Neurofeedback: An Opportunity to Regain Brain Health
Lindsey waited in the office with fear in her eyes. Her mood was depressed, and she was experiencing a full-blown panic attack. She cried as she explained how anxiety and panic, both the result of a severe medication reaction, had stolen her life. For the past several months she had gone from a young woman fully engaged in her life to a young woman who was feeling trapped—unable to work, be alone, sleep, drive or enjoy her family. Lindsey was just a shell of her true self.
That was just two months ago. Today, Lindsey is vibrant and calm. She has gone back to work, is driving, hanging out with her kids and family, sleeping well and panic-free. She is thriving. The fear has disappeared from her eyes, replaced by a look of aliveness.
Lindsey’s struggle with depression and anxiety is unfortunately a common one. Statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health suggest that an average of 17.3 million (7.1 percent) adults and 3.2 million (13.3 percent) teenagers experience Major Depressive Disorder each year. Many people struggle with depression year-round. In fact, 10 percent of the people who suffer with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) have a summer-type presentation of it, meaning their symptoms actually exacerbate in the spring and summer seasons.
In addition, 19.7 million (8.1 percent) of adults in the U.S. experience an anxiety disorder each year. Some of the symptoms associated with these mood states include cognitive slowing, difficulty concentrating and focusing, brain fog, sleep disruption, lack of motivation, inability to find enjoyment, hypervigilance, depressed or anxious mood, sympathetic nervous system over-activation (rapid heart rate, tense muscles, physical agitation) and constant worry.
Since Lindsey’s disordered mood symptoms had been the result of a severe medication reaction, she was interested in trying to manage her depression, anxiety and panic with an alternative to medication. After an assessment and discussion, she agreed to a treatment plan that focused on neurofeedback training.
Research has shown different brainwaves are associated with different moods and brain states. More specifically, there is evidence that there are functional brain abnormalities (brainwave dysregulations) associated with anxiety and panic. Moreover, electroencephalogram (EEG) studies have shown that depression symptoms are associated with functional asymmetries (brainwaves that are not synchronized) in the frontal cortex of the brain. Neurofeedback (brain training) can be used to address these abnormalities and, subsequently, reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
The first step in training the brain is to do an assessment to determine the health of the brain’s functioning. This is done by conducting a quantitative electroencephalogram (QEEG). This assessment records brainwave activity through sensors that are placed on the head (via a cap). The sensors are gathering information about the spontaneous electrical activity occurring in the brain. The data that is gathered is then analyzed to identify areas that are dysregulated (over-functioning or under-functioning). This dysregulation can present itself as the symptoms of anxiety and depression. The data from the QEEG informs what type of neurofeedback training may be called for to address the dysregulation that shows up.
In neurofeedback training, you learn to regulate your brainwave activity while receiving feedback from a visual or auditory signal. The regulation occurs as the result of an operant conditioning process. The brain is rewarded with visual and auditory stimulation when it’s behaving in a regulated manner. In essence, the brainwaves are changing as you watch a video or listen to music. Neurofeedback training is similar to a workout at the gym. As you work your brain muscle, it begins to function more efficiently. The end result is a more regulated pattern of brainwave activity—a more functional muscle.
The change in brainwave (EEG) activity that results from neurofeedback training is associated with a change in neural structures and networks which can lead to reduction of symptoms associated with mood disorders like anxiety and depression. With consistent, dedicated work (training), the neural changes become permanent.
Lindsey chose to start with an alpha-theta training along with at-home use of audiovisual entrainment technology. Neurofeedback training consisted of 20-to-30-minute sessions, two days a week. During a typical session Lindsey would have several sensors placed on her head sending information about the electrical activity (brainwave patterns) to a computer program that would then reward her with auditory stimuli when the brainwaves presented in a more efficient pattern. The more her brain got rewarded, the more frequently it demonstrated the desired brainwave patterns. For her part, Lindsey would sit back, relax and let her brain get a workout while she reclined in a chair.
At her sixth session, Lindsey reported that she had begun to notice significant changes. She had gone to work for a full shift and didn’t feel any anxiety or muscle tension (which had been present since she began having the mood issues). She was pleased and continued to steadfastly train. Several sessions later, she reported, with a smile on her face and a glimmer in her eyes, that she had gone running with her daughter. These reports were her subjective experience of the changes that were occurring as her brain was becoming more regulated. Regulated brain equals a reduction and a potential resolution of symptoms.
After 15 sessions, the true Lindsey appeared. A vibrant, articulate, energetic, funny, courageous, strong and social young woman, she reported how good she was feeling—how she felt like herself again. Lindsey continues neurofeedback training as permanent change requires consistent and persistent workouts.
Brain health occurs when brain functioning is well regulated. Neurofeedback can effectively train the brain to develop organized, regulated patterns of functioning. Research and anecdotal evidence provide support for this noninvasive, alternative treatment. Neurofeedback offers hope for resolution of the symptoms we see in anxiety and depression. For anyone who suffers or knows someone who suffers with mood-related symptoms, neurofeedback training holds much promise.
Fran Bieganek is a licensed psychologist practicing holistic psychotherapy at Bhakti Wellness Center, in Edina. She, along with Guy Odishaw, BCST (clinic owner), and Andrea Chazin, MS, Spec. Ed., is a member of the Neurofeedback Team at the Bhakti Brain Health Clinic which specializes in QEEG assessment, neurofeedback training and neuromodulation treatments for a variety of psychological and physical disorders. For more information, email [email protected] or visit BhaktiClinic.com.