Neurofeedback: Why it May Be the Best Starting Point for Your Teen or Young Adult
Don't get me wrong. I've been a talk therapist since 2003. Talk therapy has helped and continues to help many people who may be struggling. Talk therapy can help with depression, anxiety, social anxiety, panic attacks, ADHD, trauma, PTSD, and other physical conditions which are expressed through emotional symptoms.
The main point I would like for you to focus on in the previous paragraph is how these emotional challenges are physical conditions which are expressed through emotional symptoms.
Any emotional challenge that may bring you into teen therapy or young adult counseling stems from one place -- your brain. Through genetics, environmental pressures, or a combination of both, your brain may respond through emotional symptoms.
So, to effectively treat this physical condition to help the expression of the symptoms to go away, we have to treat the brain. Talk therapy does so and is considered a "bottom up" approach in getting there. Neurofeedback also treats the brain, and it is considered a "top down" approach.
Talk Therapy as a Bottom-Up Approach in Teen Therapy, Young Adult Counseling, & Family Therapy
Talk therapy is considered a "bottom up" approach as it takes some time, effort, and collaboration between the therapist and the teen, young adult, and/or family to:
Gain a clear clinical understanding of what the emotional challenge is,
Gain a clear clinical understanding of how the emotional challenge developed,
Gain a clear clinical understanding of those things that may be reinforcing the emotional struggles, and
Once the teen, young adult, or family therapist has a clear clinical understanding of the above, they can then recommend an appropriate talk therapy approach to help you overcome or learn to manage the struggle.
It is essential that the talk therapist gain a clear, clinical understanding of what the problem is, how it developed, how it is being reinforced so that they can best treat the problem.
You don't want a talk therapist who jumps right in and starts to treat the problem before they have a good understanding of what the challenges are. How do they know what and how to treat it if they don't know all that the problem entails?
Some newer talk therapists fall into this trap as they feel the pressure to help right away. But it's difficult to help if there is not the understanding of what you are helping with.
In talk therapy, we start at the "bottom" developing a clear clinical understanding of the problem. Then we find ourselves at the "top" utilizing the appropriate talk therapy approach that can then help to train the brain through changing our thoughts, behaviors, and lifestyle.
And talk therapy can be and is very effective for many people. Talk therapy is a great option.
Neurofeedback as a Top Down Approach in Helping Teens & Young Adults
While talk therapy begins at the "bottom" and works its way up to the top, neurofeedback starts from the top. Neurofeedback is able to identify the root cause of the problem from the beginning with the use of brain mapping.
Remember, emotional symptoms stem from a physical organ in your body -- your brain. Your symptoms are emotional expressions of a physical problem. Neurofeedback trains the brain at the source of the problem.
Neurofeedback for our practice, and many others, has been about 95% effective in achieving moderate to significant gains in symptom reduction. I believe this is the case due to it being a "top-down" approach. From the start, we identify regions of the brain that are the source(s) of the challenge.
Because of these factors, we can develop a training protocol specific to the needs of your unique brain performance. And once this training protocol is developed, we start training your brain to perform with peak efficiency to help reduce or eliminate your symptoms.
Neurofeedback is considered a "top down" approach because the neurofeedback therapist can see from the brain map the performance of the brain. Training the brain and helping with symptom reduction can start from the beginning as a result.
So, What is Neurofeedback, How Does it Work, & What Does it Look Like?
Neurofeedback is not talk therapy. It is brain training. While we discuss the symptoms you are coming into neurotherapy to address, the remainder of the sessions revolve around brain training.
Some teens and young adults choose to do both neurofeedback and talk therapy together. This would be the ideal approach in treating your physical condition expressed through emotional symptoms.
1st Session: Symptom Identification
A typical course of neurofeedback therapy starts with the initial session. In this session, the neurofeedback therapist will explore the main symptoms you are experiencing and how they impact your life.
Once you review and identify the symptoms you would like to overcome, the neurofeedback therapist will review what neurofeedback is, how it works, the instrumentation, and a typical course of neurofeedback therapy.
2nd Session: Brain Maps
A second session is scheduled where the neurofeedback therapist will record a baseline reading of the electrical signals from your brain (your brain's performance). This is done by the client wearing a cap that looks much like a swimmer's cap. Except this cap has 19 sensors embedded in the cap that records the electrical activity of your brain.
Once this is done, a brain map is completed. The brain map will show which regions of your brain are over or under performing. The brain map is created in both 2D and 3D maps.
Below are examples of both 2D and 3D brain maps using neuroguide software:
3rd Session: Review of Brain Maps & Treatment Protocol
Now that the neurofeedback therapist has the brain maps and can identify what regions of the brain need to be trained, the neurofeedback therapist can select a training protocol designed specifically for your brain.
In the third session, the neurofeedback therapist will review the brain maps with you and explain them. They will be able to answer any questions you may have.
Then, the neurofeedback therapist will discuss the options for treatment protocols that are designed specifically to meet your brain's needs. Once a training protocol is selected, training begins.
4th Session & On: Neurofeedback Brain Training
Starting at the 4th, and sometimes even the 3rd sessions of neurofeedback, brain training begins. The cap is placed on the client's head and brain waves monitored.
Neurofeedback is a non-invasive, safe, and comfortable approach to reducing or eliminating symptoms. Neurotherapy uses a form of visual and auditory reinforcement for the brain. This is done by watching a show on T.V. or playing a video game.
With the cap on and monitoring your brain's communication in real time, when your brain performs in a manner that would reduce or eliminate your specific symptom, you get to see and hear what is on the T.V.
When your brain performs in a manner that would elicit the symptoms we are working on overcoming, the screen and sound will fade away.
Or, if you are playing the video game, the same principle applies. When your brain is performing in a manner that would train the brain to reduce or eliminate the symptom, you can control the avatar on the screen.
When your brain performs in a manner that would continue the symptoms we are working to overcome, you are not able to control the avatar on the screen.
Through this process, your brain starts to pick up on the patterns. As the brain starts to learn and adjust to the patterns, the performance of the brain improves, and symptoms are reduced or eliminated.
Below is a screen shot of what the video game training looks like. This is a game called Zukor Air:
The goal is to fly the avatar, in this case, a dragon, through the rings. When your avatar flies through the rings, you earn points and receive an auditory reinforcement. You also receive visual reinforcement when you control the avatar.
What Can Neurofeedback Help With?
Neurofeedback can help with any challenge that talk therapy can treat. For example, neurofeedback has been effective in helping teens and young adults with:
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD),
Anger, and more.
What is different from neurofeedback than talk therapy is that in neurofeedback, we are training the brain. Neurofeedback can help with all of the above plus:
Peak Performance for Athletes,
Peak Performance for Executives, and more
Why I Would Encourage Starting With Neurofeedback Over Talk Therapy
According to the American Psychiatric Association, talk therapy helps 75 % of people who enter talk therapy. These are good numbers. These numbers are likely higher if you see a talk therapist who specializes in the area you are looking for help in.
Our experience with neurofeedback is about 95% of people who complete neurotherapy have found moderate to significant improvements.
And here are some to the reasons why I think this is the case.
In talk therapy, there are variables that a teen counselor or young adult therapist does not have control over. They may be able to influence these variables but invariably, it is the client who controls:
Follow through between sessions with therapy homework, and more.
These variables can directly impact the success rate of talk therapy. This is in part why talk therapy has a lower success rate than neurofeedback (while 75% success rate for talk therapy is still good).
However, these variables are not an issue for neurofeedback.
With neurofeedback, all that is required is for the client to:
Show up each session,
Sit in a chair designed for comfort,
Remain relatively still during training,
Remain as relaxed as possible,
Limit caffeine use the day of training,
Get good sleep, and
Watch a show or play a neurofeedback video game.
As long as the teen or young adult can do the above, the chances of successfully helping them reduce or eliminate the symptoms that are causing problems in their lives is higher than talk therapy.
Another major advantage that neurofeedback has over talk therapy is neurofeedback can help with the same challenges that talk therapy can except, neurofeedback can do it without the need for medication.
Why Many People Choose to Start with Talk Therapy Rather Than Neurofeedback
First, talk therapy is more widely known that neurofeedback. While neurofeedback has been around for a long time, it is only recently that it has become more well known. This in part is due to the advancements in technology.
When considering talk therapy or neurofeedback, there are some things to take into account.
Neurofeedback therapy is more time intensive and therefor more cost intensive up front. For neurofeedback, it is necessary for the teen or young adult to have two sessions weekly at minimum. Because we are training the brain, this is the minimum number of sessions the brain needs to retain and build on each training session.
The average number of sessions for neurofeedback is 40. This turns out to be around 5 months of neurofeedback therapy.
For neurofeedback, the success rate is about 95% and the results are long term without the use of medication.
While there are some clients who attend talk therapy twice a week, most attend talk therapy once a week. The average number of months we are seeing for talk therapy is around 5-6 months.
Talk therapy also requires that the teen or young adult continue to use the coping skills and tools they learned in therapy after they end therapy. When teens and young adults continue to use the skills and tools learned in therapy, it is not often that they need to come back to talk therapy.
However, it is not uncommon for teens, young adults, and even us adults, that after therapy ends and we start feeling better, our motivation to continue to use these skills and tools may drop. Once this occurs, the teen, young adult, or adult may find themselves returning to talk therapy.
There are times where medication is a part of our maintenance plan as a part of or after talk therapy has ended.
Cost Over the Course of a Lifetime of Talk Therapy to That of Neurofeedback
However, there may be benefits of starting with neurofeedback over talk therapy.
While neurofeedback may be more time and cost intensive up front, over the course of a lifetime, you may end up saving more money in the long run.
With neurofeedback's effectiveness and long-term results, it is rare for people to return to neurofeedback for the same challenge. And the results of neurofeedback do not require medication to maintain the changes after neurofeedback.