What is Empathic Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)?

authorBy Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D, Ph.D., author of The Stress Solution

The new combination of CBT, the power of empathy and the addition of how to change brain chemistry naturally is an integrative therapeutic method I have developed over the last 35 years. This unique psychology perspective will provide you with the most comprehensive approach to balance your mental and physical health while reducing stress significantly. CBT corrects distorted thinking and empathy calms the emotional brain so we can use this capacity to perceive others and ourselves accurately and thoughtfully. How we perceive is directly related to how much stress we accumulate. In addition this approach teaches you how to produce your own natural brain chemicals that create calm, focused energy to do and be the best you can be. These three components produce a synergy that enhances our lives and releases our potential. Studies indicate that Americans have fewer friends; trust has decreased as well as the degree of empathy shown to others, while prejudice has increased and race relations have deteriorated. Half of Americans lie awake at night due to job stress and three quarters indicate they suffer from emotional or physical stress symptoms daily.

We have become a society that places a great emphasis on achievement, status and appearance and far less on character and relationships. Many people have learned how to achieve, but they do not know how to love and make lasting deep friendships, and this lack of love and relational connections is the missing ingredient that plagues their lives. Our political climate, with presidential candidates emphasis on aggression, insults, lying and lack of integrity is symbolic of the lack of empathy, low trust and high stress in our current society.

The Three Components of Empathic CBT

Empathy is the capacity to understand and respond to the unique experiences of another. Empathy is not an emotion or a feeling but a capacity that is innately present. We are born with this capacity, and if not developed, it will atrophy like an unused muscle. In recent years, research on empathy has exploded. We now know we have empathy neurons, called mirror neurons. Mirror neurons send messages to our limbic system, the emotional center of the brain. The empathic connection then releases the neurotransmitters dopamine (creating a sense of desire), endorphins (pleasure and relaxation), and oxytocin (compassion and connection).

We also know that stress, both acute and chronic, impairs empathic accuracy, as worry about stressors draws a person’s intellect away from deciphering behavioral cues in everyday interactions.

Because empathy is truth oriented and gives us the opportunity to perceive clearly and objectively, it is the ideal complement to Cognitive Behavior Therapy. The deep emotional learning that holds onto past hurts—the brain’s negative feedback loop—can only be released and understood permanently with empathy. When we are hurt we are emotional and stressed, cortisol is released, which records our experience in a deep part of the brain. We then perceive similar situations to the ones that hurt us through our old emotions, not through our thoughtful, more accurate empathic lens, thus making for distorted perceptions. We put old faces on new faces.

We can correct distorted thinking with CBT techniques, but the emotional part of the brain will return to negativity over time if the situations that hurt us deeply are not understood and resolved on both the emotional and cognitive level. Several outcome studies have indicated that CBT is effective in the short run, but traditional talk therapies are more effective in the long term. Combining the use of empathy with CBT assures the best outcome with the least amount of time.

Brain Changes
Do you remember every time you were hurt deeply in your life? I am guessing your answer is yes. Do you remember each time you have been given a compliment in your life? Probably not. Your hurts are stored in the emotional center of the brain, buried deeply so you will be protected in the future. Problem is they lead to theories about human nature. A negative view of life is formed as a result of hurts experienced in childhood or adolescence and this negative view is re-activated when you are stressed in adult life. A negative view creates cognitive bias, and you live your life believing the distorted fictional story you wrote about yourself at a time when you could not possibly see yourself and you’re potential accurately.

This negative perspective creates stress and the stress hormone cortisol is prevalent in your system. High levels of cortisol kills neurons in the memory center of the brain, the unfortunate result is your ability to think clearly or creatively is compromised. Cortisol also binds negative memories, making for a stubborn entrenched view of yourself that is not very flattering.

Empathic CBT will teach you how to change neurochemistry naturally, producing the hormones that provide a calm, focused state of mind rather than those that cause distress and discomfort.

CBT has been documented as being effective with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, low back pain, substance abuse, fibromyalgia and some personality disorders .There has been less evidence-based research on stress and CBT.

One of the criticisms of CBT, despite its overall success, is that the changes created may not endure due to the lack of focus on emotionally conditioned learning, which we know is quite difficult to extinguish. Empathic CBT addresses this issue comprehensively so that the emotional, conditioned negative learning can be understood in depth and changed in lasting fashion.book

De-Stressing Your Life
Empathic CBT will take you on a journey that has the potential to affect both your thinking and emotional brain. First, empathic CBT will provide exercises that will allow you to uncover the origin of your learned reaction to stress, especially focusing on how you typically perceive that leads to stress. Secondly, empathy exercises will help you see yourself and others accurately. Lastly CBT will then help you reverse false beliefs and as you perceive yourself and others more clearly you will become calmer and more relaxed as you learn to produce feel good chemicals rather than stress hormones. You will now be in a position to perceive accurately rather than projecting worry forward based on old conditioned ways of responding. Empathic CBT will free your mind of old views that have produced stress and compromised your life. In the process you will uncover positive aspects of your personality that have remained hidden under the clouds of stress and old conditioned ways of reacting.


Based on the book The Stress Solution. Copyright © 2016 by Arthur P. Ciaramicoli. Reprinted with permission from New World Library. www.NewWorldLibrary.com.

Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, EdD, PhD, is the author of The Stress Solution: Using Empathy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to Reduce Anxiety and Develop Resilience. He is a licensed clinical psychologist and the chief medical officer of soundmindz.org, a popular mental health platform. He has been on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and chief psychologist of Metrowest Medical Center. The author of several books, including The Power of Empathy and Performance Addiction, he lives with his family in Massachusetts and his website is www.balanceyoursuccess.com.