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What is the Bernhardt Method?

Daniela and Klaus Bernhardt, specialists for anxiety disorders and developers of the Bernhardt Method
Daniela and Klaus Bernhardt, specialists for anxiety disorders and developers of the Bernhardt Method

The Bernhardt Method is a short-term therapy for anxiety disorders developed at the Institute for Modern Psychotherapy in Berlin. It was named after the two directors of the Institute, Daniela and Klaus Bernhardt. It was first introduced to an international audience in the book “Get rid of panic attacks and other anxiety disorders”  (In German: Panikattacken und andere Angststörungen loswerden), which was on the bestseller list in Germany for over two years and has since been translated into over 20 languages. The book was published in the English-speaking market, for example, under the title THE ANXIETY CURE.

How the Bernhardt Method Came About

In the preface to his book, Klaus Bernhardt describes how he and his wife came to develop the Bernhardt Method. There you can read:

In German-speaking countries alone, more than 14 million people suffer from a diagnosed anxiety disorder, and over two million are plagued by constantly recurring panic attacks. These people want nothing more than to return to normal life as quickly as possible, a life without the fear of fear.

Many years ago, based on my own experience, I decided to do everything in my power to help people with panic attacks faster and more comprehensively than was previously possible. In our psychotherapy practice in Berlin, we have therefore specialized in treating anxiety disorders. My wife and I work with an entirely new type of therapy that originates in modern brain research.

Our method does little to what anxiety patients usually expect as treatment. There is no confrontation therapy (exposure), breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, or childhood grabbing with us. We also strictly reject using antidepressants and tranquilizers, with very few exceptions. Accordingly, we are often asked why our form of therapy is so radically different from that of most of our colleagues. I like to quote Albert Einstein, who once said so aptly:

“The purest form of insanity is to leave everything as it is
and simultaneously hope that something will change.”

Regrettably, this wise quote primarily describes how anxiety patients are treated today. The same forms of therapy are practiced repeatedly, although they often do not help at all or only very slowly. At the same time, new, groundbreaking findings in brain research are seemingly ignored. Instead of using this knowledge to finally establish better therapy standards, antidepressants continue to be prescribed, and methods are used that, in some cases, have not been significantly developed for decades.

In the last 20 years, in particular, we have gained much new knowledge about the brain and how it works. Thanks to imaging techniques, we can watch our gray matter think. We can test which thoughts and mental exercises trigger which reactions, and experts have the opportunity to exchange information worldwide via the Internet. All this has led to the fact that today we know what must happen in the brain for panic attacks to occur in the first place and also what can be done to end this fear again.

All the techniques described in this book have been tested and refined in our practice over many years. You can hardly imagine, but now over 70 percent of our patients need fewer than six sessions to eliminate their panic attacks completely.

How to Use Neuroplasticity to Unlearn Fear

Much of what we thought we knew about the brain as recently as the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s is now simply wrong and clearly disproven scientifically. Stupidly, however, many forms of therapy that are still considered standard today were developed either during that time or even much earlier. No wonder, then, that many who were treated in this way for years still suffer from anxiety disorders today.

Until the mid-1990s, it was thought in all seriousness that the brain of an adult human being would not change much. However, thanks to Professor Dr. Eric Kandel and some other great scientists, we now know that the opposite is true. Our brains are constantly changing, adapting day by day to the way they are used. For example, a study of cab drivers in London found that the area of the brain responsible for local orientation is significantly larger in them than in someone who works in an office, for example.

This ability of the brain is called neuroplasticity. However, almost all therapy methods offered for anxiety disorders were developed when the brain was not thought to have this ability to change. In the case of psychoanalysis, most of these methods are between 30 and 60 years old. In the case of psychoanalysis, even more than 120 years. Many conventional approaches to therapy are thus based on the idea that the brain is more or less finished as soon as we are fully grown and cannot really change after a certain age.

But how promising can the current standard therapies still be then? That would be roughly like a boat builder, who has only known water as a frozen surface, developing different types of boats. How well do you think his boats will float when summer comes, and the ice suddenly melts?

Just as some regions of a cab driver’s brain visibly enlarge, so does your brain respond daily to how it is used. Have you been worrying whether criticism crosses your lips much more quickly than praise for years? Have you been raised from an early age to be a purpose pessimist? If so, your brain will find problems more efficiently than opportunities. It will find reasons why a dream cannot be realized much faster than it will develop an idea of how it is possible. It’s not that there are actually more problems than solutions. Your brain is much better trained to see one and overlook the other.

A brain trained toward anxiety long enough is almost bound to develop an anxiety disorder or depression sooner or later. But if you can prepare your brain for anxiety and panic, changing it toward ease and joy must also be possible. And indeed, there are now techniques with which such reprogramming is possible within a few weeks. A common saying among brain researchers is: “Neurons that fire together wire together.”

With the help of a newly developed mental training, now known as the Bernhardt Method, it is now possible to have especially many of your synapses fire off positive information at the same time, causing them to connect with each other and thus creating a new positive data highway in your mind.

The stronger this new network becomes in your brain, the more often positive thoughts automatically run through your head. In contrast, the fearful ones will gradually become fewer. Once you have managed to think more positively than worry for three weeks, your body will also begin to actively help you overcome your fears. Because from now on, the laws of cell renewal will no longer work against you but for you. Another prevalent saying among brain researchers is: “Use it or lose it!” Just as muscle fiber cells break down when not exercised regularly, muscles grow and become stronger as soon as you exercise them. Likewise, in the brain, the synaptic connections in which fear is stored also degenerate as soon as they are not used for longer. The permanent circling around the topic neuronally ensures that the fear becomes generalized, i.e., expanding more.

Perhaps you can already guess why so many standard therapies take an unnecessarily long time to help anxiety patients regain ease and security. On the one hand, group therapy, confrontation, and regular talking about the fears neuronally reinforce what should be reduced more and more. On the other hand, the relaxation techniques used there, such as Qi Gong, progressive muscle relaxation, and autogenic training, are “only” suitable for giving a little reassurance. But they hardly change anything in the neuronal basis of your anxiety. And also, the so often used breathing techniques, unfortunately, do not have the potential to quickly reverse unfavorable brain automatisms. Fear can only be permanently eliminated where it originated in the neuronal structures of your brain.