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Following on from my blog on meditation, I’ve been exploring the brain-training technique, neurofeedback (NF) with NF practitioner, Laura Lilienthal. Increasingly being used to treat everything from anxiety to addiction, and in some cases, it can also reduce the need for anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications, which can only be a good thing. There are also other uses for NF, including improving performance in all forms of sporting activities. In fact, I was first introduced to it when I was been coached in Karate. I interviewed Laura to find out more about the history of NF, its benefits and how it can be used to treat conditions such as anxiety, depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and addictions such as alcoholism, as well as improving performance in sports.
First developed in the late 1950s by Dr Joe Kamiya and Dr Barry Sterman in the United States, neurofeedback – also referred to as EEG (electroencephalography) biofeedback or neurotherapy – is a technique developed to improve brain function by using brain-training exercises. Although the technology behind neurofeedback is complex, the process itself is simple and it’s a skill that can be easily learned. The aim is to alter brain activity using feedback, a technique that can be extremely therapeutic for a variety of psychological disorders. Although it was sidelined by the medical profession in the 1980s, NF and EEG monitoring is now common practice in scientific studies to assess how brains function under various illnesses, stress and mental difficulties. ‘Neurofeedback directly addresses problems that result from the way that the brain outputs electrical signals,’ explains Laura. ‘It actually pinpoints the area of the brain where these signals originate and the frequencies that that are causing a specific issue.’ An example of this is anxiety which is a symptom of the brain over-firing in certain areas. ‘ In anxiety, the brain is producing too many beta or high brainwave frequencies.,’ explains Laura. ‘Neurofeedback can teach sufferers how to control and reduce those frequencies, thereby reducing the anxiety. People are sometimes worried that the equipment is ‘doing something’ to the brain, but it is only giving feedback in the form of sound which helps us to learn how to control our brainwaves. NF is all about empowering people to take control of their own wellbeing.’ Laura also combines NF with breathing techniques which are another effective tool for reducing anxiety.
The number of sessions needed to treat anxiety is dependent on the individual and how responsive they are to NF. ‘I have some clients who only need around 10 sessions, and others who may need up to 60. Each case is different and depends on how people respond to the treatment and how long they have experienced anxiety. The brain is a habit forming organ, so it takes time to break a habit and to set a new habit. My aim is to help people feel good as soon as possible,’ says Laura.
Like any therapy, neurofeedback affects everyone differently and results can differ accordingly. ‘Usually, you can expect to feel calmer and more in control of your emotions – and hopefully – happier too,’ says Laura. ‘Some people embark on NF to help kick-start their meditation practice and often find that it helps to maintain a regular practice. It’s an amazing way to learn about yourself and develop as a human being. I am also happy to support my clients by email if it’s helpful and works for them.’
Both NF and meditation involve training the brain and tuning our own brainwaves. Meditation allows us to move from higher to lower brainwave frequencies – from beta to theta. Tibetan monks with a lifetime of practice in meditation, are also able to stimulate the production of gamma waves for up to a minute at time – most of us produce these waves for intermittently for only a fraction of a second. Gamma waves are active when the brain is engaged in complex activities such as memory storage and concentration and neuroscientists have found that these waves link information from all parts of the brain, so that the it works more efficiently. ‘ Most yogis are able to stimulate theta (the waves that promote deep relaxation) through meditation,’ reveals Laura. ‘This discovery was made by Elmer Green, an early pioneer of biofeedback. Meditation, especially when combined with a profound philosophy or ethics, can have deep and meaningful effect on our being as a whole,’ explains Laura ‘It can help us to develop an understanding of who we are and our place in the world, allowing us to experience deep compassion. This has an extremely positive effect on our wellbeing, and as this improves, so do our relationships and how we view the world. We also become happier, which I believe everyone wants.’ Neurofeedback is a tool that allows us to observe our inner processes. It gives feedback to tell us that we are on the right track and removes some of the frustration, and guess work, out of meditation. It’s an excellent tool for anyone suffering from trauma as it can help to kick start meditation.
The type of training depends on the issue bring addressed. ‘When we are working with someone with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD), then we aim to increase the beta brainwaves (the waves associated with our normal waking state of consciousness) and to reduce theta (dominant when we sleep and in deep meditation).’ explains Laura. ‘To treat PTSD or addictions, we ‘train up’ the brain’s alpha waves (associated with meditative states, being in the present and with calmness and alertness) and to lower the beta waves.’ The thinking behind this is that alcoholics and people with PTSD have higher levels of beta brainwaves. ‘In working with addiction, we aim to ‘relax’ the brain, so we train up the alpha or theta waves – or a combination of both which encourages the brain to ‘relax’, which reduces cravings, be it for alcohol or drugs. Studies have shown that alcoholics who combine brain training with neurofeedback with a treatment programme such as AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) are less likely to relapse once therapy ends.’
Neurofeedback is also used by athletes to improve their performance. I first discovered neurofeedback when I was training in karate and being coached by Laura’s ex-husband Mervyn Etienne. So how does it help? ‘If you have two athletes with the same physical ability, the one who is more focused and who doesn’t get thrown by a mistake, will stay on the job and win. Neurofeedback can help athletes learn how to enter this focused state.’
My sessions with Neurofeedback training have been incredible, change is created almost instantly, and I am just amazed this treatment is not more mainstream. With so many children suffering from conditions like ADHD, Neurofeedback offers them relief from overactive brain wave patterns, and over time helps them to function in a calmer state, giving them the patience to read a book, or concentrate. Many people are now suffering from mental health problems like anxiety, and I believe it may be because we are all overstimulated, we have no patience just to be, we always have to be doing something. As soon as I’m on a journey, I’m plug into the internet instead of just gazing out of the window, even in a supermarket queue, I can’t just wait in line, I reach for my phone to entertain me. I believe we all need to relearn stillness, and Neurofeedback is a great step to retrain your brain out of negative patterns and into peace.