Neurofeedback—a tool for recovery

I posted this the first month of my blog. It’s another one of my reposts for all my new readers. It’s been slightly edited to reflect my current situation:

Updated and lightly edited 1/2009

So…you may ask…what is neurofeedback? That is a good question and I will try to give a reasonable answer. You can look at eeginfo for a very simplified explanation. My doctor, who was my first cheerleader who believed I could bet off meds, worked with these people a decade or more ago and has since developed his own protocol specifically for people with bipolar disorder.

Neurofeedback is direct training of brain function, by which the brain learns to function more efficiently. We observe the brain in action from moment to moment. We show that information back to the person and we reward the brain for changing its own activity to more appropriate patterns. This is a gradual learning process. It applies to any aspect of brain function that we can measure. Neurofeedback is also called EEG biofeedback, because it is based on electrical brain activity, the electroencephalogram, or EEG. Neurofeedback is training in self-regulation. It is simply biofeed-back applied to the brain directly. Self-regulation is a necessary part of good brain function. Self-regulation training allows the system (the central nervous system) to function better.

Neurofeedback addresses problems of brain disregulation. These happen to be numerous. They include the anxiety-depression spectrum, attention deficits, behavior disorders,various sleep disorders, headaches, migraines, PMS, and emotional disturbances. It is also useful for organic brain conditions such as seizures, the autism spectrum, and cerebral palsy.

There is much controversy on the efficacy of neurofeedback, for good reason, as it is a mostly uncontrolled discipline and there are virtually no licensing requirements. Anyone can get a computer set up and look good. Bottom line, many practitioners have not been properly trained to work with complex issues, including and especially people with symptoms that often get labeled bipolar disorder.

I got lucky. I live in one of the two cities in the country with the highest density of practitioners and that is because my doctor lives here and he trains people all over the country. He cautions me not to flippantly advise people to see just anyone. Worst case scenario, people can be made worse.

Now I’ll just share with you what my doctor has shared with me, accepting that he does indeed know what he is doing. I will describe what I understand in the limited way that I understand it. When I came to him my EEG (electroencephalogram–a graphic record of the electrical activity of the brain as recorded by an electroencephalograph) was all over the place. My brain waves were “spiking” wildly. My slow brain waves were too slow and my fast brain waves were too fast. The “slow” waves are rough indicators of depression and the “fast” waves are rough indicators of mania in his explanations. Frankly though, while I did indeed have abnormal brain waves I had had no manic activity for many years. Frankly at this point I think the drugs made my brain so chaotic. The “spikey” stuff was additional brain waves that he is able to see signifying great instability. He was able to gather this information about my unstable brain waves by following specific protocols for the his studies of what he considers a bipolar brain. Someone doing this needs to know exactly where to place the electrodes on your head.

In any case, within a few weeks the depression I had presented with was gone. This was the first time I was free of depression in my life (factor out periods of mania—that had always been induced by drugs and one two year period in which I was felt happy–interestingly enough these two years were when I was a “non-compliant patient” refusing to take drugs after a mania that had been precipitated by a hallucinogen).

After neurofeedback and after withdrawing successfully from long-term antidepressant use, I remained depression free for two years while slowly cutting down my other meds. No mania arose either. My brain waves slowly balanced over time until my doctor told me an ordinary neurologist, looking at my EEG, wouldn’t even know I had ever been labeled bipolar or taken so many drugs, which I think is the real reason my brain waves were wonky. My doctor, being specifically trained to look at the subtleties of my particular brain could still tell otherwise.

I got to a point where I was having difficulty in cutting down meds and I still had various uncomfortable symptoms of irritability and anxiety. I decided to stop neurofeedback. I wasn’t convinced it was doing anything for me anymore. (The glitch with symptoms of bipolar however is, if you accept common practice in neurofeedback, that it is not cured by neurofeedback, unlike ADHD. One must train the brain every four to six weeks forever after recovery–something I may take issue with in the future—my doctor has since changed his mind since he’s seen me do so many other things towards my recovery.) — I completely believe full recovery is possible now by approaching mental distress by as many directions as needed for a given individual.

I went on to pursue other means to try to continue withdrawing from meds. (I unsuccessfully tried integrative doctors) My depression returned with a vengeance in about six months. It took me a while to figure out what had happened, but I did get back to neurofeedback and was once again relieved of my despondency.

Over 3 years ago I made a radical 180 degree turn around in how I viewed psychiatry, the pharmaceutical industry and mental illness. I became fiercely committed to coming off all my drugs. I read all I could about the survivor and ex-user movement. I read Peter Breggins, “Your Drug May Be Your Problem, Revised Edition: How and Why to Stop Taking Psychiatric Medications ”  The drugs were making me sick! Since that time I have added a restricted diet and supplements to my regime. I have once again been able to successfully withdraw, bit by bit, from the drugs.

At this writing I’m only on one drug of the 6 I started out with when I began neurofeedback.

Since aggressively tackling withdrawal I do have depression again, but this is in large part a withdrawal side-effect and not my underlying condition. I am comfortable accepting this as fact. My doctor confirms it as his opinion, as well. Through the internet, I have now been in contact with hundreds of people who have either successfully withdrawn from meds or are in the process of doing so. There are so many different paths that can help one recover and neurofeedback certainly got me started on successfully withdrawing from meds.

You might notice I used the term discomfort for my sufferings. This choice of word could only be used with the radical attitude shift I’ve made. I no longer reach for a drug when I feel bad. I accept that life brings difficulties and pain and suffering. No more PRN’s and an ever decreasing pharmacy. Does life still suck sometimes? Yeah, it does. But I also feel more empowered and in control of my life then I have in 15 years.

I don’t know what lies on the other side of meds, but I’m going to do my damndest to find out.

I don’t currently use neurofeedback, because while it gave me a very strong start at healing my brain, the drug withdrawal has now hurt my brain to the point that I can’t utilize neurofeedback right now because my brain is so fuzzy and I can’t concentrate. I do hope to start it up again when my mind is once again more clear.

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2 thoughts on “Neurofeedback—a tool for recovery

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  1. Very interesting. My cousin underwent neurofeedback therapy when she was dying from a brain tumor, and it helped her to tolerate her symptoms long enough to gain her two more precious years with her young children. That alone would have convinced me of its value. Thanks for the additional perspective.

  2. It was good to hear a personal account. Off and on, I’ve read about this for my daughter with autism. I can’t figure out if it’s for more high-functioning, Asperger’s, or not. So I will check out the website you gave. Thanks!

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