of improvement in our key goals, and falling backwards. But when therapy is working, you should quickly see a lessening of the main problem that brought you into therapy.

How quickly? Outcome studies show that when therapy is successful, improvement usually begins within the first 3-4 weeks. Don’t accept the “wisdom” that “things have to get worse before they can get better”—because they don’t. You won’t see change happen overnight, but you can make a gradual and definite improvement in your emotional life, or the life of your family.

shutterstock_114717280 (2)Imagine feeling an overall improvement in your well-being, becoming better able to cope with stress and adversity, and feeling more comfortable within yourself and with others. This is what therapy can do. But how can you be sure this improvement is real and lasting within the normal and expected ups and downs of daily life?

Using simple measurement tools week to week provides a good indicator of success.

For example, at Help Your Way, we use the Outcome Rating Scale (ORS) to help you and your therapist to be sure the treatment is working. Your counselor asks you to rate yourself (or your child) and discuss the results with you each week. Within the first 3-4 weeks, you should see improvement in the problem or area of concern that brought you into treatment. If improvement does not happen, we discuss with you how to change our methods so that you will get the results you want. Sometimes we may suggest changing to a different therapist or program.

If you think about it, it just makes sense. in the business world we always hear that “What gets measured is what gets done.” Therapy is no different.

The only judge of how treatment is working is you, the customer. There are no laboratory tests to measure mental health or mental illness. Ultimately, the only measure that matters is your satisfaction that you have achieved the results you are looking for. Incorporating some simple outcome measurement tools into therapy has been shown to significantly increase your success.

Kathy Levenston, LCSW, is the Director of Help Your Way. She is also a certified training with the International Center for Clinical Excellence.

Filed under Featured by Kathleen Levenston @ 6:24 pm

Divorce or Stay Together?

New Discernment Counseling Approach Offers Couples a “Relationship Compass.”


Do  you feel adamant that your marriage needs to end,  but your partner desperately wants to save it?  Or is it the other way around?

Perhaps your spouse is the one who wants the marriage to end.  He/she feels that it hasn’t been a real partnership for years. The counseling goal? Just enough discussion to pave the way to a “fair and friendly” divorce.  You disagree.  You are convinced that your marriage can and must be saved – especially for the sake of your children. In your opinion, you should seek counseling to reconnect.

How does this scenario usually end?

With counseling focused on trying to save the marriage, or divorce counseling.

But when one partner’s perspective is ignored, counseling is likely to fail. 

Dr. William Doherty of the University of Minnesota developed a third alternative for couples facing this conflict, called “Discernment Counseling, ” now offered in Richmond, VA at Help Your Way.

Discernment Counseling is an approach that bridges the gap between the conflicting desires of the couple. It offers a structured, time-limited opportunity for couples to explore the deeper issues that divide them.

Ideally, each partner looks within himself or herself to examine the role he/she has played in the dysfunctional relationship. Each partner accepts accountability. And even if the relationship is not salvaged, the individuals leave better prepared to build healthier future relationships.

Discernment counseling isn’t necessarily aimed at saving the marriage or at creating a good divorce. The goal is to help couples move forward knowing more about what each person wants from a relationship, and also what they bring to a relationship.

There are three possible outcomes: 

Help Your Way

  1. The couple may experience significant improvement in their relationship and decide to end counseling.
  2. The couple may decide to end the relationship.
  3. The couple may decide to begin marriage counseling with a goal of renewing their common bonds.

There are no right or wrong outcomes. The process and end result are different for each couple.

In a quandary about the future of your relationship?  Discernment counseling may be for you.

All it takes is the desire to be open and honest about your own contributions to the relationship’s  challenges; the desire to listen and not judge’; and most importantly, the interest in moving your relationship and future relationships forward in the most healthy and productive manner for all involved.

Arnold Woodruff, LMFT,  a marriage and family therapist in Richmond, VA with over 40 years of experience, is a certified practitioner of Discernment Counseling.  Call Arnold at 804-562-6604 for more information, or to make an appointment. 


Filed under Featured by Kathleen Levenston @ 1:38 pm