This post was originally published on July 11, 2014.
Neurofeedback has been around since the late 60’s when it started as a research treatment for seizures. I am a curious type by nature and—four months ago—I decided to try High Performance Neurofeedback to better understand its several other effects. All I knew about it was that it could help correct brainwaves, was FDA approved for relaxation and is considered a useful resource in terms of addressing symptoms of anxiety and depression.
I felt blue when I arrived at sober neurofeedback clinician Rachel Smith’s office for my first treatment—emotional, saturated with fear and overtired. Did I feel optimistic that this could help me? Well, hope springs eternal.
Smith prepped my skin with a specific gel and conductive cream; only then did she apply small electrode leads behind my ears and on the front of my head before connecting them to an EEG interface—a small black device that looked like an external hard drive. All I had to do was sit down and be my normal self. We talked for a while but then I started to mentally delve into all my troubles. Suddenly, though, something shocking happened: I experienced the very first moment of restorative cerebral silence since late the night earlier, right before I fell asleep.
“With anxiety, depression, addiction, PTSD, brain injury, autism, migraines and chronic pain, the brainwaves are stuck in disruptive nervous system brainwave patterns, also called fight or flight,” Smith told me. “High Performance Neurofeedback helps un-stick those patterns.” She added that the goal was to have “optimized brainwaves, increased neuroplasticity and brain flexibility.” Serenity, she explained, is a byproduct of that.
By nature I am a skeptic. And when it comes to serenity or research for internal balance, I am old school; I like the discipline and daily routine of sitting on my cushion with crossed legs, breathing in and out. Actually, I fear everything that has to do with electrodes, especially when applied to the brain. My grandmother was fried for years after the useless and painful practice of electroshock; she wasn’t crazy—she just suffered from the disease of depression. That’s why I would never allow anyone to access my brain in a way where I’d risk losing significant parts of my essence.
Smith told me that HPN is slightly different from traditional Neurofeedback because, as she explained it, “You don’t have to stare at images of any kind—it’s basically an EEG interface that monitors the brainwaves and sends a tiny wave back to your brain.” (That’s 300 times smaller than what a cellphone puts out, to put it in perspective.) Thanks to this reflection, your brain knows what it’s doing and can correct itself. She assured me that the machine couldn’t read my mind or hold onto any information about me. “It has nothing to do with electroshock—with your mind or soul,” she said. “It’s like holding up a mirror. Nothing is recorded about you whatsoever.”
The response varies according to how sensitive the patient’s brain is, but the concept of correcting wrong behavioral patterns is what I thought would be most relevant for addicts—specifically when dealing with cravings. I see this as the neurological version of letting go of old ideas, if you will—training the brain to not need the addictive substance as a coping mechanism. As a sober clinician, Smith is careful about clarifying that neurofeedback is not a substitute for a program of recovery. In fact, she told me that since some of the doctors she works with still consider alcoholism “purely a self-medicating mechanism,” understanding that there’s something abnormal in both the body and mind of the alcoholic—as Dr. William D. Silkworth explains in the AA Big Book—“has helped me immensely in my own sobriety.”
I know a bit about the brain and so I showed off my knowledge by asking which part of the brain neurofeedback works on—the Neocortex, midbrain or reptilian brain.
“The last two are our instincts and the first one is our reason,” she answered. “When we become addicted, the substance becomes habit—therefore an instinct that keeps hitting the lower part of the brain.” That’s why, she added, the addict or alcoholic can’t seem to fight it. But once people get sober, Neurofeedback can help balance what’s going on in the alcoholic mind, including past traumas.
Now I don’t believe in miracles and I especially don’t believe in a definitive cure for alcoholism but rather in a program of maintenance. I go to meetings, try to be of service and attempt to meditate as much as I can. But most of all I don’t drink no matter what. Still, the treatment that I received—my third—helped me reach a deep and much needed state of relaxation. While I understand that it does not replace detox, rehab, a phone call to a fellow alcoholic or a fearless moral inventory, I have to say that it seemed to really help mend the anxious and fearful fashion my brain still chooses to process pretty much any life event. In other words, I’m definitely looking forward to my fourth visit.