Neurofeedback: Non-invasive, drug-free alternative for shifting many health conditions
How many times have you done or said something you didn’t really mean, and then regretted it? Stress can momentarily fling us far from the Self that we strive to be. Besides causing social blunders, stress is guilty of being a root cause of most health conditions. For example, insomnia, headaches, anxiety, high blood pressure, digestive problems, immune system disorders and pain can all be caused or contributed to by chronic stress.
Neurofeedback is a non-invasive, drug-free modality that is FDA-approved for stress reduction. It is recognized and utilized by an increasing number of practitioners and institutions. For example, in 2010, the American Academy of Pediatrics endorsed Neurofeedback as a “Level 1/Best Support” treatment for children with ADD/ADHD (this is the same rating as stimulant medication).
The goal of Neurofeedback is to recalibrate our automatic response to discomfort, which is the most basic, universal trigger of the stress response. Everyone’s definition of discomfort is different, as is the severity of their ensuing stress response. For example, someone who is afraid of clowns will respond much differently to a surprise singing telegram from Bozo than someone who loves clowns.
Serious health conditions develop due many different factors, but one of them is always stress. Stress has become a hip word that usually refers to mental or emotional challenge. But, stress goes beyond tailgating drivers, busy home and work schedules and a worrying/whirring mind. Stress can be caused by food sensitivities, sleep deprivation, constipation, heartburn, allergies, weight gain, environmental toxins, infection and more. When our brains are able to throw off the shackles of stress and make decisions without its influence, our perspectives, hormone balance and biochemistry will shift. As past triggers of discomfort fade, damage from chronic stress unwinds and heals.
A helpful metaphor for Neurofeedback is a mirror. Imagine you’re at a party with some spinach in your teeth. You have no way of knowing unless you look into a mirror. When people react to you strangely, that causes discomfort but you don’t know why. The brain likes to know the exact source of discomfort because that gives it control. So, when the source is unknown (because you can’t see the spinach) the stress response increases.
The spinach in your brain’s teeth that causes stress may be a painful memory, traumatic event or false belief about how the world works. Neurofeedback lets your subconscious brain look in a mirror hundreds of times per second. When your brain sees that spinach, it calmly works to remove it instead of feeling uncomfortable and stressed. Since this happens entirely in the subconscious, there’s no need to relive or even think about the issue or event.
A Neurofeedback session is done in the calm, safe environment of a practitioner’s office. After sensors are attached to the scalp to read the brain’s electrical output, the subconscious mind is guided towards calmer responses. No information is fed into the brain. Neurofeedback merely presents information to the brain and lets it decide on its own what it wants to do. Over time these decisions become hard-wired and the brain’s synapses are rewritten, making the brain’s more graceful response to stress permanent.
The rewriting of the brain, also known as neuroplasticity, is similar to going to the gym or practicing a sport. Growing new muscle and nerve fibers takes time and happens in response to slow and steady training. Once the new tissues are there, they will remain as long as they are still needed. The same applies to the brain. But, since the subconscious is always working, once new connections are made they are constantly reinforced and maintained even after Neurofeedback sessions are complete.
Depending on the individual brain, it takes 10-20 Neurofeedback sessions to achieve this permanent change. They can take place 1-3 times per week, with once a week the average. For many people, 3-6 sessions are enough to notice some sort of shift in the stress response. After a person has reached their goals with Neurofeedback, a tune-up may be helpful in the event of a new stressful life experience (though they’ll likely be able to cope with it much better than before Neurofeedback).
Sometimes the brain is prevented from permanently adapting to Neurofeedback sessions. Barriers can include brain injury, serious health conditions, nutrient deficiencies, food sensitivities and extreme inflammation. In these cases, Neurofeedback may be necessary once a month or more until the person’s body is more balanced and less inflamed.
The technology behind Neurofeedback is very complex and not every system is the same. The two main differences between types of Neurofeedback are the style of reinforcement and level of practitioner involvement.
Some systems use ‘positive feedback’, which means a certain behavior is rewarded in order for it to become ingrained. In this case, the brain is rewarded when it produces the target brain waves chosen by the practitioner. These systems require active participation by the client similar to a video game where the brain is the joystick. As a client watches a scene on a computer monitor, the system senses his or her brainwaves. When the brainwaves are in the target ‘low-stress’ range, the brain is rewarded with a more positive scene. For example, a nature scene might be dreary when brainwaves are out of range but the sun will shine when they’re on target. Other rewards might be a space ship speeding up and becoming more exciting, or a skeleton succeeding at scrambling up a ladder. A drawback of this method is that the brain may overshoot its goal. This concept is similar to that of an older thermostat: even if it’s set at 65 degrees, the heater may churn up to 67 before the sensor tells it to shut off.
The other method is called ‘negative reinforcement’. The word ‘negative’ does not mean this form of Neurofeedback is bad or uncomfortable- in fact, the experience is extremely relaxing for most people. ‘Negative reinforcement’ simply means that when an undesired behavior happens, the body is told “please don’t do that”. In the case of Neurofeedback, when the brain creates stressed-out, turbulent brain waves, the system says, “Excuse me, Brain. I see you’re creating stressful brainwaves right now. Please don’t do that. You can do whatever else you feel you need to do in this moment, but being stressed is not an option right now.”
“Please don’t do that” is communicated through something similar to rumble strips on the highway. During a session, a client listens to music or watches a DVD of their choosing. Whether their eyes are open or closed is not important- in fact, the training even works if a person falls asleep. When the person’s subconscious brainwaves go outside the target ‘low-stress’ range, a quick and quiet burst of static is inserted into the music or audio of the DVD. This slight interruption is barely audible to the client, but is enough to annoy the subconscious brain. Since the brain much prefers the uninterrupted audio, it immediately returns to creating ‘low-stress’ brainwaves. In between sessions, the brain becomes more and more skilled at recognizing discomfort on its own and slipping back into a state of low-stress, calm neutrality.
The second difference between the two types of Neurofeedback technology is the extent of the practitioner’s influence. The ‘positive feedback’ systems require many hours of training so that the practitioner can accurately match their protocol to the client’s diagnosis. Choosing the correct frequency and sensor placement can require trial and error. The ‘negative feedback’ systems are set up to allow the brain to dynamically choose its own training protocol. With this approach, the brain decides what is best for it- it just can’t choose stressful brainwaves.
Neurofeedback is very powerful, but not a stand-alone cure-all. Anyone with a brain can benefit from Neurofeedback, but the optimal strategy involves a team approach. Just as all chronic health conditions have more than one cause, the optimal treatment protocol will involve more than one modality. For example, since an aligned spine and limber soft tissue allow nerves to send their messages and tissues to release toxins, chiropractic and massage are ideal companions to Neurofeedback. And since food provides the raw materials for cells to grow, repair and function properly, a consult with a Registered Dietitian would only serve to accelerate change. For those with psychological challenges, using talk therapy along with Neurofeedback is very highly recommended.
There are many thousands of Neurofeedback users worldwide who appreciate the benefits of reduced stress, improved sleep and relief from health conditions ranging from minor to severe. Stress used to hold them back from becoming all they were meant to be, but now they have a new road map to guide them to their best selves.
Anne Buzzelli is a Registered Dietitian & NeurOptimal Brain Trainer. Her private practice, BuzzNutrition, is located at 117 South Lewis Street in Staunton, Virginia. Anne can be reached at (540)414-7525 or [email protected]. More information on the 2010 evaluation of Neurofeedback by the American Pediatric Association can be found here: http://www.braintrainuk.com/