neurofeedback and addiction: a path to balance

For thousands of years, the way that our human brain worked was a mystery. With the help of computer technology, mental health professionals have uncovered helpful insight by studying the brain.

We are now able to take a glimpse into the intricate mechanics of our minds with the use of a wearable device and a computer program. This accessed insight into the inner workings of our mind can be extremely valuable in learning to change the behaviors and patterns associated with addiction.

The concept of neurofeedback

Most of us have had experience with training a dog. While we aren’t able to see the mechanics of the dog’s thinking patterns, we are able to observe that the dog’s behavior changes with persistent prompting from the human trainer. With the help of some form of a treat as a reward, the dog will go from looking confused at command, to readily complying. Over time, the treat can be removed, and the pup will still respond to the cue. The dog’s brain has been rewired to understand a prompt, and to act on it.

While it is generally understood that a human brain is more complex than that of a dog, our basic learning structure is the same. During the process of learning, the cells within our brain are busy making new connections. These learning cells are called neurons. Neurons use chemicals to communicate with one another, and this communication forms the bonds between them. Once these new bonds are established and strengthened, we have secured a new bit of information or learned a new habit.

This neural learning happens whether we are conscious of it, or not. The idea of purposefully seeking to form new neural connections began to take shape during the 1980s. The focus of parallel distributed processing as a model for human cognition was presented as an explanation for how humans create, store, and process information. Information that is rehearsed repeatedly will form neural pathways that are similar to how a consistent flow of water will eventually result in forming a creek, or even a river.

During a neurofeedback session, the participant will get a first-hand glimpse into how these chemicals in the brain are flowing through the neurons. Having insight into the way that our brains have learned to respond to situations is a first step in taking charge of changing our habits. Just like how a dam can be erected to change the flow or direction of water, a person can find ways to divert the old pathways of neural connections into creating new, more healthy, channels.

Brain patterns and addiction

While addiction has traditionally been considered a mental health disorder, it is increasingly recognized as being a physical health disorder. Not only is a person biologically addicted to the effect that the substance has on the body, but the physical neurons in the brain of an addicted person are also involved. The organization of the neurons in the brain of an addicted person has been programmed to facilitate the addiction.

While the specific neural pathways will vary by individual, common patterns include behavioral instructions that work much like a computer software program. When an addicted person experiences negative emotions – such as stress, depression, anxiety, or anger – the program that has been installed within the brain responds with the directive to alleviate the discomfort through using a substance. The goal of neurofeedback will be to discover that existing programming and replace it with a more desirable set of instructions for the brain to follow when these negative experiences are encountered.

Just as addictive patterns are not formed in a day, teaching the brain to respond to situations differently will also take some time. Together with a specially trained therapist, you will be encouraged to discuss the issues impacting your life while simultaneously being connected to a biofeedback device. This device will register and record the activity that is going on in your brain while you are discussing the factors which have contributed to your substance addiction.

With the map of your brain responses in place, you and your therapist can begin the task of working toward the formation of new brain responses. The outcome of successful treatment will be that you will no longer feel as though turning to substance use is an instinctual, habitual, response to situations. You will have gained mastery over the impulses which controlled you while you were in your addiction.

Finding balance through neurofeedback

Neurofeedback therapy clients have experienced relief from many forms of mental health disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, attention deficit, and psychosis. The rate of success in using neurofeedback therapy for those who are recovering from addiction is similarly promising. Proponents of integrating neurofeedback techniques with other, more traditional, forms of therapy in treating substance use disorder cite the lasting effects that come from changing our perspectives, responses, and daily habits.

Unlike with medications – which have to be maintained as long as their effects are desired – making changes to our patterns of thinking means that we have the ability to sustain, build upon, and increase our overall mental wellness on our own. And, unlike with inpatient treatments, the skills developed do not depend on a specific location or ongoing financial concerns. The techniques which are learned during the course of engaging in neurofeedback sessions are able to be applied across a broad range of circumstances and can transfer into all aspects of life.

While the initial neurofeedback sessions are under the care of a professional and utilizing some rather expensive equipment, the skills that are developed can readily be utilized outside of sessions. Once we have become mindful of how our brains process and respond to information, we gain awareness of how to monitor and mitigate the type of information that gets programmed into it. We can learn to foster the positive thoughts that lead to improved coping and learn to mitigate the impact that negative thoughts have on our emotions and behaviors. Learning to self-regulate our brains provides us with freedom and empowerment that yields immeasurable benefits.

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