After experiencing a traumatic event, your brain wants so badly to keep you safe that it works overtime, and that constant state of hypervigilance takes its toll. Because the parts of your brain that are on the lookout for danger are always on alert, even the slightest sign of a threat can trigger an acute stress response. As a result, your memory and impulse control may be suppressed, and you are at risk of getting trapped in a prolonged state of strong emotional reactivity. The good news is that these changes in brain functioning are not irreversible.
Your brain can adapt, rewire, and learn to reset. This ability is called neuroplasticity, and it can help your brain reverse trauma’s damaging effects. Neuroplasticity allows neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and adjust their activities in response to new situations or changes in your environment.
In his book The Body Keeps The Score, Bessel van der Kolk summarizes his four decades of experience studying the impact of trauma on the brain and explains how you can develop methods and experiences that utilize your brain's neuroplasticity.
When Trauma Develops Into a Disorder
After experiencing a traumatic event, your mind and body can go into an extreme level of shock. As a result, you might experience nightmares, fear, anxiety, and intrusive thoughts. These are all normal reactions to abnormal, traumatic events. For many people, these symptoms may eventually run their course, and normal life will resume. But, when symptoms don't gradually decrease, that trauma may progress to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and alter the way your brain functions. PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is an anxiety disorder caused by exposure to a traumatic event, often appearing after the event and characterized by feelings like guilt, isolation, irritability, difficulty sleeping, and difficulty concentrating.
Not everybody with PTSD has exactly the same symptoms or brain changes, but observable patterns can be understood and treated.
The Brain's Alarm System
The brain's alarm system is a region of the brain called the amygdala, which Dr. Kolk refers to as the brain's smoke detector. The amygdala is primarily associated with emotional processes with a function to identify whether incoming input is relevant for survival. When the amygdala senses a threat (for example, a person on the street who looks threatening), it recruits the stress-hormone system and the autonomic nervous system to orchestrate a whole-body response. This means a quicker heart rate, shallow breathing, sweating, and inability to think clearly.
Once the brain's alarm system is turned on, it automatically triggers a preprogrammed physical escape plan, which propels the body to run, hide, fight, or, on occasion, freeze.
If the amygdala is the smoke detector in the brain, think of the frontal lobes – and specifically the medial prefrontal cortex located directly above your eyes – as the watchtower, offering a view of the scene from above.
As long as you are not too distressed, your frontal lobes can restore your balance by helping you realize that you are responding to a false alarm and abort the stress response.
With PTSD, however, the critical balance between the amygdala (smoke detector) and the medial prefrontal cortex (watchtower) shifts radically, making it much harder for your brain to recognize that the alarm is likely unwarranted.
A Peek Into the Trauma-Affected Brain
If you were to look EEG brain imaging (a technology used to see electrical activity in the brain), you would see brainwave dysregulation. Someone with PTSD typically has trouble filtering out irrelevant information and paying attention to what's going on in the present moment due to a flood of negative emotions. The brain produces five types of brainwaves: Delta, Theta, Alpha, Beta, and Gamma. Although all of these brainwaves are always active, some are amplified during different times of the day, depending on what it is you’re doing or what’s happening around you. With a healthy, well-balanced brain, the appropriate brainwaves will be dominant at the appropriate times.
If your brainwave activity has been impacted by PTSD, the wrong brainwaves are firing at the wrong times. As a result, you may feel absent-minded, forgetful, easily distracted, and confused. For example, your everyday state of mind might cause you to feel like you're stuck in a sleepy trance, but in the back of your mind, you’re simultaneously processing fear, negative emotions, and just trying to survive.
Neurofeedback for PTSD: Fixing Dysregulated Brainwaves
Luckily, dysregulated brainwave patterns are not irreparable. They can be rewired and transformed thanks to neuroplasticity, aka your brain's natural ability to change, adapt and learn from experience. With a brain training technology called neurofeedback, you can improve neuroplasticity and train your brain to regulate your brainwaves so that you can achieve the desired brainwave state.
“Not being fully alive in the present keeps you more firmly imprisoned in the past.” – Dr. Bessel van der Kolk
Neurofeedback is possible because of EEG, a technology that measures your brain activity in real time by placing electrodes (small metal discs) on the scalp. This provides immediate feedback about your brain's activity. It not only offers insight into how your brain operates, but also what you can do to improve its functioning.
Let’s say that your real-time brain activity measurements show that you are stressed out. During neurofeedback training, visual (games/videos) and/or auditory (sound effects/music) feedback let you know exactly when your mind is in an optimal state – and all in real time! This optimal state can be achieved by rewarding your brain each time its activity indicates a relaxed state. It's kind of like giving a dog a snack every time you need it to sit or stay so that, over time, they learn to do it even without the snack. The same concept applies to your brain – you can train it to be in the optimal state without that immediate feedback!
Eventually, the ability to regulate brainwaves can have a great impact on everyday situations. For example, you may find it easier to stay calm in stressful situations, like when you're struggling with difficult emotions and traumatic memories.
The Evidence Is Promising
Researchers at the VA Medical Center in Fort Lyon, Colorado, used neurofeedback to treat twenty-nine Vietnam veterans with a history of chronic combat-related PTSD.
Fifteen of the men were randomly assigned to the alpha-theta training and fourteen to a control group that received standard medical care, including psychotropic drugs and individual and group therapy.
This study had one of the best outcomes ever recorded for PTSD. The neurofeedback group had a significant decrease in their PTSD symptoms, as well as in physical complaints, depression, anxiety, and paranoia.
After the treatment phase, the veterans and their family members were contacted monthly for a period of thirty months. Only three of the fifteen neurofeedback-treated veterans reported disturbing flashbacks and nightmares. All three chose to undergo ten booster sessions; only one needed to return to the hospital for further treatment. Fourteen out of fifteen were using significantly less medication.
In contrast, every vet in the comparison group experienced an increase in PTSD symptoms during the follow-up period, and all of them required at least two hospitalizations. Ten of the comparison group also increased their medication use.
Breaking Free of Past Trauma
Neurofeedback can help change the way your brain functions and improve the quality of your life. It can alleviate PTSD symptoms and potentially help guide you to recall those memories with the recognition that they exist in the past and cannot put you in any more danger in the present.
Below is a diagram of the different brain regions and common symptoms that occur when a specific region gets “stuck” in a significantly over-active state.
At the Brain Performance Center we use EEG brain mapping to objectively measure brainwave function. An EEG brain map can identify electrical dysfunctions in the brain that are often the root cause of PTSD. Once we know what physiology is causing the PTSD, we can personalize nutritional, behavioral and neurofeedback interventions to retrain your brain activity back to a normal state.
Neurofeedback brain training is a non-invasive, highly effective, non-pharmaceutical way to normalize the brain activity at the root of PTSD. It is a powerful form of biofeedback, using EEG sensors on your scalp connected to sophisticated audio/visual feedback exercises. Your brain actually controls the exercises on a video screen. Neurofeedback can accurately target a specific brain region and retrain brainwave dysfunction back to its normal state. It’s like physical therapy for the brain.
Contact the Brain Performance Center for more information about EEG brain mapping and Neurofeedback brain training for PTSD, anxiety, ADHD, depression, insomnia and more. Training can be done at one of our three centers in Southern California or in your home with our state-of-the-art remote neurofeedback equipment rental program. Email us at Info@BrainPerformance.com or call us at 800-385-0710.
Here is a real video testimonial on PTSD from one of our clients.