By: Catherine A. Boyer M.A., LCSW July 9, 2009.
Updated: July 25, 2014.
Neurofeedback helps your brain change how it’s wired – and that changes how you feel, how you react, how you interact with others.
You’ve probably seen photographs showing different areas of the brain lighting up. Measurements of that electrical activity as it shows up on your scalp are called electroencephalograms – your EEG.
That’s the information neurofeedback systems monitor and feedback to your brain to help it modify how you feel and how you operate in life.
You might think of neurofeedback as having a personal trainer for your brain, or as taking your brain in for a tune-up so that it can operate at its best potential.
How I got to neurofeedback therapy
I’ve been a psychotherapist for more than 25 years, but I initially came to neurofeedback for personal reasons. My interest had to do with difficulty I was having with getting enough good quality sleep.
I’d never been “a good sleeper,” even as a child; and it got worse as I got older. I’d tried medications, relaxation techniques, and many, many mainstream and alternative treatments.
Nothing seemed to help; or, if it helped, the side effects were worse than the symptoms. A colleague suggested neurofeedback, which at the time I’d never heard of. After a few sessions the quality and quantity of sleep I was getting improved. I was thrilled.
Then something very interesting happened.
You’re likely to recognize this:
One of the most common anxiety dreams people have has to do with school. If you ask a room full of people:
“Who here has had a dream about being back in school and not being prepared?
You forgot there was a test…
You left your books home…
You can’t find the classroom…”
At least half of the people in the room will raise their hands.
I had been having those dreams, too, once or twice a year for decades. After several neurofeedback sessions, one night I had this dream:
I was at home getting ready for school when I remembered that there was a major test that day and I’d forgotten to prepare for it. I started to get anxious; but then, in the dream, I said to myself, “Don’t worry. You know the material. You’ll ace it.” At that moment in the dream, I stopped worrying. That was the end of the dream, and I have never had it again.
When that happened, I started thinking about many of my psychotherapy clients whom I thought might benefit from neurofeedback.
I got my own system, went for training and offered neurofeedback first to one or two of my therapy clients, who liked the changes it made (not anxious at work anymore, better self care, less squabbling with a spouse, less depression, more focused, those kinds of things).
Both those clients sent two or three of their friends. Now neurofeedback clients make up more than half of my therapy practice.
Neurofeedback therapy has been around since the 1960s
Trainers have been working for decades to help their clients use neurofeedback to better live life the way they want. This has been done using protocol-based programs to train the brain to produce more or less of groups of electrical frequencies that are thought to correlate with different brain states.
More recently it became possible to train the brain in a different way. This method, using pauses in music, gives the brain feedback on what it’s doing moment to moment, which the brain then uses to reorganize itself.
In my experience, this latter method is very side effect free; but both methods can get very good results.
The Central Nervous System ("CNS")
Neurofeedback works directly with the CNS, which is the brain and spinal cord. Your brain has around 100 billion nerve cells. If they were laid out end to end the line of cells would be more than two million miles long.
Amazing, isn’t it!
The number of connections in this system is a number that has probably 14 or 15 zeros after it. That makes for a lot of variety among our brains – and the uniqueness that makes you you.
I think of the CNS as the captain of the ship. It is always, whether you are awake or asleep, busy making sure the ship is functioning:
- Heart rate,
- Skin temperature,
- Integration of learning,
- on and on...
Most of this is happening below the level of your conscious awareness. This includes an amazing ability to take in information and use it to reorganize, heal and grow. Neurofeedback takes advantage of that ability.
What is neurofeedback helpful for?
Your brain is the most complex system on the Earth and is very, very good at organizing itself on your behalf. It is busy at this moment keeping track of both the external environment and your internal environment– it’s a terrific multi-tasker.
Because the CNS is integral to just about everything about being human, neurofeedback has been used to improve mood disorders (depression, anxiety, bi-polar, etc.), improve sleep, work with seizures and the autism spectrum, learning disabilities, peak performance – improving your golf game! – and more. People ask how one way of working can be helpful with so many things people would like to see change – it’s because we are training the CNS – the captain of the ship.
What happens in a neurofeedback session?
You’ll be sitting in a comfortable chair with several sensors attached to your head and ears, watching a monitor, possibly something that looks like a video game (this is the older form of neurofeedback), and/or listening to music.
Depending on what type of neurofeedback you’re doing, you may be trying to make something happen on the monitor, or it may be as simple as sitting and listening to pauses in music that provide the CNS with information to renormalize itself.
Is it biofeedback?
Health insurance companies put neurofeedback under the category of biofeedback, but it’s actually quite different.
Traditional biofeedback works with the Peripheral Nervous System (the PNS) – the outer edges of the body. With biofeedback, the client learns to make changes to the PNS (such as reducing muscle tension or increasing skin temperature). The client practices the skills on his or her own, with the expectation that learning those skills will affect the central nervous system in a positive way.
Unlike traditional biofeedback, neurofeedback works directly with the central nervous system. The CNS affects all of the body’s systems. Changes in the CNS will reflect in the PNS – and in your life.
I hope this has given you a sense of what neurofeedback is about and the possibilities for you and people you know. It’s an exciting field and a rewarding process to participate in – whether you’re sitting in the trainee chair or the trainer chair.
My favorite part is having people come back in reporting the differences they’re seeing in their lives – and knowing that we’ve made those come about by tapping into the amazing ability of the central nervous system to change.
Have a question about Neurofeedback?
Let Catherine answer your questions about Neurofeedback.
Questions and responses will be posted for others to read.
Ayers, M., & Montgomery, P. (2007). Whispers from the Brain. Beverly Hills: AyersMont.
Hill, R. W., & Castro, E. (2002). Getting Rid of Ritalin. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing.
Larsen, S. (2006). The Healing Power of Neurofeedback. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.
Robbins, J.(2000). A Symphony in the Brain. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.
Steinberg, M., & Othmer, S. (2004). ADD: The 20-Hour Solution. Bandon, OR: Robert D. Reed Publishers.
Catherine Boyer, MA, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and neurofeedback trainer in private practice in New York City. You can contact her at 212-877-6923. Or visit her website, New York Neurofeedback.
…because I’m gradually moving in the direction of all neurofeedback. Here’s the link to New York Neurofeedback.
Therapy Lingo Article?
Neurofeedback and Hormonal Problems
My question: I am suffering with high estrogen. I am 53 and pre menopause. I have anxiety low mood nausea and sleep problems. I am using natural bio progesterone cream and take 10mg of citalopram. I started Neurofeedback 4 weeks ago. I believe it started to work. Better sleep, better mood. The Neurofeedback Dr said we would probably have to reduce or stop meds because could cause symptoms to come back. Started feeling nauseous, dry sinus, headache front and top of head and pressure. I also increased progesterone 2 days ago and sleep has got worse. Now my neuro feedback Dr says she thinks the hormones are leveling out because of the symptons I am experiencing. But likewise the citrolapram could cause the same Problems. I would like to know which I should reduce. It could be I need to reduce both. Some advice would help me As I see my GP soon and need to discuss it with him. I definitely think Neurofeedback is helping. But because it is working it is Fighting the toxic meds. Some advice please Thanks
It does sound to me, too, that the neurofeedback is helping. I've certainly seen it help with hormonal issues. I've also seen instances where as the body/brain gets better at regulating itself, medication dosages can become too high and produce side effects. I can't address your questions about your specific medications and dosages, though, as I'm not a medical doctor.
Sometimes my clients have found it helpful to have their doctor and I have a conversation, especially if the doctor is not familiar with neurofeedback. Perhaps your two healthcare professionals could speak if they haven't already to help you sort it out.
Neurofeedback and Medication
I am interested in trying Neurofeedback for my depression and ADHD, however what does a person do when they take a large number of meds for these conditions and then decide to try the feedback? Do you start to ween off of them after you feel results of the neurofeedback? Will you know if the feedback is working when you are still taking medications that control your issues?
I hate being on so many meds and would very much like to stop taking them...but before I try this I need to know how patients who take medication work this out.
My Psychiatrist is not supportive of me stopping any of my medications...at all. I don't think she would be helpful in weening me off, I would have to go to another doctor to help me with that because one other time I mentioned wanting to stop taking meds and she told me she would stop being my doctor if I did. I've not liked her very much since then but my choices are pretty slim around here.
Thank you for your help.
Many of my neurofeedback clients come wanting to reduce or eliminate medication use. In my experience, almost always they are able to make changes.
People often get a feeling that they can go down on a dosage or, for medications that are taken on an as needed basis, they find they are needing to take the medication less and less frequently. Sometimes they start to feel more medication side effects because their brain is healthier and needs less medication, and that is what tells them it's time. And it can happen quite seamlessly.
Of course, you are quite right that medication changes need to be under the supervision of an MD. I hope you are able to find someone you are more comfortable with.
If you decide to proceed with neurofeedback, you're welcome to contact me through New York Neurofeedback. If you give my your location I can see if I know anyone in your area.
I hope this is helpful.
Is Neurofeedback Safe with Cancer?
Is Neurofeedback safe for cancer patients?
Yes, speaking for NeurOptimal® neurofeedback for sure, and probably for all neurofeedback, it's completely safe. It has also been shown to be effective with reducing side effects of chemotherapy. You can email me through New York Neurofeedback if you would like a copy of the research.
Help for Daughter
My daughter has had some anxiety issues. After sending her to a clinic because she stopped eating, she is not doing much better except she is eating, but she gets very little sleep & I am wanting to do what I can for her. I would like to know if this therapy could help her?
I think it very well may. Neurofeedback can be helpful with reducing anxiety and improving sleep. It may also help her in other ways.
It's becoming increasingly common for eating disorder clinics and other types of rehabs to include neurofeedback as part of their programs.
Depression and Anxiety
Does neurofeedback work for clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder?
I have seen neurofeedback help greatly with both depression - mild to severe, single episode, recurrent and chronic - and with generalized anxiety disorder, as well as with other anxiety disorders.
Neurofeedback can be thought of as a tuneup for the brain. In my experience, depression and anxiety tend to fall away as the brain becomes more stable, flexible and resilient.
Serotonin and Other Questions
Does neurofeed back work by increasing serotonin? Do you use different sensors for hypo active vs. hypertimulated on spectrum? Can it change the oscillation of eye movement?
We don't know enough about the brain to answer your first question. My guess would be that serotonin production might improve for some people as their brains begin to function in a healthier manner, but how neurofeedback works is a much more complex process than simple increase of a neurotransmitter.
Your brain has around 14 quadrillion neural connections (a quadrillion is one plus 15 zeros) and is the most complex system on the Earth. It's also, like all systems in nature, a non-linear dynamic system, so somewhat predictable and somewhat random.
I don't do the type of neurofeedback you're referencing in your second question. If you would like to read the What is Neurofeedback page of New York Neurofeedback's website, that will help to explain the differences.
I've heard numerous reports of neurofeedback being helpful with a variety of vision disorders. I don't have personal experience working with any eye conditions, though.
Not the precise answers you were looking for, perhaps, but I hope this is still helpful.
Concerns about Feeling Worse
I've had 5 sessions of EEG Biofeedback for OCD and PTSD and have had a few recent episodes of increased anxiety, having just woken from a night sweat. I've booked a course of intensive treatments (11 sessions over 7 days). I'm a little scared that my symptoms may be getting worse. Having once tried to solve my 30 year issues by going into my brain on my own, without a therapist, I got into a terrible state and I don't want to end up worse rather than better. Can this happen?
Also is it normal to have a night sweat and increased anxiety after 5 sessions? (My therapist has noted that the brain looks like it's decreased in anxiety, which is puzzling.) Also is it advisable to have an intensive course when I am getting side effects already or would I be best having more spaced out sessions?
There are many types of neurofeedback. Some are more prone to side effects than others but can still get good results. You can read about this on the What is Neurofeedback page of the New York Neurofeedback website.
It's also my experience that it can be a bumpier ride for some than others. Sometimes the brain seems to stir things up while working through them.
Every brain is so unique that there are no one size fits all answers to your specific questions. If you haven't already done so, discuss your concerns with your trainer and see how you feel about how he or she addresses them.
I do think neurofeedback is a good choice for both OCD and PTSD.
Children with ADHD
What experience or results do you have working with children with ADHD? My son is 11 and a therapist suggested this type of therapy to me.
Any thoughts or information you have on this subject would be greatly appreciated.
I don't personally work with children, but I have had adult clients with ADHD experience improvements in being able to focus and organize themselves. I also have colleagues who speak highly of their work with children with ADD and ADHD. Here are two of their websites:
The InnerAct link opens to a page with a video showing how neurofeedback changed the life of a boy with ADD.
Good luck with your son!
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