Bessel van der Kolk, is a world-famous Harvard-trained Psychiatrist and best-selling author. His book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, was a monumental success that was embraced and heralded by the public and across health care disciplines. In 2014, Sebern Fisher, the clinician who introduced Dr. van der Kolk to Neurofeedback, asked if he would describe that introduction in the Foreword to her new book, Neurofeedback in the Treatment of Developmental Trauma. He started the Foreword with, “How often is an experienced clinician-researcher confronted with a new paradigm that profoundly changes his understanding of what he has done all his professional life?”.
Bessel was first introduced to Neurofeedback in 2007, at which time he was already an expert and established authority in the psychological and psychophysiological effects of trauma. He was completely unaware of this powerful technology, was amazed at what it could accomplish in even treatment-resistant patients and was shocked to discover that it had already been around for decades. He immediately started educating himself and his entire clinical staff about Neurofeedback and has been using it as a cornerstone in the treatment of mental health ever since.
To understand how this incredible tool can be so powerfully effective for so many people, it is first essential to have a basic understanding of what brain and central nervous system Dysregulation is, what Neuroplasticity is, and how Neurofeedback uses the latest in brain-computer interface technology to bring about lasting changes in health and wellbeing.
What is Brain Dysregulation?
Many physical and mental health conditions with which people are diagnosed share the same underlying cause, Dysregulation (altered/impaired regulation and function) of the brain. The symptoms and disease process are merely an outward expression of that dysregulation. This is not a rare occurrence. In fact, at some level, it is universal.
Brain dysregulation can be caused by any event an individual experiences as traumatic mentally, emotionally, or physically and can begin at any point in life. Some examples of things that can cause this traumatic experience are:
Prolonged or extreme stress
Divorce of parents
Loss of a loved one
Illness/infection (i.e., encephalitis)
Exposure to toxic agent
When someone has a traumatic experience, their brain essentially shuts down the areas where higher level mental processing and the body’s normal resting physiological processes (i.e., quality sleep, healthy gastrointestinal function, balanced neurotransmitter production) are controlled, and the “Fight or Flight” centers of the brain become highly activated.
The brain’s altered functioning is meant to help the person get through that traumatic experience. But when that change in brain state becomes permanent, the brain essentially becomes “cross-wired” and can no longer perform all of its duties properly. The result can be an exhaustive list of physical and mental health problems that will manifest uniquely for each individual.
Neurofeedback is an important part of the process of “rewiring” the brain. It is able to do this through Neuroplasticity.
What is Neuroplasticity?
Not long ago we were taught that if the brain becomes damaged, it is unable to repair itself. If we have a brain injury or develop a brain-related condition, we will be stuck with it for life.
Research in the past couple of decades has proven that to be untrue. Our brain cannot only create new neurons (neurogenesis) and neural interconnections, but also vast new neural networks. These “plastic” changes don’t require years to take place, they can occur as quickly as within a few weeks. Neurofeedback can facilitate the brain’s plasticity and maximize its inherent capacities for self-organization by providing “new information” and “new pathways” to a brain stuck in repetition and reactivity.
What is Neurofeedback?
Neurofeedback is a computer-brain interface technology often referred to as EEG Biofeedback or Brainwave Training. It is a type of biofeedback in which individuals train to improve their brain function. Sensors are placed on the scalp and the patient receives “feedback” in the form of sound and/or images on a monitor. The feedback is a direct representation of their brain’s activity. The brain immediately recognizes itself and its pattern of activity in the feedback.
Based on the patient’s specific needs, the clinician identifies the sensor placement and training frequency to best optimize brain function. Within seconds of beginning the training, the brain gets to work establishing new neural connections. These new networks and firing patterns are initially transient, but after enough training, can become permanent. The resulting new brain organization and resilience often leads to significant improvement and even resolution of common conditions such as:
What is Involved in the Training?
In order to successfully “rewire” the brain, most patients will initially receive two or more sessions per week. Sessions are thirty to forty minutes in length.
There are numerous options in how the training can be experienced. A patient can watch a pleasant nature scene, play a video game, or even watch something of interest on YouTube or Netflix.
What Should I Expect During Training?
As a training session progresses, most patients say that they feel more physically relaxed and mentally alert. About 75% of patients will begin to notice changes within one to three sessions that will persist for a day or two. These include things like feeling calmer or more alert, sleeping better, dreaming more, and not being as reactive to normally upsetting situations. As training continues, the brain is “rewired”, allowing these new neural patterns to become well established.
How Long Will It Take?
As with most forms of treatment, Neurofeedback results vary among different individuals. Neurofeedback training may require 20-40 sessions or more, depending on the individual’s age and the severity of their condition. Training typically begins with a 20-session block followed by a thorough re-evaluation. At that time, changes are usually beginning to take hold, and the frequency of the visits can be decreased.
When Will I Be done?
Most patients are finding that even when the new neural networks are established, some amount of “maintenance” care is helpful. This makes sense as many of us are exposed to high levels of dysregulating daily stressors. One to two sessions per month seem to be enough to keep most patients functioning optimally.
Dr. Douglas Hanner
Fernview Stress Management Center