I'm a behavioral neuroscientist by training. This means that when I went to school at UCLA (Go Bruins!) I made it my focus to understand how neurochemical and neurophysical changes in the brain affect the way we interact with the world. At the time, I was primarily interested in how these things relate to addiction, but more and more I feel obligated to share the endless other ways this interaction is crucial for our wellbeing.
You see, everything that happens to us is, at its core, an interaction between the world and our brain in some way. This is true for your ability to read these words, tie your shoelaces, feel depressed or excited and even start walking. But as many of you who are reading these pages know, this world-brain interaction often leaves us wanting more.
Sometimes, there are real problems — like processing difficulties in autism that make interaction with others difficult and life a challenge. At other times the difficulty is more subtle but still troubling — think anxiety that makes driving hard or attention problems that may or may not meet criteria for ADHD. Finally, some of us feel as if we're functioning "fine" but want to do better — we want better sleep, better focus, improved memory and more.
As it currently stands, we primarily turn to medications to address these issues. We take stimulants to help us focus better and work longer; sedatives and hypnotics to help our sleep; anxiolytics to make us calmer. The pills work well enough and we feel like we've licked the problem. But new problems arise...
We become dependent on these medications (there's that addiction link again) and they impact other facets of our functioning that we weren't exactly looking for. They make us lose or gain weight, they leave us feeling groggy, they make us feel depressed and irritable as we're coming down and they cause other side effects that feel unavoidable if we want to address those deficits we care so much about. We wish we could do something else but don't know what, so we keep going for the pills.
This is where biofeedback and neurofeedback can be helpful. For over 40 years technology has allowed practitioners of these techniques to help individuals who are struggling with attention, anxiety, sleep, focus, obsessive thoughts, seizures, irritable bowel syndrome, ADHD, autism, brain injury and more. And these therapies are targeted, hitting the specific problem areas while minimizing collateral impact and side effects. It's like the best-kept secret that doesn't need to be a secret at all.
When I was getting my Ph.D., I never heard about biofeedback. It wasn't until I was searching for ways to help my addiction treatment clients that biofeedback became such a big part of our toolbox. And the reasoning behind it is simple:
Rather than putting chemicals into the body to cause the changes we're looking for, biofeedback subtly teaches the brain (or body) how to produce those effects by itself. Over time, the body begins working in the ways we want it to without needing the help.
The pills produce their effects by changing the body's chemistry. Biofeedback and neurofeedback are like going to the gym — through the work they change the body itself.
Here are the top 5 ways, and the reasons, why biofeedback and neurofeedback should become part of your best-kept secret to getting the life you want:
- Focus and attention: Whether you meet criteria for ADHD or not, many of us are looking to improve our ability (or our childrens' ability) to focus and pay attention. The trouble is (and I suffer from this too as I mention in my TEDx talk) that our prefrontal cortex is not working as effectively as it should. In terms of EEG, this typically means that the frequency of activity in this part of the brain is too low (Theta instead of Alpha and Beta). Simple neurofeedback intervention can gradually train the prefrontal cortex to increase its production of Alpha and SMR (Sensorimotor Rhythm), leaving you feeling more alert, focused and attentive. I've seen clients achieve long-term changes that are at least equivalent to medication effects within two months of training.
- Improved sleep: There can be a number of ways for sleep disturbance to occur — obsessive thoughts that won't let you go at night, physical tension and restlessness that makes relaxation difficult or trauma-like anxiety that seems to get worse particularly when you close your eyes. Each of these can be caused by a completely different brain pattern and still cause what feels like insomnia. Too much high-frequency activity in the prefrontal cortex can lead to obsessive thoughts, if it happens closer to the motor cortex it leads to physical tension, and too much beta in the posterior (back) of the brain when you close your eyes can cause anxiety. With the right qEEG assessment, your practitioner can target the area of particular concern and reduce the severity of the effect. The results can be staggering and help some who have been using sleep medication for decades to finally kick the habit.
- Generalized anxiety and stress reduction: We live in a stressful world and we rarely figure out ways to reign in that stress. But we know that chronic, long-term stress can cause some terrible problems — cancer, hypertension, strokes and heart attacks are but a short part of that list. Simple Heart Rate Variability (HRV) training — think meditation through a computer — can help you learn not only to be more mindful of your stress response but also how to control it. It's no wonder that HRV training has been shown to improve blood pressure, increase mood, reduce anxiety, improve performance in sports and cognition and more. By committing to HRV training for a few short months you can substantially change your wellbeing forever.
- Alcoholism and addiction: While I'm not a big fan of those terms, you get the point — problematic substance use ruins lives. A number of different protocols including many of those already mentioned have been shown to reduce anxiety and sleep issues commonly faced by problem drinkers and drug users. But a specific protocol — Alpha/Theta training — has long been shown to help alcohol sufferers by training the brain to produce more of that slow-brain activity that alcohol was bringing about. For long-term drinkers, this can be incredibly helpful in bringing their brain closer to normal functioning much more quickly than it would otherwise. A faster recovery means less of a chance of relapse in the process. That's good for everyone!
- Peak performance: People are using neurofeedback and biofeedback to help with their golf game, improve their focus at work and increase their creativity. It's been reported that the Italian soccer team uses it to optimize performance (and reduce brain trauma from headers) and actors and dancers can use certain protocols to improve their creative states while reducing anxiety. My favorite part of the peak performance application is that it moves us away from the idea that therapies must only be used to overcome problems. In reality, they are much better suited to preventing them in the first place.
Biofeedback is an incredible tool that I predict will be gaining more and more popularity as the technology gets cheaper and more accessible. As it stands, most of it requires highly trained practitioners and some serious equipment (except for HRV training, which can be done relatively cheaply).
I encourage everyone reading this to try some of these alternative approaches to solving these ultra-common problems. I didn't even address the migraine therapies and autism approaches, both of which are incredibly helpful when addressing these difficult issues. By incorporating biofeedback and neurofeedback into your life, not only will your quality of life likely improve but you may be putting yourself at less risk of overdoses, physical dependence on drugs and more.