One of the biggest challenges in psychotherapy is knowing how long it may take clients to make lasting changes. For some people a few sessions is enough to help them through a difficult time. For others with deep-seated issues that stem from adverse experiences in early childhood, change through talk therapy can take years. Fortunately, psychotherapists now have a new tool available to us that to help facilitate change more quickly: EEG neurofeedback.
Just over two years ago I picked up the book Neurofeedback in the Treatment of Developmental Trauma: Calming the Fear-Driven Brain by Sebern Fisher, an accoplished psychodynamic therapist who worked for years with severely traumatized and neglected children and adults. In her book she described how EEG neurofeedback, or brain training, helped her work with clients who were suffering from a lifetime of being in a fear driven brain. For some people, talk therapy is just not enough as the brain is so strongly wired from childhood to be on guard for threat and feeling unsafe.
Reading Sebern Fisher’s book was the catalyst for me to explore neurofeedback further as a possibility to support people in their recovery from trauma and anxiety. I must also admit that I am always intrigued by new frontiers in understanding the mind and the workings of the brain, especially ones that are supported by our new discoveries in neuroscience. My practice has always been shaped by my interest in integrating different therapeutic approaches that look at how the brain, body and mind are so closely interconnected.
My path led me to train as an EEG Neurofeedback Practitioner with the Othmers at the EEG Institute in Woodland Hills, California. While there are many neurofeedback systems on the market, this system seemed to fit best for integrating into psychotherapy. I also liked that it required a certain amount of rigor for clinical training. Even though I don’t need to be a neuroscientist, the requirements for training include a clinical background and understanding of how to work with individualized protocols for each person’s specific symptoms. Other kinds of systems may be easier to use and more accessible to non-clinicians but when it comes to working with the brain, our most important resource, a certain amount of rigor I believe is essential.
What I have learned since integrating neurofeedback into my psychotherapy practice, is that there is a fine balance between a therapy that focuses on training the brain and changing symptoms, and a therapy that works with the mind and creating new meaning in one’s life. The two cannot be separated.
One of the first clients I worked with had been in talk therapy for decades for trauma that manifested as an eating disorder, severe anxiety and constant vigilance. She had a very good therapeutic relationship with her therapist for years but could not get control over her self harm behaviors despite years of trying. Her therapist suggested she try neurofeedback as she felt she was running out of options to try. Training at the beginning was slow and gradual with modest changes. With perseverance and developing a good therapeutic rapport together, she began to feel a sense of calm that eluded her all her life and eventually stop the eating disorder behaviors.
But this is not the end of the story. Psychotherapy addresses not just symptoms but how we create meaning from the narrative of our lives. With relief from symptoms, there are still many difficult emotions to work with and so a new chapter opens up.
This is a pattern I have noticed with other clients who have integrated neurofeedback with psychotherapy. It can be a slow gradual process but it does help to shift out of the loops that we get stuck in with relentless depression and anxiety. We don’t think of neurofeedback as a cure, but rather a way of training the brain to regulate enough so that one can engage in therapy in a new way that helps them create new meaning in their lives.
Neither psychotherapy or neurofeedback is a quick fix, especially for deep seated issues. The ideal client for both treatments is someone who is ready for the commitment and has the perseverance needed to make a lasting change. However, the combination can certainly fast track the process and reduce the potential for being in long term therapy without significant change. This process can give people the option to remain in a long term therapy as a way of staying engaged and reflective of their lives or to leave therapy is they feel that it is complete. I am certainly grateful that I took this step to add neurofeedback to my practice as I continue to learn and grow with clients.
Rachael Frankford, MSW, RSW is a clinical social worker in private practice. This blog is to share musings on mental health and about the intersection of mindfulness, neuroscience, and psychotherapy.