Shifting States: Is it Possible to Fix Our Feelings Without a Word?

In a clinic in Woodland Hills, California, a woman pastes an electrode through thinning hair onto a man’s scalp.  She’s done this thousands of times over the years and easily finds the spot just behind the top ridge on the right side of his head called “P4”.  The tiny, tiny signal – one of a trillion sparks of life that this brain generates every second – travels through a thin wire into her computer. This man fought in Bosnia 10 years ago and since his return home, he has had all the classic symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  He has not slept more than two hours at a time. He has panic attacks at the grocery store and nightmares every night.  He is anxious and depressed.  His marriage is falling apart.   The VA has put him on many different medications and although he’s done all the approved therapies, everything from individual counseling to group therapy to EMDR, he is still a mess, jumpy even in this quiet room at every footstep that passes on the other side of the closed door. Because of this clinic’s veteran’s program that offers free brain training, or Neurofeedback, to veterans, he gets to interact with his own EEG, a neurological form of shadow boxing, to shift his state.  After 30 sessions, his nightmares are gone.  He can sleep through the night without medication.  He is cracking jokes in the session and smiling.  He is better.  And all of this change has occurred without one conversation about what happened in Bosnia, about the content of his nightmares, or even about his childhood. “Oftentimes, clients come to me and they’ve had too much trauma to even deal with it.  They are stuck and cannot resolve it or work through it.  Many psychologists put clients on meds to manage their states so they can just do the therapy.  I mean, if you’re crying all the time or hysterical or not sleeping, you can’t really do the heavy lifting that is required to heal a trauma.  With Neurofeedback, you can manage state without meds and their side effects.  And just as often, when they are more functional, they just feel better and a large percentage of the problem is gone.  Does that not count?  For the client, it doesn’t really matter.  We are concerned with positive outcomes and we see that with Neurofeedback,” says this veteran’s clinician and pioneer in the field, Sue Othmer. The goal of this article is to expose the reader to an entirely new paradigm for understanding and treating psychological problems. It will deconstruct the Neurofeedback clinician’s process of translating emotional pain into functional problems.  It will also look at why focusing on state, not story, is a critical difference and how this tool, by teaching the brain to shift states, can assist people in permanently healing emotional suffering. In its simplest definition, neurofeedback is “exercise” for the brain and when you hear clinicians talk about their work, they sound like coaches.  They are making the brain stronger, more flexible, more resilient… all the qualities of an Olympic athlete.  But there’s no sweating involved or tears, just driving spaceships with your brainwaves. In the game, Inner Tube, for example, a spaceship flies through a tunnel.  When your brain is in a functional state, the spaceship speeds along.  When the brain tenses up or spaces out, the spaceship stops.  Lots of new clients, especially kids, ask, “Am I controlling this with my thoughts?  If I think, ‘go, spaceship!’ will it go?”  It’s a very Buddhist practice in that any trying usually makes the game stop.  This is why babies are easily able to do it and high stress, controlling CEO’s struggle at first. Instead of thoughts, it’s the electrical activity of the brain that’s fueling this spaceship. The exercise occurs when the spaceship stops and the brain needs to figure out how to shift its activity – or state – to make it go again. Over the course of a half-hour session, the brain will shift states over a thousand times which leads to a change in physiology.  By the end of a session, the client can feel relaxed and alert, regardless of how scattered, anxious, or downtrodden he began the session.  Not only do chatty brains become quiet, there is often a noticeable relaxing of tense shoulders and even drops in blood pressure. Today, there are many different types of systems available but most of the technology is similar. Whether any of this technology works, though, for its most common use – ADD – or for the repercussions of debilitating emotional trauma – hinges on the protocols.  Where do you put the electrodes and at what reward frequency?  In the early days of neurofeedback there was only one protocol.  The electrode was pasted on top of the head at a site called, “CZ”, what a yogi would call the 7th chakra, and that site was always trained at 12- 15Hz.  Now, there are 20 common sites all over the scalp and the rewards vary from .001Hz to 42Hz.  The combinations are endless. 20 years ago, Sue Othmer was one of the first to move the electrode off CZ and train different sites at different frequencies.  Now, she is known for being one of the only clinicians still experimenting and what she uses are the Delta frequencies, training the majority of her clients below .01Hz. What results from this is a deep, deep calming that happens within minutes of sitting down and being hooked up. Neuroscientists are still uncertain as to exactly why training at such low frequencies can make a difference but new research is pointing towards a connection between these specific frequencies and the brain’s ability to regulate one’s basic, core functions. Clinically, her protocols are some of the most effective for addressing emotional issues, which is ironic because her focus is purely on her client’s physiology, not his psychology.   She says, “As a neurofeedback clinician, I’m focused on state, not […]

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