How do you get over traumatic experiences? How can you come to feel safe, when brain networks that alert you to danger stay turned on at high volume because of trauma?
We know that for many people, this is extraordinarily difficult. We know that for many people, traditional talk therapy is limited.
“Sally”, a forty seven year old woman, began neurofeedback last week after more than a year of psychotherapy and a lifetime of struggling with anxiety and depression. She was diagnosed with PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder.
Her early life was filled with trauma and empty of warmth and connection in her family. Despite this early history, she had become an affectionate and attentive parent and wife and found in the family she built on her own what she had lacked growing up. But she did this all at a cost. Because she remained subject to near constant anxiety. She woke up with heart pounding most mornings. Her worries would not stop, ran on without her permission: she could not stop thinking, worrying, ruminating. She said it was like sliding down a hill, she couldn’t stop her thoughts. They snowballed constantly.
Sally also struggled with her mood and energy. She described a pervasive feeling of “heaviness” and fatigue. She took naps most days, and was exhausted by 8 in the evening or so. Woke up feeling heavy and finding it took effort to get herself out of bed every single morning.
She was a dedicated meditator, but found meditation grueling. She said she would sit there, heart pounding, thoughts racing and refusing to settle or even slow. And nothing to distract her from this experience. So she meditated religiously, but not because she experienced any peace or relief. She practiced so regularly because she hoped she would.
More than a year of psychotherapy made a big difference for her. She was feeling better in many ways. But her basic symptoms continued, even if at a lower level. So she decided to start neurofeedback treatment of PTSD.
She has had two neurofeedback sessions so far, one for 15 minutes. One for 30. Here is what she reported:
“I had a good week. The best in years. I have more energy. Usually, if my sons asks me to do something with him in the evening, I will do it. But it feels hard. I get this heavy feeling. This week when he asked me, I just did it easily. I didn’t have that heaviness. I didn’t nap and didn’t need to go to bed so early. Usually when I wake up, my heart is pounding and I feel this heaviness. Its hard to get out of bed. This week, I just woke up and got going with my day.
My thinking changed too. It used to be that if I began thinking about something difficult, I couldn’t stop. I could not just move on. But this week I found that I could think about something for a while and then just stop. Move on. Decide to think about something else.
My meditation was calmer. My mind was quieter. If I started to think about something, I could shift away. My body was calmer also. It was enjoyable.
Friday night I had a dream I have had many times before. Bombs are falling. My mother and father are not there. I call for them, but no one replies. Usually I wake up from these dreams, or my husband wakes me up, and my heart is pounding. But in the dream and when I woke up, I was calm.”
I probably saw Sally smile more times during this one session than I had seen her smile in the previous year.
But at the same time, she was a little restrained. She acknowledged not wanting to get her hopes up too high, not wanting to be disappointed if the improvements don’t last. She also acknowledged that she couldn’t really believe it: “It’s like getting something for nothing.” For someone who has worked so hard to re-make her life, it seemed too easy. For someone who had never received a big smile or a warm gaze or interest and attention just because she was loved, easy doesn’t seem real…..
We measure treatment outcome in our neurofeedback program every ten weeks using well established psychological measures of mood, anxiety, and behavior. We will see what they tell us. But no measures can tell the tale she told this morning as eloquently as her words and her face.