The emerging field of neuroscience is opening up a broader understanding of how therapy works. We now know that the brain is plastic, meaning that it can change based on experience. This is different from our previous understanding of the brain as being set in its patterns from childhood. Talk therapy is one way that the brain can learn new and helpful neural pathways, as is mindfulness practice. Another method that I have added to my clinical practice to complement talk therapy is EEG neurofeedback, using the highly effective Othmer method, described below.
What is neurofeedback?
Neurofeedback, also known as EEG biofeedback, is a cutting edge technology that teaches the brain to self regulate. The brain is constantly processing information from our thoughts, our bodies and environment, most of it unconsciously. Neurofeedback trains the brain to process information more effectively so it we can be in a more relaxed and focused state.
How does neurofeedback support psychotherapy?
Neurofeedback can be used to treat a number of different psychological and physical conditions and can enhance progress in psychotherapy. Just like with mindfulness practice, brain training can help shift to a state of mind that leads to more insight and tolerance of feelings to be processed in therapy.
What conditions does neurofeedback treat?
Neurofeedback is used to treat a range of conditions such as:
While the training is not considered a cure, it helps by providing significant relief from the psychological and physical symptoms that individuals suffer from their conditions.
What education and training is involved to be an EEG neurofeedback practitioner?
Neurofeedback is a highly specialized training that requires a marriage of clinical experience, basic neuroscience, and technical skill. As an Othmer trained neurotherapist, I have the benefit of being part of a growing worldwide community of experts to consult with around clinical work. The Othmer method is an Infra Low Frequency training that was developed by Siegfried and Sue Othmer in California, two pioneers in the field of neurofeedback for over 30 years. The California based EEG Institute that they founded provides education to clinicians from various backgrounds throughout the world and have a very high standard of excellence for those trained in their method, providing ongoing supervision and updates to research and improvements in technology.
How long does the EEG training take?
Neurofeedback training takes a mininum of 20 sessions to bring about long lasting effects. However, the benefits of training may be felt immediately or after a few sessions. Over time the brain becomes more familiar with a self regulated state and will not depend on neurofeedback to get there. It can be thought of as exercise for the brain.
Each person will require a different number of sessions to complete their training and after 20 sessions there is a reassessment to monitor what changes have occurred and if more training is required. It is recommended that training occur twice a week to give the brain a chance to retain new patterns of learning.
What can I expect?
Each session is a full hour with some time for discussion, placing of electrodes (sensors) on the head, and then about 20-40 minutes of the actual brain training. The client watches a tv screen with a game or video which is connected to a software program called Cygnet that tracks the EEG (brainwave) signal on a separate computer which the therapist monitors. This software helps the brain monitor itself by feeding back information moment by moment as the screen changes in response to brain wave patterns. In this way the brain learns to produce more desired brainwaves, less undesired brainwaves, and stay in a self regulated state.
How do you track for progress?
Change is gradual so we want to make sure that change is moving in the right direction. Sometimes it is difficult to monitor what changes are happening in the course of a session so a great deal of attention is placed on what happens outside of the therapy office in between sessions.
Using a system called EEG expert (use hyperlink) a performance assessment is conducted to get a baseline measurement of one’s attention and response time to a challenging task. We then use the same EEG system to track symptoms online on a biweekly basis. This will help me to assess what changes need to be made to the training protocol and whether we are on the right track.
Neurofeedback is a highly collaborative process between you and the clinician so it is important to keep in constant communication about your symptoms and come to sessions regularly for the full 20 sessions. It is important to come to the training at a time in life when this full commitment is possible. Otherwise, the benefits will not be effective or lasting.
Why should I consider EEG biofeedback?
Mood Disorders People coming to psychotherapy looking for relief from anxiety or depression and other mood disorders often have accompanying physical or attention problems like ADHD or chronic pain. Usual talk therapy favors cognitive processing which can be very helpful in making sense of one’s problems and learning skills to manage them. However, talk therapy can be limited in addressing the full range of symptoms and a change in one’s neural wiring and somatic processing is also required.
Our brains and bodies are wired to make predictions based on past experiences. Starting from early childhood we lay down implicit memories through neural patterns that show up in our automatic responses to stressful situations. Somatic therapies like neurofeedback work by changing these neural pathways that are no longer helpful, but may have been helpful in the past.
For example, people suffering from anxiety disorders will have learned that it is protective to be on guard in certain situations, even when the threat has passed. This may have been helpful when the threat was real and present but is only serving to cause more suffering in one’s daily life. Neurofeedback helps our brains and bodies to learn to feel what it is like to be safe and make the distinction of when it is appropriate to be on guard.
Performance and Attention Another way that neurofeedback is helpful is that enhancing the body/mind connection improves attention and also performance. When the mind is less stressed it can observe what is happening in the body, and likewise, when the body is less stressed, the mind is in a more clear, observing state. People looking to improve their performance at school, work and sports can benefit by training their minds to be in a relaxed and open state that can also be attained through mindfulness practice.
How can I learn more?
The field of neuroscience is exploding and there is a lot of excellent research and excellent readings on neurofeedback. Here are some suggested readings by respected leaders in the field to help you improve your understanding of neurofeedback. Please go to the EEFinfo website for more information.