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Neurofeedback

Neurofeedback and biofeedback are both alternative therapies used to treat a wide range of mental health problems. While one is often confused with the other, they’re two very different ways of using vital body functions to relieve stress, anxiety, depression and other mental conditions.

During biofeedback, your heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and other body functions are recorded and displayed on a monitor, and when they signal that your body is responding to stress, you use relaxation techniques you’ve learned to reduce them.

Neurofeedback is a very specialized type of biofeedback. During neurofeedback, your brain wave patterns are fed into software that assesses them and periodically sends the brain a signal to reset itself. The goal is to retrain abnormal brain wave patterns and change your psychological state. During neurofeedback, the software does most of the work while you either relax or interact with the environment to elicit various brain wave patterns.

Brainwaves and Neurofeedback

Brain wave patterns change throughout the day and night, depending on what you’re doing.

  • Gamma waves are the fastest brain waves and are associated with memory processing, learning and forming ideas and language.
  • Beta waves are the next fastest waves, which indicate a wide-awake state that’s typical during normal waking hours.
  • Alpha waves are slower and indicate a state in which you’re awake but relaxed; you don’t process much information in the alpha state, which occurs just before you fall asleep and just after you wake up.
  • Theta waves occur during light sleep or extreme relaxation, such as when you’re in a hypnotic state.
  • Delta waves are the slowest and occur during deep, dreamless sleep.

If the brain waves aren’t functioning as they should, a number of psychological problems may develop. For example, a lack of sufficient beta activity or increased alpha activity can point to disorders like ADHD and depression, and retraining the brain during neurofeedback to operate in the beta state when appropriate can improve attentiveness, concentration, energy levels and emotional stability.

Likewise, an overabundance of alpha waves can lead to anxiety. If your brain continues to produce alpha waves when it should be in the beta state, neurofeedback can correct this to treat anxiety disorders.

Neurofeedback for Mental Illness Research

A recent review of the existing literature on neurofeedback prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics to acknowledge this therapy as an effective treatment for children and adolescents with ADHD. Neurofeedback has also been used to treat a number of mental health problems, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Addiction
  • Interestingly, the article's authors note that neurofeedback has been found to benefit many of the conditions that also improve with regular meditation. The core principles of altering focus and cognitive control are basically the same with both meditation and neurofeedback. The only real difference, according to researchers, is that one is self-regulated, and the other is aided by a machine. But they're quick to point out that this doesn't mean that neurofeedback can lead to enlightenment.

    A literature review published in the journal Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America points to neurofeedback as a promising method of treating post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder as well as anxiety disorders and depression. The authors note that neurofeedback is associated with minimal side effects and isn't as invasive as other ways of addressing these and other disorders.

    Neurofeedback works to retrain brain wave patterns, and psychotherapy works to retrain your patterns of thought and behavior. Together, psychotherapy and neurofeedback offer a promising outcome for a range of mental disorders.