By Siegfried Othmer, PhD
Picture a young man with a long-term history of schizophrenia and PTSD coming for his first training session with infra-low frequency neurofeedback. At the end of the session he is surprised that he does not feel like smoking. It had been a couple of hours since he last lit up. At the fifth session, he mentioned to the practitioner that he hadn’t smoked since session four. The therapist checked his notes: It had been nineteen days since session four.
The vast majority of people suffering from schizophrenia smoke because it calms and stabilizes their brains. For them, cigarettes are medication. For this young man to give up smoking without having any intention of doing so is highly significant. It meant that in his case the training had essentially lifted his dependence on nicotine and was affecting the schizophrenia as well.
Picture also a middle age woman with a fifteen-year history of heroin addiction that was marked with twenty-five failed treatment programs. On coming in for her fifteenth training session, she announced that “There has been no urge to use drugs. Pretty shocking, actually. No craving since starting the neurofeedback.” After twenty sessions she said: “Life involved this compulsive, self-destructive drug behavior. It’s gone. The desire for drugs is completely gone.”
We are entering a new era where the successful management of addictions is within reach. The story doesn’t start here of course. It has been emerging over some decades now. It was over twenty years ago that we undertook a large-scale controlled study of recovery from drug dependence and addiction in collaboration with CRI-Help, a residential treatment center in North Hollywood. This was the largest controlled study that has ever been undertaken in neurofeedback. The study was stunningly successful, and as a result neurofeedback is now increasingly being introduced into addiction treatment programs.
In that earlier day, we demonstrated that the neurofeedback training cohort was able to sustain sobriety successfully for a period of years, whereas the control group, which had received only the standard CRI-Help treatment, continued its pattern of slow attrition. The standard treatment consisted of individual and group psychotherapy in the frame of an augmented Minnesota Model 12-Step Program. (See the particulars in Note below.)
When participants were asked to assign credit for their sobriety at the time of the three-year follow-up, they all credited their involvement in the 12-step group, which was ongoing. The members of the group were sustaining each other in their sobriety. The neurofeedback training had enabled them to be successful, in contrast to the experience of most of the controls, who had dropped out. It became apparent, however, that we hadn’t really resolved the issue of craving for many of them.
With the adoption of infra-low frequency training over the past nine years, we have observed that drug craving resolves more consistently with this kind of training. This takes us, then, into a whole new era of addictions treatment that targets the root issue of drug dependence with an expectation of success. Without that component, we could hardly claim to be meeting the physiological challenge of addiction. Yet there is another aspect of the problem that is critical, and that is the psychological vulnerability to addiction, which is mainly the issue of prior psychological trauma.
Whereas the physiological dependence on the drug emerges with drug use, the psychological vulnerability is a pre-existing condition. The relief that alcohol affords in cases of anxiety, for example, is undeniable. And the only answer to that is a better remedy for the underlying anxiety than the alcohol. At this point, it is only fair to point out that the psychiatric medications for anxiety all produce dependence just as surely as does alcohol. And the same goes for the heavy-duty pain medications. In order to avoid dependence, a non-drug remedy is needed—-and that is neurofeedback.
In cases of severe treatment-resistant anxiety and depression, and in cases of severe chronic pain, we are almost always dealing with a history of early childhood psychological trauma. And in cases where the alcoholism is seen in conjunction with anti-social personality disorder or other personality disorder, we are almost surely dealing with a history of early attachment problems. Infra-low frequency (ILF) neurofeedback appears to be effective in resolving these conditions in their physiological aspects. That still leaves the psychological residue of the trauma to deal with. For that we rely on the Alpha-Theta training that was developed originally at the Menninger Foundation in the late sixties, and was first brought to our attention through the work of Eugene Peniston in 1990.
Alpha-Theta training was the heart of Peniston’s program for the relief of PTSD and alcoholism among Vietnam veterans. His work was stunningly successful—-to the point where he was even accused of fabricating his data. His methods have been consistently validated since that time in all clinical studies. Alpha-Theta training was also the heart of our research program at CRI-Help. It was preceded there by training in physiological regulation with our SMR/beta protocols in the mid-range of the EEG band. (See Reference)
The Alpha-Theta training gently guides the person toward deeper, less engaged, and more internally focused states. It facilitates the encounter with the core self, and that in itself may be sufficient for the person to resolve the residual influences of prior traumas. This is self-healing in its very essence. The experience is facilitated by being conducted in a safe and comfortable space under conditions of light sensory isolation.
As the infra-low frequency training has matured over the years and become stronger, we have observed a related phenomenon, which is that traumas lose their grip on the physiology and lose their capacity to torment the person. This is seen most commonly in work with PTSD. Traumas seem to vanish in time right during the session. Of course the memories do not disappear, but they lose their sting. If the traumas are isolated events, then they may extinguish sequentially and individually. They go quietly, and at some point their absence is noted.
After infra-low frequency training the person is invited into the Alpha-Theta experience. The response to the Alpha-theta sessions determines what happens going forward. There is no formula. There is no specific goal. The Alpha-Theta training continues for as long as it is clinically productive. Finally, there is also the synchrony training element, a kind of finishing school for neurofeedback. One can think of this as a fine-tuning of brain function. The synchrony training emphasizes the alpha and gamma bands (40-Hz training).
In sum, then, we appear to have a much more robust and potent arsenal of tools with which to target the problem of addiction. We can now work with people in the realistic expectation of success, which has not been the case before in the field of addictions treatment.
Addiction has held a unique position in mental health. First of all, it has largely been orphaned by the mental health community, being left mostly to minimally credentialed therapists at addiction treatment centers. Uniquely among mental dysfunctions, success is expected in a single treatment program of finite (and often short) duration. Also uniquely among the drugs of dependence, treatment is begun with a Draconian detox phase that is reported to be so horrible that no one wishes to ever repeat it. That, apparently, is the point. Curiously, such detox is mandated only for the illicit drugs, never for the anxiolytics or the pain meds or the neuroleptics or the anti-convulsants. What is the emergency here, one might well ask?
There is a gentler way. Train the brain, and it sheds its dependences as it recovers function. Offer the Alpha-Theta experience, and the person resolves his traumas. All in its own good time. Eventually the trainee is likely to be freed of the addiction, and give up the alcohol, the meth, the cocaine, the heroin, or the cigarettes. The drug of choice will have lost its grip. The answer to the challenge of addiction is a well-functioning brain, and neurofeedback offers a path to get there.
Note 1. A year after completion of the program, some 75% of trainees were maintaining sobriety, versus only 25% of the controls. After three years, the trainees were holding up, but the controls had continued to attrition.
These publications precede the discovery of infra-low frequency training.