Treating Childhood Trauma and PTSD with Neurofeedback Therapy
She has talked about the dysfunction in her family of origin to such an extent that she is out of words. The topic now seems irrelevant.
She is a middle-aged adult with a history of childhood neglect and serious physical injury. She has been through years of psychotherapy. She has laser-like insight into her trauma history. Despite the substantial time and money she has dedicated to overcoming her traumatic background, she still finds herself unable to self-soothe. Her relationships continue to feel charged with anger and hurt. Her physical body feels as if it is encased in a tourniquet. The ever-present physical rigidity increases in response to conscience triggers to her trauma despite the fact that she can clearly see them coming. This person suffers from complex trauma that includes PTSD from physical injury and developmental trauma that originated in her relationships with her Mother, Father, and siblings. Traditional forms of psychotherapy had failed her. Her hope was that neurofeedback training would accelerate treatment response for her symptoms of childhood trauma and PTSD.
Neurofeedback therapy offers an alternative form of treatment for symptoms of childhood abuse, complex trauma, as well as PTSD. It supplies information to the brain that helps to regulate the body’s autonomic stress response. One of the common threads among these conditions is chronic Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) dysregulation. When a person feels their life is threatened, is subjected to abject terror, or sustains physical injury, the body responds by shifting to sympathetic nervous system dominance, also known as the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. When an individual has suffered multiple traumatic events in their lifetime, they may become accustomed to living in a perpetual state of sympathetic arousal or its opposite: chronic parasympathetic response or shut-down. Even more confusing, complex trauma of the sort that may arise from more subtle forms of emotional abuse and neglect can be equally destabilizing
The Optimal State
We train individuals with a history of trauma by helping them achieve an “optimal state” of ANS response. This means that we help the individual, through neurofeedback training, to find their way to a feeling of restful alertness, when the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are in balance.
Often, as a result of this new optimal state, individuals who have suffered a serious traumatic experience will begin to form new neural connections that help them better understand the roots of their trauma. A calm ANS allows the patient to resolve past painful memories with less distress. We support these moments with skilled listening and a somatic focus that provides for a healing holding environment. The synergy between physiological regulation and insight integration allows for the restoration of genetic capacities and a more integrated sense of self..
When Bodies “Keep the Score”: Biofeedback and PTSD
Trauma survivors and individuals with PTSD often experience physical and emotional discomfort, intolerable somatic experiences, difficulty regulating mood, impulse control difficulties, struggles with focus and concentration, negative self-perception, poorly developed interoceptive awareness, and an inability to explain the way they feel and why. In addition, many experience difficulty sleeping and difficulty managing interpersonal relationships.
Bessel Van der Kolk, a leading researcher of trauma, declared in his seminal book that the body keeps a record of all our past traumas. Trauma is stored not only in thoughts and memories but is also centrally located in the cells, muscles, and tissue of our physical bodies. Traumatic experiences are exquisitely visceral. They often overpower our senses and leave us with no narrative but only a body memory. Sometimes the effects of trauma are visible in an abnormal EEG. That gives us a path from the body back to the brain.
We believe that part of the healing process involves putting words to these confounding emotions and feelings that linger in the body. We believe a narrative, a story, must develop to seed the path to health. A central aspect of neurofeedback involves regular and frequent check-ins with somatic experience — after every few minutes of neurofeedback training, a clinician will ask, “How are you feeling now?” These check-ins help bolster somatic, homeostatic, and emotional awareness: the key to managing one’s mood and affect. They begin the knowing that makes a full recovery possible.
Getting Help for Trauma and PTSD
In A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway wrote that, “The world breaks everyone and afterwards many are stronger at the broken places.” Our client mentioned above was stronger at her broken places due to the combination of therapy and neurofeedback. Her broken places included physiology, not just emotional damage. Neurofeedback provided the physiological regulation of her ANS that allowed her to integrate her painful past. The synergy between neurofeedback and somatic therapy is a powerful means of healing of trauma.
It is often said that the most difficult part of getting help is reaching out and asking for it. In our culture, we are taught to be self-sufficient, to tolerate difficult experiences by “toughening up” and “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps”. It can be difficult in this context to recognize when you might need to request help from an outsider.
There are many treatments available to help ameliorate the discomfort and alienation caused by trauma and PTSD. You can find more information and research at besselvanderkolk.com/.
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