Exercise your brain and improve performance with Neurofeedback
I remember a time recently when I was startled. It was late in the night after a busy day, and I had just finished all my daily tasks. I had crawled into my cozy bed and the last sound I heard was the click of my light from my bedside stand. Suddenly, there was a loud sudden crash! It sounded as though all the shelves in my kitchen had collapsed and my plates had shattered upon the floor. My heart was pounding and it felt as if, for a moment, someone had taken my breath away. It was hard not to pay attention to the major shift in my arousal state. One moment, I was preparing to drift off to sleep, and in the next moment, I was suddenly wide awake.
During such an event, changes in arousal states are involuntary and happen automatically. The brain, as well as the body, responds instantly. It may take several minutes of deep breathing and some positive self-talk to make a shift in the opposite direction of the brain’s over-aroused state. In a stable healthy brain, the practice of calming oneself with these strategies may be enough for the brain to regulate itself so the body can return to its intended restful state. However, such an event can produce fear and be highly stressful, making self-regulation of the brain more difficult. For someone who worries frequently or has difficulty falling asleep on a regular basis because he or she can’t seem to ‘quiet down’ enough for sleep to occur, it may be difficult to calm or regulate oneself back from an aroused state to return to sleep.
Brains that have difficulty with emotional regulation may experience difficulty with tasks that require flexibility in arousal states. Consider a simple task such as hammering a nail into a wall. If an individual’s arousal level is too low, efficiency may be compromised. He may miss the nail with his swing, take more hits to pound in the nail, or even hit his own finger. For a more moderate task such as listening to a lecture, a moderate level of arousal, focus, and sustained attention is required. For someone who is unable to achieve this moderate level, he or she may begin daydreaming or may become fidgety and impatient. Finally, a complex task such as playing chess requires lower arousal and sustained attention. If arousal is too high, the individual is likely to make careless errors or become restless or bored.
There are a variety of experiences or conditions that may make regulation of the brain and one’s arousal state more difficult. For instance, one who has experienced abuse or trauma may struggle to lower arousal states while someone who is depressed may struggle to increase his arousal state. These can be generalized to represent individuals who may be overaroused or underaroused. However, there are also conditions that suggest instability of the brain, such as those who experience migraines.
There are ways to improve the brain’s ability to regulate itself. Neurofeedback is a training technique that enables a person to gain some element of voluntary control over autonomic body functions. For instance, one’s heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure are examples of different measures of autonomic arousal. Electrical brain activity, which is measured by an electroencephalogram (EEG) is also a measure of autonomic arousal. Neurofeedback works to reward brain activity in certain areas and at certain frequencies or arousal levels to change brain activity in a way that produces positive effects on the brain’s ability to regulate itself.
Neurofeedback consists of the placement of sensors on the head to read brain activity. This information is transferred to two computers, one for the therapist and one on a game screen for the client. If the brain activity achieves the criteria selected, then the client’s game produces the desired effects as well as a beep. These beeps and game movements provide reinforcement to the brain to continue producing the desired brain activity. There are particular frequencies that are associated with certain brains states. For instance, delta brain waves are between .5-3 hertz a second. These waves are likely to appear low in the brain’s activity while one is awake or the individual could risk interference with emotional or cognitive processing. Theta waves are between 4-7 hertz and often occur during a daydreaming or inattentive state. Alpha waves between 8-11 hertz often represent a relaxed or neutral state. Waves that are 12-15 hertz are called Sensory Motor Rhythms (SMR) and are associated with one who is focused, calm and alert. Beta waves are between 15-18 hertz and occur when one is very activated, very alert, and possibly higher task oriented. Finally, high-beta waves are 22-36 hertz and represent tension, anxiety, fear or excitement. With this range of wave frequencies it is important that the brain be flexible enough to produce brain activity that achieves the appropriate state for the appropriate situation.
Neurofeedback is often described as exercise for the brain and can improve performance in the same way as someone who uses weight training to improve his athletic abilities. Brain training can increase one’s ability to control behavior and emotions as well as one’s resiliency to stress. It can improve attention and aid in calming as well as focus. Improving one’s functioning in these areas can make significant improvements in the life of one who is struggling with depression, anxiety, anger, chronic pain, headaches, maintaining attention, etc. In fact, many individuals are now utilizing neurofeedback to aid in peak performance. The benefits of neurofeedback are much more numerous than those suggested in this article. Just as we can all benefit from exercise, the use of neurofeedback works to improve overall functioning and can be applied to anyone interested in improving brain functioning.exercise your brain, neurofeedback
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner
- Jody Johnson, LICSW, LIMHP, began working at Wholeness Healing Center as a therapist in 2007. Jody graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha with her Masters in Social Work. She received her bachelor degree in Social Work from the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
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