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How Neurofeedback Can Help With Depression

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If you were to confess to your doctor that you were depressed, how do you think they’d respond? They might write you a prescription for an SSRI. They might also refer you to a therapist who specializes in treating major depression. These are often the two solutions Western doctors start with, and although they can both prove incredibly effective, there is also a third option, and it’s one that not many people know about — neurofeedback.

What is neurofeedback, you ask? Well, first I’ll start by telling you what it isn’t. Neurofeedback isn’t invasive. It isn’t uncomfortable. It isn’t outrageously expensive. And it isn’t a short-term solution like pharmaceuticals, rather it’s a long-term solution. It’s also FDA-approved, and in some cases, even covered by medical insurance.

To put it simply, neurofeedback is an alternative therapy that teaches the brain self-control by measuring brain waves and providing a feedback signal. The goal of the treatment is to encourage the brain to develop healthier patterns, which can lead to improved sleep, reduced depression and anxiety, and enhanced cognitive abilities. Studies have even shown that neurofeedback lessens the symptoms of ADHD, PTSD, addiction, phobias, chronic pain, and seizure conditions.

Though neurofeedback began in the late 1950s, it didn’t enter mainstream culture until the last decade, and thanks to technological advancements, it’s slowly starting to be more accessible to the public. Now that I’ve successfully completed 30 sessions myself, I decided it was time to share an honest review.

Let me walk you through the process. First, the patient will complete a quantitative electroencephalography (QEEG) brain map, which essentially creates a visual representation of their brain’s neural pathways. The report will shine a light on all of their abnormal brain activity so that a certified clinician can create a customized treatment plan that will help correct those dysfunctional patterns. In your first training session, the clinician places electrodes on specified sites on their head, and the patient’s only job is to passively watch a Netflix show of their choosing. This can also be done with YouTube videos, and just depends on personal preference.

As they watch, the image on the screen may fade in and out or even disappear altogether. The sound will also fade in and out. What’s happening is when their brain obeys whatever the protocol is telling it to do, such as be less anxious and more calm (low beta waves), it is rewarded with a stimulus (Netflix). But when their brain defies the protocol and becomes more anxious (high beta waves), the stimulus shuts itself off.

What’s happening by way of operant conditioning, is their brain is unlearning negative thought patterns through repetition. After enough sessions, the brain starts to adopt these new healthier patterns on its own, without needing the training. As in, they can begin to regulate their emotions independently, regardless of how impossible it was for them to do before.

I started heavily researching neurofeedback after reading about it in the book, “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk. It was around this time that I was diagnosed with complex PTSD, which is a more complicated form of PTSD that results from ongoing trauma throughout childhood. I was struggling with all the typical symptoms one might expect with such a diagnosis — hypervigilance, detachment, irritability, night terrors, intrusive thoughts, suicidality, difficulty managing my emotions, relationship struggles, cognitive issues, and insomnia. I knew that if I ever wanted to maintain a healthy relationship or feel sincere joy, I needed to make a serious change. I was willing to do whatever it took just to feel normal again.

I’ll be honest, I was dubious about this odd contraption and all that it entailed. I started catastrophizing in my mind — what if I go brain-dead? What if this is some sort of mind-control experiment? What if my personality shifts so dramatically, that my own family doesn’t recognize me? What if I lose my ability to perform basic functions like walking, talking, seeing, hearing, shitting, or eating? What if I become stuck in an interminable migraine that eventually makes me off myself because I’m unable to cope with the pain? What if?

It turns out my fears were not only irrational but highly unlikely. Given that the sensors don’t emit any signals that manipulate your brain, rather they exclusively capture the electrical signals already being generated, there aren’t opportunities for anything to go drastically wrong.

The ultimate goal of neurofeedback is to restore equilibrium. If you live with conditions like PTSD, depression, or anxiety, your brain activity may be unbalanced, and there are more negative thought patterns than positive. Luckily, courtesy of neuroplasticity, our brains have the ability to create new neural pathways. This is why it’s helpful to think of neurofeedback as muscle-building for the brain. You’re showing your brain through “exercise” how to create more harmonious and productive brain activity so that you can achieve equilibrium.

Newborns come into the world without knowing fear, anger, or despair. Then, life happened. Traumatic stress, for example, is associated with lasting changes to our amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and hippocampus, and this is what contributes to symptoms such as irritability, hypervigilance, detachment, depression, and so on. This is not our natural state. Not to mention, living in a perpetual state of stress is extremely detrimental to our physical and mental health. Neurofeedback works to return us to how we were before those traumatic experiences. It allowed me to reverse damaging thought patterns, regain control of my thoughts, and self-regulate. It essentially lets us return to the driver’s seat when our emotions might have previously been leading the way.

So what was my experience like, and what were my results? Well, neurofeedback is not a magic bullet, but my goodness, was it effective. At least, for me it was. My protocol focused heavily on my overactivated stress response. Rage blackouts had become frequent in my late 20s and early 30s, and I felt like I had little control over what prompted them. It could have been anything minor, like misplacing my phone for thirty minutes or getting cut off in traffic by a Subaru when I was already late for my appointment.

Neurofeedback didn’t eliminate my anger entirely, as small doses of anger are healthy and necessary. What it did do was offer me self-control. Now when I feel intense anger, I pay close attention to my nervous system and ask myself why I’m being triggered. Does my missing cell phone represent a fear of not being able to call for help? Or does it make me feel disconnected from loved ones? Does my distress about the prospect of being late represent my perfectionism and my inability to forgive myself for minor mistakes, such as leaving the house a few minutes too late? I don’t know. But the fact that I am now able to hit the pause button and ask myself these questions is a major stride in the right direction. Because by the time I’m done trying to better understand my own emotions — my thrashing heart, my shortness of breath, and my knotty stomach — I have cooled off somewhat. Enough to not rage, anyway.

I can’t express to you how much that in itself is worth — that realization that I rule my emotions rather than the other way around. That I no longer worry that I might inadvertently destroy every last thing I love because of an untamed beast within me. If that’s not freedom, I don’t know what is. For me, the only side effects I endured throughout treatment were the occasional slight headaches (particularly if I neglected hydration), and fatigue. Your brain is running a marathon for you, and as a result, it gets tired and thirsty. In fact, I nodded off during a lot of my sessions, which you’re actually not supposed to do since brains can’t train when they’re asleep. Another side effect is that I don’t drink as much alcohol and I spend much more time engaging in productive and meaningful work. The latter must have something to do with my new enhanced concentration.

In the last 15 years, I have not gone more than a week or so without drinking. After making it halfway through my training sessions, I made it six weeks sober without much effort. I’ve read stories of people experiencing addiction without any hope of recovery trying neurofeedback and never using again. I’ve heard of kids with ADHD who were flunking out of school and then became honor students. And I’ve learned of suicide attempt survivors who no longer felt the need to self-harm or even think about suicide. Not everyone will be as receptive as me and some of these examples, but it is still worth considering if you could be right for you.

I predict that soon people are going to become hyperaware of all the long-lasting benefits of neurofeedback, so long as pharmaceutical companies don’t interfere. This story, which I wrote simply as a way to pay it forward after receiving my own powerful results, is my way of spreading awareness for this modern form of therapy that could very well change your life, too. The best part is that you don’t need to attend weekly sessions for the rest of your life. Your treatment plan may only require a few dozen sessions, and then you’re done.

That being said, if new trauma finds its way into your life after you complete your treatment plan, you may feel the need to get the occasional “tune-up.” Other than that, the results should be fairly permanent.

The last point I want to make is that your results, whether those be the results of neurofeedback or another form of therapy, will be most effective when you also practice self-care. This means you should be maintaining a healthy diet, getting plenty of rest, carving out time to relax, and exercising a few times a week. Remembering to practice self-care will restore balance in your life and improve your overall health and wellness.

Not everyone’s path to wellness will look exactly the same, but it usually does require commitment. Don’t be afraid to do your research and educate yourself about new therapies as you become aware of them. Knowledge is power and, at the very least, it will help you to feel secure in whatever you decide.

Originally published: March 22, 2024
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