Recent advances in brain imaging are helping scientists (and, subsequently, local counselors) develop a new paradigm for how the brain functions.
Two weeks after her husband was told he had cancer, their 30-year-old son was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. This, on the heels of her husband losing his job of 25 years and their son-in-law just finishing his cancer treatments.
It was so much. Dee Coon just pushed through those days, existing.
Her son lost his apartment. Her daughter, with her recuperating husband, their two children and their dog, moved in too.
"My son-in-law used to joke, ‘We better be really nice to you. You’re the only one bringing in money.’" Coon cracks a slight smile.
But mostly it was hell.
Bob Coon — the breadwinner, family protector, Dee’s soul mate for 40 years — was at the cancer’s mercy. "It started out as thyroid cancer, and it just kept spreading and spreading," says Coon, who lost her husband May 5, 2001.
Two years later, Coon was still struggling with his death.
"I thought I was doing fine. It was my children who said, ‘Mom, you’re not snapping out of it. You have no joy in your life.’
"I said, ‘This is grief.’"
But, with her children convinced that she needed help, Coon agreed to see Susan Goodale, a Peoria-based licensed clinical professional counselor who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy.
Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, isn’t a distinct therapeutic technique, according to the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists.
"Cognitive behavioral therapy is based on the idea that we can change our thinking about a situation, and we can change our behavior in a certain situation," writes Goodale. "Both of these together can change or impact the outcome of a situation or stressor. CBT treatment focuses on changing an individual’s thoughts (cognitive patterns) in order to change his or her behavior and emotional state."
Goodale, who works with her husband Del, a licensed professional counselor at Behavioral Health Advantages in Peoria, helped Coon see that continually replaying the horrors of her husband’s last days over and over in her mind was keeping her from moving on.
"My husband had a tracheotomy, and the blood would go pouring out. Our bathroom was always full of blood. I would close my eyes and see that," Coon says.
Working with Goodale on redirecting her thoughts, along with mild anti-depressants, has helped, says Coon, who, as clinical supervisor of outpatient programs at White Oaks Companies of Illinois, recognized the value of counseling.
"I told her it was grief and (Susan) helped me see that the brain doesn’t know if it’s depression or grief. All the brain knows is that it’s been under chronic stress for years. She helped me understand that all the willpower in the world isn’t going to change that."
Adds Goodale: "So many people feel like they should be able to handle things on their own. Counseling and medication can be good partners, depending on the situation. All the medication does is turn the computer back on to full power. And the counseling is like giving you new software."
Brain research explodes
The average human brain weighs about three pounds and is a dull gray mass of tissue described as having the texture of "stiff pudding." Your brain uses 20 percent of your body’s energy but only makes up about 2 percent of your total body weight.
Humans have the most complex brain of any animal on earth, and researchers are still exploring its mysteries. Recent advances in brain imaging, however, are helping scientists (and, subsequently, counselors like Goodale) develop a new paradigm for how the brain functions.
"In the past, we were only able to look at brain function by looking at single neurons or local networks of neurons. We were only able to see the trees, so to speak," said Salk Institute professor Terrence Sejnowski in 2003 when announcing then-groundbreaking research on the brain’s function. "With breakthroughs in recording techniques including brain imaging, which gives us a global picture of brain activity, and advances in computational neurobiology, we can now take a more global perspective. We’re looking at the entire forest, and we’re asking the question: How has the forest evolved?"
In our tech-savvy society, Ginny Kich, manager of Behavorial Health Advantages, says it helps clients to see brain scans that show — literally — that there is a problem.
"Part of our technical society is a belief that there has to be a technical explanation as to why something occurs," says Kich, adding that people are becoming more accepting of recognizing chemical imbalances in the brain — a notion that wasn’t widespread not too many years ago.
Even Coon, who, at 67, admits she probably subscribed to the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" theory, says Susan Goodale helped her see that she had damaged her brain’s neurotransmitters with years of chronic stress.
"Medication doesn’t make you happy," Coon says. "It just puts things in balance so you can work on what you need to work on."
And not every client needs medication, the Goodales stress. Some people can retrain their brain just by consciously changing their thoughts.
"We’ll have people who go to bed at night and can’t stop worrying. They work themselves all up and can’t sleep. We teach them to reframe their thoughts and think about something else," says Del Goodale.
CBT can be used for everything from people suffering from anxiety to an eating disorder to drug addiction. In the latter example, Kich and the Goodales often show clients brain scans that have been done of people with years of drug abuse.
"We have a special poster that shows a healthy brain and one of someone who has smoked marijuana for two years. The inactivity (of the drugged brain) is startling. Teenagers really respond to that," says Del Goodale.
For Coon, while she still mourns her husband, she believes Goodale’s counseling and use of CBT has helped her get her life back. Even though she still has challenges with her daughter’s family and her son’s health — his cancer is in remission but his body was ravaged by the chemo and radiation — Coon believes her work with Goodale has given her tools to help her heal herself.
Jennifer Davis can be reached at (309) 686-3249 or email@example.com.