A year ago I came across a video talk about neurofeedback by psychiatrist and trauma specialist, Bessel Van der Kolk. He was promoting EEG neurofeedback as a powerful treatment for PTSD and developmental trauma. This promising intervention intrigued me. As a veteran of hospital based frontline mental health services, I am acutely aware of the lack of programs to help people suffering the effects of trauma.
At the time I was working in the psychiatric department of St. Michael’s Hospital, an inner city hospital that serves a diverse and high needs population. My role was to run psychotherapy groups as an adjunct to the psychiatric services that patients were receiving. Many of the patients were suffering from the debilitating mental health conditions and were caught in the loop of short term services that only served as a band aid to their current crisis. Long term treatment is what many people needed but not available in the current model of short term care.
One of the groups I was running was a mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT) group for anxiety and depression. MBCT, developed by Toronto psychologist Zindal Segal and colleagues in England, teaches people the skills of self regulation through meditation and cognitive therapy exercises. Participants learn to sit and observe thoughts and feelings as they arise through meditation and to change their unhealthy relationship to thoughts by seeing them as events rather than facts.
While MBCT is extremely effective in helping many people get relief from their depression and anxiety, for others the format of the group and the structure of the meditations was not the right avenue for others to benefit from mindfulness.
Unfortunately, many of those people assumed that mindfulness was not for them and would “throw the baby out with the bathwater” when they did not get the immediate relief they expected. In reality there is not one person who cannot benefit from learning be more present and train their brain to be more at relaxed and focused. It is not that meditation does not work, it just may not be the right method to learn to be in a “mindful” state.
When I learned about neurofeedback I realized it is similar to mindfulness. Both train the brain to be in a more regulated state. Neurofeedback teaches the mind to observe itself in the moment just as meditation practice does, but in a subconscious way. When the mind can watch itself from moment to moment, the brain knows what is going off track and can make adjustments to be in a more balanced state. As an analogy, we can think of the brain looking at itself in the mirror. By seeing its own image it knows what to adjust. Think of how when we look at our own image in the mirror and know how to adjust our hair or clothing. It is the same thing happening, yet without conscious awareness.
Neurofeedback may be an easier access route to mindful states particularly for those who find meditation too difficult because of trauma, anxiety, pain, or other conditions that are extremely dysregulating. Training can be very specific to each person’s pattern of dysregulation. Different parts of the brain can be targeted to improve functioning for different symptoms and at specific frequencies for each person’s nervous system. This is all based on the principle of neuroplasticity – that the neural pathways of the brain can change with experience. As the famous saying goes, “what fires together, wires together.”
Overall, the purpose of mindfulness and neurofeedback is to teach our nervous systems to be in a more calm and balanced state. It is what we all crave and what we need to live well.
Intrigued by the possiblities of neurofeedback to heal mental health problems, I began research on different systems and training. Two fellow psychotherapists, Ava Walters Cout and Dan Walters, embarked on this journey a few years before me and introduced me to the Othmer Method developed by Sue and Siegfried Othmer in Los Angeles. They are pioneers in the field of neurofeedback and have been tirelessly developing the technology and application of neurofeedback for many years with huge success in their clinical outcomes and training.
In February this year I took a leap of faith and decided to take the training and purchase the equipment. Based on everything I had read and heard about neurofeedback, I decided it was worth the investment to try it out. At the very least I would learn something new and have the first hand experience of training myself.
Immediately I began to offer training to clients who were interested in augmenting therapy by training their brains. It is a gradual process and requires a leap of faith. So far the results have been very promising, with clients reporting a greater sense of well being in a short period of time.
Personally, I have also experienced the benefits of the training. I have had a daily meditation practice for many years which helps me to manage the vicissitudes of life. Since starting neurofeedback, my mind is even more at ease and I feel much more resilient. Life feels more in balance, even if it is not, and the recovery time from stressful events is much less. One client told me that with neurofeedback training she felt happier despite going through one of the most very difficult times in her life. This seems to be the common experience. If we can’t change the chaos that is happening around us, we can change our own mental state to feel more balance.
This is just the beginning of this journey into neurofeedback for me. I hope to continue to update this blog with further insights on the new and exciting field.
Two books that I recommend to learn more about neurofeedback are:
Here is a video about neurofeedback by the folks at the EEG Institute.