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Dec 23, 2019

Happy Holidays to everyone! Today's podcast is nestled between Hanukkah (on the 22nd) and Christmas Eve (on the 24th.) We send our warmest greetings to all of our listeners of all religious faiths.

Today, Rhonda, Dave and David discuss three questions you have submitted:

  • Does emotional trauma cause brain damage?
  • Do you have to have a good cry when something traumatic happens?
  • Why does avoidance make anxiety worse?

1. Is it true that emotional trauma affects the brain?

Hi again Dr Burns,

I love the 5 secrets, and have had great success in my new job by implementing them! I keep listening to all the 5 secrets podcasts over and over to keep it fresh for me and really loved the podcast on advanced techniques.

My question today is about how trauma affects the brain. ‘Trauma’ is the new buzz word in education, and psychologists are creating presentations geared for teachers and other school professionals that claim the “trauma-affected brain” is altered and cannot learn as easily. They allege imaging technology can prove this.

Do you know if PTSD/trauma actually impacts a person’s ability to learn? I thought that it was the negative thoughts that interfere with attitudes toward learning, not an actual brain impairment.

Another term that is used frequently is “intergenerational trauma”, meaning if my parent experienced trauma, it could be passed down to me and therefore impact my ability to cope with life stressors. Any thoughts? Any credible research you are aware of?

In the Ask David, could you also include your opinion on how Adverse Childhood Experiences impact people's mental health and ability to cope?  There are a range of experiences cited in studies from moving around a lot in childhood to witnessing a murder to molestation.  After listening to your podcast episode 147 (Garry with PTSD) I was satisfied with the effectiveness of TEAM to treat trauma rapidly.  But then I remembered a documentary I had seen about 'feral children' who were extremely neglected as children, and I wondered if there are some cases where the psychology or potential of a person is forever impacted by an adverse childhood experience.  Your take?

All the best,


Educational Consultant

Mountaintop School Division


David finds these buzzwords and buzz-theories somewhat misleading, and sometimes even pseudo-scientific. He has treated large numbers of patients struggling with the effects of severe trauma, and has found that trauma patients are usually the easiest to treat and the quickest to learn. David like to focus on rapid healing, using TEAM-CBT, rather than sending people the message that they are impaired, damaged or defective because of some emotionally traumatic experience.

In fact, nearly all humans have experienced quite a lot of traumatic events, which can range from mild to extreme. And lots of us have some degree of brain damage. My brain (David Burns) was squashed at birth, for example, and there are certain cognitive functions that I’m not very good at. For example, for some reason, I can't often find something that's right in front of me, and I have lots of trouble remembering names and faces.

I just try to accept my many shortcoming and work around them. The problem is rarely our flaws or imperfections, but rather the distorted negative messages we give ourselves; messages that generate anxiety, fear, inadequacy, shame, and so forth.

Of course, animals and humans with traumatic experiences at a young age, or any age, may struggle with fear and may seem, as you say, "feral." My wife and I (David) have adopted many feral cats, and have found that consistent warmth and love can lead to dramatic changes and the development of trust. We all have a history, and every person's story and suffering deserve respect and profound compassion.

2. What’s displacement? Is it true that you have to have a good cry when something traumatic happens?

Hi there again,

I've been practicing TEAM-CBT for a year while at the same time studying Dr. Gordon Neufeld's theories on the need for "tears of futility" for true healing (including adaptation, maturation and development of resilience). He states that if we only work on the cognitive level, we risk to just displace the symptoms in our clients and they would miss out on maturation and adaptation. I'm wondering if you have ever seen a displacement of the symptom in treating your patients with TEAM-CBT?

In most live sessions I've seen with you you seem to have this gift / skill to make it safe for the client to let the tears flow and that this often seem to be the moment when a breakthrough is about to happen. So I wonder if you think the client needs to shed tears or at least feel the feelings of futility or "true sadness" before we should move forward to methods (in addition to getting perfect empathy scores)? And what role you think tears play in the healing process?

Would love to hear your thoughts on this! (See my last e-mail if you want more details to why I'm asking.)


Warmly, Malena


I am really pleased to see that you, Malena, are a certified TEAM-CBT therapist in Sweden! I always love to hear from a fellow Swede!

You are right, Malena, that emotion is very important in therapy, since it shows that the patient trusts the therapist and is willing to be vulnerable. This is a critical part of the E = Empathy in TEAM-CBT. Therapy without emotion, without tears, may be overly technical, dry and almost "empty."

In addition, some patients do intellectualize as a way of avoiding emotions. I call this fear of negative emotions “Emotophobia.” I try to confront patients who do this in a gentle way. I might say, “Gee, Jim, I just asked you how you were feeling, and I notice that you didn’t really answer my question. Did you notice this as well?”

This technique is called Changing the Focus, and it has to be done in a kindly, non-threatening way. We discussed it on a recent podcast that was one of our most popular.

I’ve seen a patient recently who had incredible problems sharing his own feelings in interactions with his wife, and equally intense problems acknowledging her feelings. If a patient is determined to overcome this fear of his or her feelings, using the Five Secrets of Effective Communication, tremendous progress can be made, but the patient’s resistance has to be dealt with first.

Early in my career, I was aware of the idea that if you don’t cry when a traumatic event, like the loss of a loved one happens, that you are setting yourself up for emotional difficulties, so I often pushed my patients to cry. And occasionally this was very helpful.

But in general, I have not found it necessary to think that every patient has to cry, and it is definitely not true that crying during sessions is a panacea. During my residency training, I had many patients who cried constantly during therapy sessions without any improvement at all. They just kept crying and crying every session! You could even argue that this makes patients worse, because you continually activate and strengthen the same negative circuits in your brain.

When I learned cognitive therapy, I had many tools to help patients change their lives, and that's when I became to see far more improvement and recovery. The tears were helpful, but rarely or never curative.

If you are getting perfect empathy scores from your patients on the scales on the Evaluation of Therapy Session, Malena, you are doing great! Way to go!

David (a fellow Swede)

3. Why does avoidance make anxiety worse?

Hi Dr. Burns,

I love your show and work so much. I can't wait to buy "Feeling Great."

There's a question I've had for about three years that I've badly wanted to get my head wrapped around. It's in regard to something I've heard you say on a Feeling Good Podcast: "Most experts in exposure therapy or behavior therapy say that attempts to control your symptoms (of anxiety) is the cause of all anxiety." I have heard others say that too/

Why is this?

I understand if you push-through an anxiety you can learn whether it's warranted or not.

But how is trying to avoid an anxiety actually the cause of all anxiety?

I want to be able to understand it for when I feel myself trying to move away from social anxiety I can understand at a moment's notice why doing so actually is the cause of all my anxiety. To be able to skewer the rationalizations in my mind of why I shouldn't push-through.

Thank you David.

Best Regards,



Rhonda, David and Dave discuss why avoidance makes anxiety worse, and why exposure often leads to improvement or even complete recovery. David describes the incredible resurgence of his own fear of heights when he took his children on a camping adventure in Havasupai Canyon in Arizona one spring when he and his wife were living in Philadelphia, and he avoided climbing down a cliff he had climbed down many times when he was younger.

Anxiety is not caused by the thing you fear, but by your distorted thoughts and fantasies. When you pull back instead of confronting the monster, you do not get the chance to discover that the monster has no teeth, so your negative thoughts and fantasies can quickly spiral out of control.

We will see you again next week for our final podcast of 2019. Thanks for so many wonderful questions, and for your support during the past year. We have had more than 1.5 million downloads, thanks to you! We look forward to serving you again in 2020!

If you like the podcasts, please tell your family, friends, and neighbors. You are our marketing team! And if you are a mental health professional, you might be interested in my February workshop on therapeutic resistance with Dr. Jill Levitt. It's going to be a good one, and you can find the details below.

Rhonda, David, and Dave