Alcohol and drugs are psychoactive substances. They act in the brain, and their effects represent changes in neurological functioning. Most people use alcohol and other drugs as a way to “self-medicate” pre-existing neurological abnormalities. It is possible to learn to control one’s brain states from within, without drugs and alcohol. In this way, addictions can be overcome without a lifetime of struggle and craving. This process of control is called Neurofeedback.
Some addictions, such as alcoholism, often involve brain over-activation. In these cases it can be helpful to teach the brain to quiet down, become less activated. In other cases, for example in people with ADHD who abuse amphetamines, the brain is under-activated and needs to learn to speed up.
We use multiple different techniques when working with addiction including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and counseling, but Neurofeedback has become our “Ace in the hole” for helping addicts get and stay clean.
We use research based protocols for training including Alpha/Theta protocols and various “fast-wave” protocols.
It has been found that many alcoholics, and some other addicts, are deficient in alpha and theta waves. These types of brainwaves are associated, respectively, with a relaxed, alert state.
Research shows that this pattern of hyper-arousal is present before a person becomes alcoholic, although alcoholism itself eventually makes it worse, reducing alpha and theta even more. This is a condition of anxiety, inability to relax; a chronic state of excess tension. Drinking alcohol temporarily increases the amount of alpha and theta waves. This is associated with alcohol-produced euphoria. After a few hours, of course, the good feeling wears off as the basic pattern of low alpha/theta and increased fast beta comes back.
Research has shown that success in alcohol treatment is less for those alcoholics who have the least alpha and theta activity, and the most beta.
Neurofeedback for alcoholism, and some other addictions, is a process of teaching the client first to increase the amount of alpha waves, and then to increase theta. The person progresses into a relaxed, dreamy and hypnogogic state, eyes are closed, and they receive feedback via sounds. This is called Alpha/Theta training.
While in the hypnogogic theta state, the client is asked to do visualizations picturing refusal to drink (or to do drugs) and abstinence from alcohol and other substances.
In the many clients who also suffer from post-traumatic conditions, the hypnogogic state facilitates the re-experiencing of traumatic memories in a setting that allows them finally to be processed and remembered in normal ways and places in the brain. Spiritual experiences often accompany the reprocessing of old memories.
All of this is accomplished in a safe and comfortable place with a licensed therapist and addiction counselor.
A second subset of addicts need to activate their brains. Cocaine and methamphetamine reduce slow wave activity (theta and low alpha waves) and increase beta. This is rewarding for the sluggish, under activated brains of the cocaine and amphetamine users. We can use “fast-wave” Neurofeedback training to increase beta and slow the Theta waves down. In many cases, this straightens out attention issues without the use of drugs. See our Attention page for more information.
Research on Neurofeedback for Addictions
Eugene Peniston, with his collaborator Paul Kulkosky, did their first study in 1989, with a small group of hard-core VA alcoholics. The results were hard to believe, and Steve Fahrion and others took it upon themselves to verify them by calling relatives of the 10 addicts. They did confirm what Peniston and Kulkosky had found: after thirteen months, 8 of the 10 were still sober.
They have since followed these same 10 clients for 10 years and 7 remain abstinent (one has died). A follow-up study in 1990 found that a number of personality variables improved in the Neurofeedback group relative to a control group.