Breaking free from painful or unhelpful thought habits

Thought patterns can be changed to relieve anxiety, PTSD and addiction

Thursday, October 14 2021

Traumatic memories can shape our responses to stress triggers in everyday life and influence our decisions and behaviours, whether we are conscious of it or not. A neuroscience-informed approach to therapy that has gained attention internationally and is now available in South Africa offers hope for changing patterns of thought connected to past trauma and the opportunity to break free from the habitual responses underlying anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), phobias or addiction. 

Ahead of World Trauma Day on Sunday, 17 October, a psychologist explains why the psychological effects of trauma should not be underestimated. 

“Whether directly or indirectly, many of us have been affected by traumatic events. When faced with danger – whether real, perceived or imagined – our brain and body go into ‘survival mode’, which is activated in the most instinctual and primitive part of the brain,” explains Jonelle du Plessis, a clinical psychologist practising at Netcare Akeso Umhlanga who has undergone special training in Brain Working Recursive Therapy (BWRT). 

“This leads to the stress response of ‘fight, flight or freeze’ being triggered, and at the same time forms strong memories that the brain will use to create a response for dealing with similar scenarios of real or perceived danger in future. As there is no awareness of time, the response to the danger remains active.”

Ongoing cycle of trauma
“This may result in the traumatic memory being re-triggered by anything that has some association to the initial traumatic event. Sounds, places or smells linked to the original trauma can trigger flashbacks and hypervigilance. The primitive brain signals increased danger, essentially creating an ongoing trauma cycle, leading to unwanted behaviours and thoughts, which can manifest in a number of mental health disorders,” she explains. 

BWRT is an evidence-based technique that has gained attention internationally in recent years and is used by specially trained psychologists and psychiatrists to assist patients to develop new responses when faced with traumatic triggers. The approach seeks to empower the person to break out of their default thought patterns through working with them to create new connections, or neural pathways, in the brain. 

“What makes BWRT especially helpful in working with people who have suffered psychological trauma is that it aims to work directly with the traumatic memory in the primitive part of the brain, eliminating or neutralising the urge to activate the fight, flight or freeze response of the traumatic incident. This is useful in diffusing the control that the traumatic memory has had on the person’s life,” says Du Plessis.

The question of ‘free will’
A pioneering scientist in the field of human consciousness, Benjamin Libet, suggested that we do not have free will in the way we think we do. Instead, he proposed the existence of a ‘cognitive gap’ based on a fraction of a second’s delay between when a thought enters our awareness, giving us the ability to make a decision; and when the neurological pathway is activated, before we can make a ‘conscious’ decision. 

“Developed by Terence Watts, a UK-based therapist, in 2011, BWRT focuses on disrupting, reorganising or neutralising the specific problematic neural pathways. The aim is to prevent our brains from making decisions and acting on these deeply engrained mental processes before we become consciously aware of them. This allows us to regain ‘free will’, in the sense that our responses are no longer based on the reflex response to trauma built up in our minds over time.”

Who can potentially benefit from BWRT?
People with a wide range of mental health conditions – from mild depression to more complex, pervasive conditions such as PTSD, alcohol or drug addictions – may benefit from this form of treatment for breaking out of the habits of thoughts that have been ‘hard-wired’ into the brain. In addition, it can be useful in overcoming exam stress, fear of failure and performance anxiety; anxiety related conditions such as panic disorder, generalised anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“People struggling with grief and loss may re-live their trauma every day for many years, but this technique can offer a way to redirect one’s thoughts – not to forget their loss, but to help make it a little easier to move forward,” she says.

Du Plessis explains that notions of low self-worth or poor self-confidence often have their roots in traumatic memories, which may continue to negatively affect a person’s ability to function effectively in their relationships or work life. Working with the patient to help them retrain their brain can open up a whole new approach to life by escaping the fight, flight or freeze stress response, allowing the person to start thinking outside of this automatic thought ‘loop’. 

“The average length of BWRT treatment depends on the individual and the intensity and complexity of the difficulties or condition with which they are dealing. The therapy may be used alone or in combination with other treatments, either in an inpatient or outpatient setting. For some people, improvement can even be noted after only one or two BWRT sessions, while others require more sessions to unseat the established neural pathways. 

“BWRT has been termed a ‘quick fix’ as it can yield improvement in just a few sessions, but there is a good foundation of clinical evidence to show that BWRT produces lasting effects that have been helpful for many people.”

For information about mental health problems and services, and accessing care, or for help in an emotional crisis, Netcare Akeso is here to help. In the event of a psychological crisis, individuals can phone the Netcare Akeso crisis helpline on 0861 435 787, 24 hours a day, to talk to an experienced counsellor. 

Practitioners at the following Netcare Akeso mental health facilities are accredited to practise BWRT: 

  • Netcare Akeso Umhlanga
  • Netcare Akeso Alberton
  • Netcare Akeso Randburg
  • Netcare Akeso Parktown
  • Netcare Akeso Arcadia


About Netcare Akeso

Netcare Akeso operates a network of private in-patient mental health facilities and is part of the Netcare Group. Netcare Akeso provides individual, integrated and family-oriented treatment in specialised in-patient treatment facilities, as well as certain outpatient services, for a range of psychiatric, psychological and substance use conditions. Please visit or contact for further information. The COPE Therapy website also contains many useful blog posts on various issues and tips relating to mental health.

In the event of a psychological crisis, call 0861 435 787, 24 hours a day for emergency support. Psychiatrist consultations can be made through Netcare appointmed™, online at or by calling 0861 555 565. Outpatient psychologist and occupational therapist consultations can be booked via

For more information on this media release, contact MNA at the contact details listed below.

Issued by:            MNA on behalf of Netcare Akeso Umhlanga
Contact:    Martina Nicholson, Meggan Saville, Estene Lotriet-Vorster and Clementine Forsthofer 
Telephone:    (011) 469 3016
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