Neurofeedback: Train Your Brain Waves to Treat Anxiety, ADHD & More

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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Neurofeedback allows you to create healthy brainwave states on demand. It’s used to treat a host of mental and physical disorders like anxiety, ADHD & more.

People have sought to refine and improve their mental processes for thousands of years through methods like yoga and meditation.

Now you can learn to train your brain with a technique known as neurofeedback.

Neurofeedback allows you greater control of your mind by teaching you how to bring about a preferred, healthier brainwave state at will.

It can help you be more relaxed, happy, and focused.

Moreover, it’s been proven beneficial for numerous mental health and stress-related conditions.

What Is Neurofeedback?

Your body’s many systems are constantly responding to changes in your internal and external environments.

Functions like respiratory rate, heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature are continually adjusted to keep you in a state of balance known as homeostasis.

Amazingly, your brain handles all of this subconsciously with no effort on your part.

Biofeedback is a mind-body technique that helps you consciously achieve this balanced state.

It enables you to monitor what your body is doing by monitoring functions like heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature, or muscle tension in real time.

With this information and some practice, you can then influence these functions to improve your ability to achieve and maintain homeostasis.

There are several types of biofeedback which differ according to the body metric being monitored.

In this article, we’re focusing on neurofeedback — a biofeedback technique that monitors brainwave patterns.

Neurofeedback is also known as neurotherapy, neurobiofeedback, or EEG biofeedback.

Neurofeedback: Training Your Brain Waves

To fully understand neurofeedback, you need a basic understanding of brain waves.

Your brain cells generate electricity to communicate with each other and this electrical activity forms patterns called brain waves.

They can be measured by electroencephalography (EEG), a non-invasive method of recording electrical activity using sensors on the scalp.

Scientists have found five main patterns of brain waves: alpha, beta, delta, gamma, and theta.

Each brainwave state corresponds to a different state of awareness as shown in the chart below.

chart showing human brain waves and corresponding cognitive characteristics
Each brainwave state corresponds to a different state of awareness.

We normally cycle in and out of these different brainwave states throughout the day and night.

All brainwave states are essential but should be experienced appropriately — at certain times of day and for particular durations of time.

Neurofeedback teaches you to consciously control your brain waves to achieve a desired brainwave state when you want.

For example, alpha waves occur when you are relaxed.

Beta waves are associated with alertness, but when maintained too long lead to feelings of fear and anxiety.

So, if you are stressed and anxious, learning how to increase alpha waves while reducing beta wave activity might be your goal. (1)

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6 Benefits of Neurofeedback

Neurofeedback offers a viable alternative for many disorders when prescription medications haven’t worked or cause unacceptable side effects.

Neurofeedback has been used successfully to treat a wide range of mental health and brain-related disorders including: (23)

  • anxiety
  • attention disorders
  • autism
  • depression
  • eating disorders
  • epilepsy
  • memory loss
  • learning disabilities
  • insomnia
  • schizophrenia
  • substance abuse
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • traumatic brain injuries

The first studies on neurofeedback were performed on cats with epilepsy.

Amazingly, it was discovered that cats could be trained to alter their brain waves to reduce their number of seizures.

If cats can do it, so can you!

Here are some of the major benefits of using neurofeedback:

  • For many stress-related conditions, neurofeedback can help stop stress by teaching you how to reduce the stress response.
  • Mental disorders like depression and anxiety have reached epidemic levels and the standard medical treatments — drugs and cognitive therapy — don’t work for everyone.
  • Neurofeedback is a learnable skill that, once mastered, can help you for a lifetime.
  • Improvements made through neurofeedback can carry over from one area of your life into others.
  • Learning neurofeedback is empowering — it puts you in charge of your own mental health.
  • Neurofeedback is not hard to do and can be learned by anyone from kids to seniors.

Best Uses for Neurofeedback

Now let’s take a deeper look at the most common, evidence-based uses for neurofeedback.

Neurofeedback for Stress and Anxiety

If there is one specific area where neurofeedback shines, it’s stress reduction.

It’s useful for literally any condition that’s related to stress.

Learning how to manage stress is one of the best things you can do for your overall health, brain function, and mental well-being.

The typical stress-induced flight-or-fight response initiates a cascade of physiological changes you normally have no control over.

Your heart rate and blood pressure increase, your breathing becomes fast and shallow, and blood gets directed away from your brain and into your muscles.

Neurofeedback teaches you how to manage your brainwave activity to stop the stress response cascade. (4)

It’s particularly helpful for any health condition with a high correlation to stress like anxiety, high blood pressure, bruxism (teeth grinding), and digestive disorders like IBS and chronic constipation.

Neurofeedback for ADHD

The most studied use of neurofeedback is for ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).

It shows promise as a safe and effective drug-free treatment for children as well as adults. (56)

In a meta analysis of 15 studies on ADHD, researchers concluded that neurofeedback effectively reduces the symptoms of inattention, impulsiveness, and hyperactivity. (7)

One review of large-scale clinical trials found that neurofeedback therapy induces a state of relaxed attention, modulates both over and under-arousal, and works comparably to the typical stimulant medications prescribed for ADHD. (8)

Neurofeedback and Depression

Dr. D. Corydon Hammond is a recognized authority in the field of neurotherapy.

He has nearly 200 scientific publications to his credit and is the primary author of the recommended standards of practice for the clinical use of neurofeedback. (9)

In a review of the current body of literature on neurofeedback for depression, he states that significant, enduring improvements occur approximately 80% of the time when patients have a biological predisposition to depression. (10)

Most patients notice a difference after three to six sessions, feel a very significant improvement after ten to twelve sessions, and usually complete treatment within 20 to 22 sessions.

One study on depression found that the use of neurofeedback decreased depressive symptoms by 50%. (11)

Neurofeedback for Peak Performance

Neurofeedback is also an effective technique to enhance overall performance.

It is used by Olympians, professional athletes, NASA astronauts, entrepreneurs, biohackers, and others who seek peak physical or mental performance. (1213)

The US military uses neurofeedback to treat soldiers with PTSD and brain injuries, and for general performance enhancement. (14, 15)

You can use it to improve any area of your life — work, studies, relationships, health, and happiness.

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Additional Uses for Neurofeedback

The list of uses for neurofeedback is so long it reads like the table of contents of a medical textbook.

The International Society for Neurofeedback & Research compiled a comprehensive bibliography of scientific neurofeedback studies.

There you’ll find links to research on the following conditions:

  • addictions
  • ADHD
  • anxiety
  • asthma
  • autism and Asperger’s
  • bipolar disorder
  • cerebral palsy
  • chemotherapy side effects
  • chronic fatigue syndrome
  • chronic pain
  • cognitive decline, including dementia
  • cognitive enhancement
  • depression
  • dissociative disorders
  • eating disorders
  • epilepsy
  • fibromyalgia
  • headaches, including migraines
  • high blood pressure
  • insomnia
  • learning disabilities
  • Lyme disease
  • memory loss
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • restless leg syndrome
  • schizophrenia
  • stress
  • stroke
  • tinnitus
  • Tourette’s syndrome
  • traumatic brain injury

Many studies have been conducted on the use of neurofeedback for optimal mental functioning as well.

It’s been shown to increase creativity, memory, concentration, attention, and general well-being.

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Professional Neurofeedback Therapy

For serious therapeutic use, it’s recommended you enlist the services of a certified neurofeedback professional.

They can help you determine the best type of neurofeedback for your situation since this therapy is not a “one size fits all” solution.

Dr. Diane Roberts Stoler has experience with neurofeedback, both as a professional and as a patient.

She has 30 years of experience as a neuropsychologist and personally benefited from neurofeedback after a traumatic brain injury.

According to Dr. Roberts Stoler, therapists are not limited to using just traditional neurofeedback and therapy should be customized for each patient’s needs.

If you visit a neurotherapist, types of neurotherapy offered may include:

  • Low Energy Neurofeedback System (LENS)
  • NeuroField
  • Personal Roshi (pRoshi)
  • Hemoencephalography (HEG)
  • Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
  • Bio-Acoustical Utilization Device (BAUD)
  • Cranial Electrotherapy Stimulation (CES)
  • Audio/Visual Stimulation (AVS)
  • Passive Infrared Neurofeedback (PIR)
  • Protocol-Based Neurofeedback
  • Infra-Low Frequency Neurofeedback (ILF NFB)
  • Surface Z-score Neurofeedback
  • LORETA Z-score Neurofeedback
  • Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (TDCS)

Don’t be overwhelmed by this intimidating list of terms!

Your neurotherapist should easily be able to explain them and their differences.

Also, you’ll find simple explanations for most of these neurofeedback modalities at Dr. Roberts Stoler’s website DrDiane.com.

What Happens in a Neurotherapy Session

So now you know the benefits and uses of neurofeedback, but what actually goes on during a typical neurotherapy session?

First, a clinician will place electrodes on your head to measure the electrical activity of your brain.

Don’t worry, it won’t hurt a bit.

You’ll be able to see your brain activity presented in the form of a video game on a monitor.

Here is a picture of an actual neurotherapy session.

girl in neurofeedback therapy session
A neurotherapy session. (Image courtesy of BodyMindandBrain.com.au)

You’ll be instructed on how to interpret what you see on the screen.

With a little practice, you’ll learn to control your brain activity to produce the brainwave state most helpful for your current needs.

Neurofeedback has been compared to playing a video game with your mind. (How cool is that!?)

But what you are really doing is harnessing your brain’s ability to change, known as neuroplasticity, by modifying your brainwave patterns for your benefit.

Significant changes in brain plasticity have been observed after just a single neurofeedback session. (16)

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Finding a Qualified Neurofeedback Practitioner

If you are looking for a qualified neurotherapist in your area, here’s a list of organizations with online directories:

Professional help is highly recommended if you are seeking lasting and truly therapeutic benefits for a physical or mental health condition.

Working with a professional will also help to minimize potential side effects.

Neurofeedback Side Effects

As with any treatment modality, there is the possibility of side effects.

This is especially true if you have a history of mental illness or enlist the services of someone who is not qualified to perform neurofeedback.

The Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback published a special report, Negative Effects and the Need for Standards of Practice in Neurofeedback.

This compilation of side effects reported by clinicians included:

  • worsening of symptoms of depression and anxiety disorders
  • irritability, anger, and crying
  • headaches, nausea, insomnia, and fatigue
  • disorientation, cognitive decline, and brain fog
  • loss of previous improvements

This is clearly an off-putting list.

But the authors, who include world-renowned neurofeedback authority Dr. D. Corydon Hammond, attribute side effects largely to increasing numbers of unqualified lay people who are inappropriately and illegally obtaining neurofeedback equipment and setting up shop.

Minimize Your Risk of Neurofeedback Side Effects

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to proactively minimize your risk of side effects.

Here’s the advice of the study authors:

  • Work with a licensed health care practitioner with a certification in neurofeedback from an organization such as the Biofeedback Certification Institute of America.
  • Make sure your neurotherapist has your complete patient history, performs baseline brain mapping like QEEG (Quantitative EEG), and offers individualized treatment.
  • Your neurotherapist should be carefully monitoring you for side effects by asking you during and after each session to rate any symptoms.
  • Speak up! It’s your responsibility to accurately report any side effects.

Personal Neurofeedback Devices You Can Use at Home

While there are many benefits to working with a trained neurofeedback professional, if your goal is general relaxation or performance enhancement, it’s not always feasible or even necessary.

For about the cost of one neurotherapy session, you can purchase a neurofeedback device that you can use at home.

These devices are worn as a headset or headband with small built-in sensors.

They interface with your computer or smartphone to create real-time data on your brainwave patterns.

Some popular brands of at-home neurofeedback devices include:

  • Bellabee
  • BrainBit
  • Emotiv Insight
  • FocusBand
  • Muse
  • NeuroSky MindWave
  • Versus

There’s a lot of turnover in the expanding do-it-yourself neurofeedback market with companies rapidly coming and going, so this list is subject to change.

Prices for headsets range from just under $100 to over $300 and, generally, you get what you pay for.

BioZen is a free app developed by the US Department of Defense.

Provided you buy the appropriate sensors, it can be used to measure brain waves, skin temperature, respiratory rate, and more.

These products are in their infancy and will NOT deliver the same results you would get by going to a trained neurotherapist with professional grade equipment.

But if your main interest is relaxation, general personal improvement, or even curiosity, at-home neurofeedback can be a reasonable option.

Personal Neurofeedback Devices as a Meditation Aid

Another promising use for your at-home neurofeedback device is to help you meditate. (17)

A big roadblock that many people, especially beginners, have with meditation is that they don’t know when they are doing it “right.”

By using a neurofeedback device, you don’t have to guess whether you’ve reached the desired meditative brainwave state (usually either the alpha or theta brainwave state).

A quality device can help you know for sure.

Once you’ve trained your brain to recognize what that brainwave state feels like, you can apply that knowledge to a traditional meditation practice.

Be aware that some companies selling brainwave entrainment audios give the impression that they involve neurofeedback.

Listening to brainwave entrainment audio files can alter your brainwave state, but it is a one-way street.

There is no feedback involved.

Benefits of Personal Neurofeedback Devices

There are two big drawbacks to professional neurofeedback therapy — it’s expensive and time consuming.

A typical session lasts 30-60 minutes.

Depending on your goals, you may need 10, 20, or possibly up to 50 sessions.

A course of treatment can easily run thousands of dollars.

And unless you have a serious medical condition, neurofeedback therapy will not be covered by insurance (and it may not be covered even then).

Personal neurofeedback can be done at your convenience for no cost beyond the initial investment of the device.

Most devices are portable so you can use them to relax anywhere, anytime.

You are totally in control and can use your device as much or as little as you feel is helpful.

And you can often share the use of your device with friends and family.

Drawbacks of Personal Neurofeedback Devices

Keep in mind that if you have a physical or mental health condition, do-it-yourself neurofeedback is NOT a substitute for professional neurofeedback therapy.

This is nascent technology and these devices are not as reliable as they could be yet.

Take a look at product review sites and you’ll see that technical problems are fairly common.

Also, it’s important to have a professional monitor your results under certain circumstances.

It’s extremely important to see a professional neurotherapist if you have a psychiatric disorder such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia as personal neurofeedback can exacerbate your symptoms.

Neurofeedback can also alter the effectiveness of prescription drugs.

For example, neurofeedback is very good at lowering high blood pressure, but it can cause your pressure to drop too low when used in conjunction with blood pressure medication.

So it’s important that you work closely with your health care professional even if you are doing the neurofeedback on your own.

A Handheld Option: emWave2

One disadvantage of personal neurofeedback devices is that they generally require wearing a device on your head.

This is not always convenient or comfortable.

An excellent alternative is HeartMath emWave2, the granddaddy of personal biofeedback devices.

This device is small enough to fit in your hand and you only need to clip a small sensor to your fingertip.

It works based on heart rate variability, not brain waves, making it a biofeedback rather than a neurofeedback device.

Heart rate variability (HRV) describes a naturally occurring fluctuation in heartbeats.

HRV devices work on the concept of coherence — the synchronization of your heart rate variability, breathing patterns, and other body rhythms — to achieve optimal function and performance.

The underlying concept is that just as your car will ride smoother when your tires are properly aligned, your body will work more efficiently if all these rhythms are aligned.

You’ll find a comprehensive collection of research studies in the HeartMath Institute Research Library.

EmWave2 is an effective, affordable alternative if you’re looking for a small, unobtrusive device you can hold in your hand.

Neurofeedback: Take the Next Step

Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback that teaches you how to control your brain waves, so you can induce a desired brainwave state on demand.

It’s a viable option for treating a wide range of physical and mental health conditions.

If your intention is to use neurofeedback to treat a psychiatric disorder like anxiety or depression, it’s recommended that you use the services of a trained neurofeedback professional.

But for general relaxation or self-improvement, at-home neurofeedback devices can be an effective option.

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