Soldiers returning from serving in Afghanistan may benefit from a technique to alleviate the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. Elisabeth Winkler investigates
“I served two tours as a Squad Leader and combat infantryman in Afghanistan and was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder upon returning home. After two years of intensive group and individual stress counselling, I was still experiencing many symptoms of the disorder; mainly lack of sleep, stress, irritability and a high level of anxiety. After training with neurofeedback I am now sleeping better than I ever have, and I am happy to say that my irritability/anger and stress has decreased significantly. The anxiety I previously experienced is now in my control, meaning that I understand my own frustrations and can take effective measures to resolve issues, minimizing stress and anxiety. The best part of this technology is that I never had to mention a thing about my combat experiences as neurofeedback is not a not a “talk therapy” solution.”
This quote from a US army veteran illustrates the many benefits of this form of neurofeedback. Efficient, non-invasive, with no need to talk about or revisit past events, results from neurofeedback are achieved quickly - and measurably.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, one in 10 people have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The British charity Mind sets the incidence more conservatively at about 1.5–3.5 per cent of the general population at some point.
With roots in the shell-shocked survivors of the first world war’s front line, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was first identified in American veterans of the Vietnam war. Now it is used to describe a spectrum of mild to severe chronic reactions to any event ranging from divorce to assault that is perceived as threatening.
In fear for its life, the body goes into defensive mode, producing chemical messengers to activate the nervous system to flee or fight. While this response may have helped us survive at the time, they do not serve when the danger has passed. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder occurs when the mind gets locked into ‘battle stations’. Reactions become hard-wired – brainwave activity gets stuck. Reactive emotions of anger, fear or panic can dominate, and that’s where the trouble starts.
We may become locked in a state of chronic sadness, lack of drive and motivation, or poor concentration; agitation, impulsivity, anxiety, panic attacks and sleep trouble; anger, fear, worry and self sabotage. Without being able to return to our natural state of balance, we can be burdened by these states of stress for years.
The latest developments in neuroscience help identify these locked-in patterns using state-of-the-art brain mapping technology. With the therapeutic use of neurofeedback techniques, brain balance can be restored.
History of neurotherapy
Neurofeedback has come of age. A growing body of scientific evidence testifies to its efficiency in identifying electrical impulses in the brain to help people gain control of their stess and their minds.
Brain waves are electrical impulses grouped by different frequencies The first recordings of human brain waves took place in 1924 by Hans Berger, a German doctor who switched to studying psychology after a wartime experience of telepathy. He was the first to describe the brain disturbances caused by epilepsy.
Thanks to increasingly sophisticated technology, neurofeedback has moved on apace. In the 1970s, a happy combination of technology and science led to the development of neurofeedback therapy. Instead of the one-way process of a doctor recording the brain’s activities, patients could participate in their treatment by responding to the neurofeedback. The new technology allowed the brain’s activities to be transmitted as images on a screen, vibrations or sounds, and the patient’s responses to be recorded.
It’s realtime. Neurofeedback immediately shows the brain relaxing its electric activity. This in turn is experienced as a return to a calmer inner state that encourages further calm (and calming) breathing so creating a positive feedback loop.
Healers and neuroscience
Neuroscience’s brain mapping techniques has become ever more precise thanks to advances in computer and digital technology. This ability to identify brain states coupled with high-tech neurofeedback software has created powerful scientific tools for traditional healers. Now, thanks to the availability of laptops and personal computers, this knowledge has moved from the hospital lab to the practice rooms of complimentary therapists.
Whilst the medical model of neuroscience in Europe has helped the robustness of this emerging science, North America has developed the software to make its fruits accessible to non-medics.
James elaborates on their neurofeedback practice, aptly named Symphonic Mind. “Brainwaves in proper function run like an orchestra,” he says. “Nothing too loud, nothing too quiet, with a harmonic beat. We help restore the mind’s natural balance, flexibility, and harmony. Change happens in the same effortless way your body heals an injury, such as a broken rib, without any conscious direction from you. Once balance is restored, many emotional and functional conditions fall away.”
East meets west
Experts estimate neurofeeback technology by itself has over 60% However coupled with other therapies, success rates can rise to 90%, so is well-suited to those practicing complementary therapies. This was the case with James and Sarah. Before adding neurotherapy to his bow, James Roy trained in eastern healing arts. A student of Buddhist and yogic traditions in Thailand, Nepal, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka for five years, he also trained with the Dalai Lama's masseur, as well as masseur of the Thai abbots, Pichet Bunthame,.
James and his wife and colleague, Sarah – a massage therapist – met while working as therapists in India. Having wed in Arizona, they have created another union by marrying their traditional healing skills with the latest in Western brain research. “One of the best aspects of our software platform is we can measure the changes in brain stress as they happen – it delivers quantifiable, replicable results,” says Sarah.
“The other great thing is that the brain can rebalance itself without having to know what caused the problem. Brain training targets the area of concern with a programme tailored to each individual. There is no need to talk about traumatic or stressful events that triggered the problems in the first place,” she says.
How it works
I sit in a state-of-the-art chair with sensors placed on different parts of my head and forehead. Sarah moves them to different sections of my scalp, depending on which we were working on. The moving colours on the screen in front of me correspond to my brain wave frequencies which the neurofeedback equipment translates into sounds, colours and shapes. A lively moving bar reacts to my over-active beta waves. When I start relaxing, my blue alpha waves start taking up a bit more room on the screen.
The aim is to rebalance the brain so the brain waves are in harmony with each other and with the different sections of the brain. Dreamy theta waves for instance undulate at four-eight cycles a second. Great when you are in a creative mood but too much in my front lobes could be interfering with the practicalities of life. I could probably do with some decent alpha waves (eight-12 cycles a second) instead.
Research on Buddhist monks shows devoted meditators combine alpha, beta, theta and delta waves in the right relationship and proportion, according to Anna Wise, author of Awakening the Mind: A Guide to Mastering the Power of Your Brainwaves.
I am asked to do a variety of mind-stilling exercises such as focusing on a lit candle while I listen to the sounds - soulful chimes – of my brain waves played back to me. I might not achieve a transcendental state but my ability to meditate improves.
In another exercise, I aim to move a coloured bar on a screen – with my mind. As the sweet sound of my neurons firing on all cylinders is fed back to me through my headphones, I set my intention. It’s a gentle juggling act between relaxing and focusing that brings the bar down in the end. A lesson in itself.
As a retired captain of the US airforce put it: "Your team…put effective tools for “letting go” into my hands. You offered this experience to me as a veteran service-member, but I must thank you as a human being.”
Soldier help for UK
Neuorfeedback has an excellent track record in the US. Its Warrior Transition Project for military personnel has been 80% effective in the relief of symptoms on the US government PTSD scale.
The techniques may be particularly suited to the military type, as a retired (non-commissioned) US army officer explains. "One of the first things I noticed was how willing my brain was to being trained. I have had practice in the area of self empowerment and stress reduction techniques before but this was the first time I could see the results by looking at the different brain wave patterns I was producing while setting my intention through visualisation and breathing techniques. For the first time I was able to see my brain and my brain was able to see itself. This combination of visual and auditory cues helped me raise and lower different brain wave patterns in different regions of my brain..... I have always had a good sense of balance in my life but this training has taken me to a new level of feeling and understanding the connection between my brain and how my body reacts together. I am looking forward to going home and seeing results in the areas I selected to improve."
Of course, sometimes getting better is just the start of the process. As the soldier recovering from war stress and trauma quoted at the start of the piece, says: “"For me this experience has created a desire in me to master my experiences and not become a victim to them."
James and Sarah would like to see neurofeedback available for British soldiers and hopes other therapists may cross-refer for mutual benefit. As James explains: “It can be difficult to approach difficult issues with a client when they are stuck in ‘emergency’ state. However, once they emerge from this stress state, their difficulty can be far less threatening and more approachable – facilitating a swift resolution to the problem using other therapies. In this way, neurofeedback can be an excellent aid to other approaches.”
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