Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Neurofeedback can reduce the symptoms of PTSD and trauma by teaching the brain to be more flexible in regulating itself out of the “fight and flight” state and into a more calm, relaxed state.
Signs and Symptoms
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that is triggered by a terrifying event or series of events. It is typically characterized by intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, avoidance of reminders of a traumatic event, feelings of guilt, feeling on edge, easily startled, problems sleeping, anxiety, depression, and more.
Symptoms of PTSD fall into four categories: Intrusion, Avoidance, Alterations in cognition and mood, and Alterations in arousal and reactivity.
Intrusion includes intrusive memories of the event, reoccurring dreams, and flashbacks. Flashbacks can feel so real that individuals believe they are re-living the experience.
Avoidance includes avoiding reminders of the traumatic event which may result in staying away from people, places, objects or activities that might triggers these memories.
Alterations in cognition and mood include negative changes in mental and moods associated with the event. Such things as inability to remember important parts of the event, negative beliefs about oneself or the world (e.g., the world is always dangerous), inaccurate thought patterns about the cause or consequences of the event resulting in inaccurate blame of oneself or others, ongoing fear, horror, anger, guilt, or shame, diminished interest in activities, and feeling of detachment from others.
Alterations in arousal and reactivity may result in an individual’s behavior changing to increased irritability, angry outbursts, reckless or self-destructive behavior, hypervigilance, exaggerated startle response, problems with concentration, and sleep disturbances.
What’s Going On in the Brain
An individual who has PTSD or other trauma will frequently show excess high beta (the “fight and flight” brain wave) on their brain maps. Their brain is on high alert, even when they are in a room that is quiet, calm, and safe. Additionally, we frequently see patterns of brain communications (coherence) on the right hemisphere that correlate with those who struggle with inaccurate interpretations of the environmental and improper reading of social cues. In many cases, clients describe the feeling of seeing the environment as dangerous until they can talk themselves down and convince themselves that it is safe, rather than assuming the environment is safe until they take in information that would indicate otherwise.
How Neurofeedback Helps PTSD
During neurofeedback training the brain receives auditory and visual feedback which rewards the brain when it makes less of the high beta (“fight and flight”) brain wave and improves the coherence (the communication of information between areas of the brain) on the right hemisphere. As clients make less of the excess high beta wave and the communication pathways improve, clients report feeling less anxious and less plagued with intrusive thoughts. They sleep better, and engage in memory/trigger avoidance far less frequently. Their startle reflex decreases, and they begin to believe the world is safe until they see something of concern and they report a desire to re-engage with people and activities they previously enjoyed-and even begin new hobbies and experiences.
The following are selected research studies showing the effect of neurofeedback on PTSD and trauma.
The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain, and Body in the Transformation of Trauma. Van der Kolk, B. (2014). Penguin Books.
A Pilot Study of Neurofeedback for Chronic PTSD. Gapen, M., van der Kolk, B. A., Hamlin, Ed., Hirshberg, L., Suvak, M., & Spinazzola, J. (2016). Applied Psychophysiology And Biofeedback, 41, 251–261.
Neurofeedback Treatment and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Reiter, K., Andersen, S. B., & Carlsson, J. (2016). Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 204(2), 69–77.
Alpha-Theta Brainwave Neurofeedback for Vietnam Veterans with Combat-Related Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Peniston, E. E., & Kulkosky, P. J. (1991). Medical Psychotherapy, 4, 47–60.