What Is Neurofeedback Therapy?

Updated October 6, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Neurofeedback therapy is also known as EEG neurofeedback or EEG biofeedback. This approach can heal a person's brain. When used alongside psychotherapy — which heals the mind — you may see more success. While neurofeedback therapy is adaptable and useful in many situations, it does require a great deal of expertise to perform neurofeedback treatment and may not be suggested to use with some people. Neurofeedback therapy, also called neurofeedback treatment or neurofeedback training, is considered to be psychophysiology, which is the study of the relationship between the physical and mental processes or how the body and mind interact.

How Can EEG Biofeedback Show You The Mind-Body Connection?

Who Can Benefit From Neurofeedback Therapy?

Some of the experts who work in the field of EEG neurofeedback treatment field include psychologists, physicians, neurologists, biochemists, and other scientists. Some of the disorders that are related to psychophysiology include those that have physical symptoms partially caused by emotional factors. Examples are attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, addiction, phobias, depression, chronic pain, memory problems, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), seizure disorders, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, heart disease, sleep disorders, and many more.

Brainwaves and EEG Biofeedback

Your brain determines everything you do and feel, and although most individuals have perfectly normal brain functions, they may still have some brain imbalances or emotional imbalances that can affect their daily routine and feelings. Neurofeedback therapy trains your brainwaves, or sensorimotor rhythms, to do what they are supposed to do but to understand this; you have to know a bit about your brainwaves and how they affect everything you do and feel.

The nervous system is a two-part system which includes the central nervous system (the brain and the spinal cord) and peripheral nervous system, which in turn, includes your autonomic nervous system (the circulation, heartbeat, digestion, etc.). Your brainwaves are small electrical impulses that are produced as the cells in your brain communicate with each other. They can tell the doctor or therapist a plethora of information about how you function daily and how you feel, including your mood, stress level, thought habits, and brain functions.

Doctors and therapists interpret five types of brain waves (or sensorimotor rhythms) using EEG biofeedback. These five waves are alpha waves, beta waves, delta waves, theta waves, and gamma waves. Theta and Delta waves are low frequency brain waves that occur when you are sleeping or drowsy. On the other hand, alpha waves, beta waves, and gamma rays are higher frequency, occurring when you are awake. Alpha waves mean slower brain wave activity. This type of brain wave is seen in a quantitative EEG when you are relaxed and not concentrating on anything. Beta brain waves are a slightly higher frequency brain wave which signal attentiveness. Beta waves are the most common type of brain wave when you are awake. Then, gamma waves are the highest frequency brain wave, linked to periods where you have a high concentration level or are problem-solving.

Monitoring and Measuring Brain Waves

By putting sensors on the scalp, the therapist can monitor and measure your brain activity and use brain analysis software to find and identify specific activities that are giving you the negative symptoms you have been having. For example, anxiety, depression, insomnia, or addiction. After the area of concern is found, the therapist can build a specific training plan to pull your brain back into a more comfortable and efficient state. That is what neurofeedback therapy does.

When having a neurofeedback therapy session, the therapist compares what your brainwaves are doing compared to what you want it to be doing. As the brainwaves enter a preferred state, you will be rewarded with a positive image on a computer screen such as a movie or a video game. The images and sounds you see on the video game will immediately let you know that your brainwaves are doing the right thing because the video game or movie will only turn on when you are in the desired state and will stop when your brain waves cause your brain to go in the opposite direction.

Teaching Your Brainwaves

In doing this, neurofeedback therapy teaches your brainwaves what they should be doing rather than what they have been doing. Similar to doing physical exercise to build certain muscles, the more you exercise your brain into the preferred spot, the more it will be able to reach that spot. For instance, if you have been having trouble falling asleep and cannot concentrate or focus during the day, neurofeedback therapy can look at your brainwaves and determine what is causing the problem. Once the software reads the brainwaves, neurofeedback therapy will produce a brain map that the therapist can read and see what may be troubling you. Then they will devise a plan for you using your favorite movie or game.

Building Brain Muscles

During your neurofeedback therapy session, you will be hooked up to the brainwave monitor and the computer so that when your brain starts to push the brainwaves in the right position, your movie or game will start. When your brain goes the opposite direction, the movie or game will go dark. After some time, your brain will start catching on and get better at it, so the therapist will make it harder so your brain will get even better at it. Similar to lifting weights, once you can lift a certain amount, you add more weight to continue building your muscles. Keep in mind, how many sessions it takes for patients to learn and change is different depending on the person and what they are trying to achieve. However, a neurofeedback therapist can track your progress through a behavioral ratings scale.

Types of Neurofeedback Therapy

Neurofeedback therapy is a form of EEG biofeedback that assists self-regulation of your brain function on your own by using mental stimulation and strategies. The idea of EEG biofeedback and neurofeedback sessions is to increase the brain's efficiency and teach the brain how to keep brain waves flowing in the right direction. There are several different types of neurofeedback therapy for certain disorders. With the help of the software, the therapist can build a treatment to train your brain for your issues. The different types include:

  • Frequency or Power Neurofeedback is the most commonly used neurofeedback therapy and is also known as surface neurofeedback. It uses two - four electrodes to change the speed of certain brain waves in particular parts of the brain. This typically treats behavior disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and insomnia, as well as psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
  • Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can regulate brain activity based on the feedback from deeper subcortical areas. This type of neurofeedback therapy is typically used for phobias, Parkinson's disease, anxiety, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Low-resolution electromagnetic tomography (LORE-TA) uses more electrodes than the other types, which lets the therapist simultaneously train more than one area of brain activity. Most methods use two sensors and focus on one area, but with this more intense method, it can treat OCD, depression, and addictions (such as drug addiction) as well as the other disorders mentioned above.
  • Hemoencephalographic (HEG) neurofeedback is typically used for treating chronic migraine symptoms. It uses the feedback of the cerebral blood flow to determine the treatment needed.
  • Low-Energy Neurofeedback System gives an electromagnetic signal to the person's brain to change their brain waves while they relax with their eyes closed. It is typically used for depression, anxiety, chronic pain, restless leg syndrome, brain injuries (such as a traumatic brain injury), sleep disorders, and ADHD symptoms.
  • Brand-name neurofeedback includes brain training systems that encourage and train the brain to reset itself or self-correct. Many of these systems are available on the open market and are not as effective as those used by therapists.

You can learn more about types of neurofeedback types in the Basic and Clinical Neuroscience article, “Neurofeedback: A Comprehensive Review on System Design, Methodology and Clinical Applications.”

Treatment Procedures List

There are also different treatment procedures or protocols that are used to target certain brain activity for specific symptoms or problems. They include:

  • Alpha Wave Procedure

Your brain's alpha waves are linked to relaxation and feelings of calmness but are also important to focus and alertness. It will relax your muscles and let you sleep when needed but will help improve your mental health while awake. This is the preferred treatment for brain injuries, problems with memory, mental performance issues, anxiety disorders, and chronic pain.

  • Beta Wave Procedure

Your beta waves are used in mental performance and this brain wave should be used with care because there may be side effects if not used correctly. This type of procedure is commonly used to treat mental health disorders like anxiety as well as anger issues, epilepsy, drug addiction, insomnia, learning disabilities (such as autism spectrum disorder), and trouble focusing or paying attention.

  • Alpha Theta Wave Procedure

The alpha-theta wave controls anxiety and stress. This is the most commonly used neurofeedback training for specific mental health disorders known as anxiety disorders. These mental health disorders include social anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder or stress from traumatic memories, and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). It can also be used for addiction, trauma, and depression.

  • Delta Wave Procedure

A delta wave is associated with your deep sleep cycles and are the slowest brain waves you have. Delta wave neurofeedback training is typically a treatment option for migraines and other severe headaches, learning disabilities and disorders (such as autism spectrum disorders), brain injuries, insomnia, and generalized pain disorders.

  • GammaWaveProcedure

Your gamma waves are linked to your cognitive memory and learning abilities. Strengthening and speeding up these waves with neurofeedback training can help with memory issues, problem-solving, migraines, information processing, organization, calculation, mental sharpness, and cognitive thinking.

  • Theta Wave Procedure

The theta brain wave is used for hypnosis, sleep, meditation, creativity, emotions, and memory. Theta wave neurofeedback training may be a treatment option for ADHD, emotional disorders, inability to focus, and mental health issues such as depression, and anxiety disorders.

Who Shouldn't Use Neurofeedback Therapy?

How Can EEG Biofeedback Show You The Mind-Body Connection?

Some individuals who are living with serious psychiatric conditions and mental health issues such as schizophrenia, uncontrolled bipolar disorder, or psychosis can have adverse effects from neurofeedback therapy if not used correctly. Also, those with epilepsy or other seizure disorders should only receive neurofeedback training from a qualified neurofeedback specialist or doctor. That is why it is important to be completely honest with the therapist or doctor. However, EEG operant conditioning under the right circumstances has been shown to decrease seizure rate.

Can Neurofeedback Safe To Use on Children?

As long as the therapist or doctor is trained in neurofeedback therapy, neurofeedback treatment is safe for children diagnosed with a variety of different disorders. In fact, neurofeedback therapy has been especially effective in treating learning disorders, speech disorders, developmental disorders, ADHD, autism, Asperger's syndrome, OCD, anxiety, sleep disturbances, and brain injuries (like a traumatic brain injury). Many types of neurofeedback therapy have been proven to increase the ability of self-regulation in a child and improves cortical functioning. However, just as with adults, neurofeedback therapy should only be used with extreme caution by a licensed and trained neurofeedback specialist if the child has epilepsy or a severe psychiatric illness.

What Side Effects Could I Expect?

Just as with any kind of treatment like neurofeedback training, there can be side effects. Some of the studies have shown that neurofeedback therapy may be connected to mental health problems such as increased depression, mood swings and panic attacks as well as other issues including seizures, chronic fatigue, nausea, mania, and increased agitation or anxiety. However, it is thought that in most or all of these incidences, the side effects were caused by the lack of experience or skill in using neurofeedback treatment and therapy. Before proceeding with any treatment it is good to research and discuss options with reputable providers.

What is Neurofeedback therapy used for?

EEG neurofeedback training is a type of treatment that helps the brain by changing the amplitude or speed of a patient’s brain waves. Training sessions for neurofeedback therapy typically use two to four electrodes and are used to treat brainwave patterns and brain patterns associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, and even insomnia. This type of therapy can help create healthier patterns, assist your brain in working at optimal performance and achieve desired improvements.

What Are Other Treatment Options?

Neurofeedback services aren’t the only way of treating ADHD, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Behavioral therapy, such as talk therapy, can be another helpful way of improving your mental health. Talk therapy is also offered in a clinical setting, similarly to clinical neuroscience. To learn more about how talk therapy can help you with anxiety, depression, PTSD, OCD and ADHD treatment, read about talk therapy on BetterHelp’s advice page. In talk therapy, you can also discuss with your therapist if neurofeedback therapy might be the next best step for you in your wellness journey! 

People often ask the following questions about this topic:

What does neurofeedback therapy do?
Does neurofeedback therapy really work?
Can neurofeedback be harmful?
What is the success rate of neurofeedback?
Can neurofeedback increase IQ?
Does neurofeedback change your personality?
Is neurofeedback approved by the FDA?
Is neurofeedback a shock treatment?
How long do the effects of neurofeedback last?
Can neurofeedback damage the brain?
How many sessions do I have to attend to see healthier patterns develop or achieve desired improvements?

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