Brain Training – Neurofeedback 101
Congratulations on making the decision to develop a better you through the process of training your brain. There are many things that you need to know as you begin this process. The information below will give you helpful information as well as vital instructions so that you can get the most out of your brain training experience.
One of our body’s first clues that there may be a problem, whether mentally, emotionally, or physically, is a change in our sleeping pattern. Problems in sleep may look like getting too little sleep or too much sleep. You may be able to fall asleep quickly but then not be able to stay asleep for more than a few hours. You may want to sleep all day and stay up all night. You may be waking up too early in the morning. You may think you are sleeping all night but find that you are exhausted during the day, which may be an indication that you are not sleeping as deeply as you should be.
A good night’s rest can result in feeling more emotionally stable, increased attention, mental clarity and focus, and better decision-making capabilities. This is why sleep is one of the first things that we address at Focus for Living. Just like you can have good personal hygiene habits that help you feel refreshed and ready to face the day, there are good “sleep hygiene” habits that can set you up for a good night’s rest. Here are some things to keep in mind regarding sleep hygiene:
- Avoid caffeine and sugary drinks late in the afternoon. You may think that a soda or cup of coffee doesn’t affect you, but chances are that soda at dinner time is making a bigger impact on your sleep than you may know (not to mention your weight).
- Go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day. Because our bodies operate on something called a circadian rhythm, a routine is vital! If you vary your routine by more than an hour every night, your body can get confused and try to keep you awake when you want to be sleeping, or try to keep you asleep when you want to be awake. This principle does not only apply to weekdays; this must be a 7-day-a-week, even-on-vacation commitment.
- Avoid any exercising in the hours before bedtime. You want to engage in activities that are calming before bed such as reading or writing.
- Avoid any technology time for one to two hours before bedtime. Our bodies take their cues to start winding down and get ready for sleep primarily from light. TV, computer, and smartphone use too close to bedtime can sabotage our natural sleep rhythm and cause us to lie awake.
- Come up with a predictable bedtime routine. This will help your body signal itself to wind down and get ready for sleep. Some things to consider in your routine could include taking a warm bath or shower in low light, meditation or prayer, writing in a journal, reading a devotional, or having a cup of decaffeinated herbal tea.
- NO TV IN THE BEDROOM. A common misconception is that watching TV in bed can help us relax and wind down. In reality, doing this can trick your body into thinking that your bed is not just for sleep, and can cause your body to think that it is time to wake up and pay attention when in reality it is time to go to sleep. Try to only use your bedroom and your bed for sleeping and sex, and reserve things like TV watching or homework for other areas in the home.
- Take ANYTHING out of the bedroom that could stimulate your senses and cause you to stay in shallow sleep. A perfect sleeping environment is still, quiet, cool and dark. This means you must eliminate any children or pets from your bed. You also should not sleep with any music or “white” noise such as a noise machine that makes beach or rainforest sounds. Your room should be free of any light sources such as night-lights, illuminated clocks, or lights from outside streetlamps. Even an overhead ceiling fan can signal your brain to stay awake because of how it can disrupt the light in front of your eyes, even though your eyes are closed. You may say, “I can’t sleep without these things!” In reality, if you have any of these things in your sleeping environment, you probably are not experiencing your best night’s sleep. It may take a few nights to adjust to a new pattern, but once you sterilize your sleeping environment you will have a much better chance of achieving a quality night’s rest than if you sleep in a contaminated environment.
If you lie awake in bed for more than 20 minutes, whether it is when you are first trying to go to sleep or whether it is in the middle of the night when you are trying to get back to sleep, you are likely suffering from primary insomnia. Please keep us informed of problems in this area so that we can work with you to get them fixed as soon as possible.
Exercise increases blood flow to your brain (thereby increasing oxygen in the brain), helping you to feel better and make better decisions. Bottom line? You must exercise in order to have the best brain function and experience your best life. A mistake that many people make when they are beginning an exercise plan is to go “too hard, too fast.” When you take on too much, your body wears out, you get discouraged, and you quit before your body has even had time to reap the benefits. A simple way to start would be with an energetic walk. A good rule of thumb when you are walking is to make sure to walk briskly as if you are very late to an appointment or meeting. If you can spend 20-45 minutes, three to four times a week, doing an activity that will raise your heart rate, you will see brain benefits.
When we eat, we often think about how that food is going to affect “problem areas” which could include waistline, hips, our heart, our blood pressure or our cholesterol levels. We rarely think about how what we eat is going to affect the organ that makes all of our decisions and governs how we think, feel and act: our brain! The truth is that what we eat absolutely has a profound effect on our brain function and health. In fact, even though our brain is only 2% of your total body weight, it uses more than 20% of the calories you consume. Here are some tips to help develop better-eating habits (adapted from Dr. Daniel Amen’s book, Healing ADD):
- Give your brain “high-quality” calories, and not too many of them. Obesity is incredibly hard on your brain. In fact, the larger your body gets, the smaller your brain gets! Trust me, you do not want a smaller brain! If you eat more calories than your brain and body can handle, you will be fatter, sicker, and less productive.
- Eat high-quality protein throughout the day. Healthy protein options include fish, skinless turkey or chicken, beans, raw nuts and high-protein veggies such as spinach or broccoli.
- Eat SMART carbs. SUGAR IS NOT YOUR FRIEND!!!!! We cannot stress this enough. Sugar increases inflammation in your body and erratic brain cell firing is addictive and has been implicated in aggression. Increased inflammation in the body increases inflammation in the brain. Many “white” foods such as white bread, corn and potatoes are full of “empty carbs” and sugars. Smart carbs are found in vegetables and fruits such as blueberries and apples. It is important to choose carbs that also have high fiber content. A good rule of thumb is to look for foods that have more than 5g of fiber and less than 5g of sugar per serving.
- Eat from the rainbow. This means that when you look at your plate, you should not just see white foods. Incorporate many colors into your diet by including things like blueberries, pomegranates, yellow squash, and red bell peppers.
- Focus on getting healthy fats into your diet. It is a lie that we need to eliminate fat from our diets in order to be healthy. We do need to make an effort to eliminate the “bad” fats, and eat lots of “good” fats. The human brain is 78% fat cells by volume. This means that we need to eat healthy fats to support our brain function and give it the tools it needs for optimum performance. Healthy fats are those that contain omega-3 fatty acids found in foods such as salmon, sardines, avocados, walnuts, flaxseed, chia seeds, and dark green leafy veggies.
- Having trouble with mood, energy, memory, weight, blood sugar, blood pressure or skin may indicate a food sensitivity to various foods or food products such as gluten or dairy. You can get a blood test if you suspect you have a food sensitivity or intolerance.
Further along on this website, you will find a quick guide titled Brain Training Diet to help you know which foods to choose as you are undergoing the process of brain training.
Water is essential for proper brain function. Your brain is 80% water by weight. Therefore, it is imperative that you DRINK WATER and that you DON’T DRINK YOUR CALORIES. A good general rule is to drink half of your weight in ounces up to 120 ounces a day. For example, a 130-pound woman would need to drink 75 ounces of water per day (130 lbs ÷ 2 = 75 oz). Avoid drinking too much caffeine or alcohol as these substances can actually dehydrate your brain.
During your brain training here at Focus for Living, we recommend that you avoid toxins and chemicals demonstrated to have a negative effect on brain function. These include alcohol, nicotine, too much caffeine (> 300 mg, or more than one Venti Starbucks, or two Tall Starbucks per day), any type of illegal or illicit drugs, or any misuse/overuse of a prescription medication. It is vital that you continue to be in conversation with us about any difficulty you are having in this area. We need to know what kinds of substances you are using and when so that we can account for this in your brain training. Anytime your physician adds, discontinues, or changes your medications, please notify your neuro therapist.
There are many supplements that you can choose to add to your diet. The most important supplement you can take for your brain health is Omega-3 (or fish oil). When shopping for a fish oil supplements, you need to look for one that contains only Omega-3s. Omega-6 and 9’s are unimportant where brain health is concerned. You also want to look for high levels of EPA and DHA. Generally, unpasteurized Krill oil supplements are a good bet. Alternatively, eating 2-3 servings (4-6 oz each) per week of a high-quality fatty fish, like salmon, will get you the same results. A good multi-vitamin is also a great idea because most Americans do not get enough of the right nutrients through their diet. We may recommend other supplements based on your self-report or a neurotransmitter test. Please do not hesitate to ask us questions about supplements.
Other Neurofeedback “Tools”
There are many other “tools” that we want to give you in order to help you rewire your brain and help you be successful in reaching your treatment goals. We want you to leave your time in treatment with a “full toolbox” so that you can cope with the troubles that life will throw at you.
ANTs are Automatic Negative Thoughts. How you are thinking affects your emotions and your emotions affect your behaviors. In other words, your behaviors are the “grandchildren” of your thoughts. Throughout your time at Focus for Living, we will check in with you about your ANTs. Please read the ANT therapy workbook in the back of this binder, and keep it handy in case you need to read it again. It is foundational for the work that we will do throughout training.
During your time with us, we will train you to take slow, deep breaths from your diaphragm. Most of us are not mindful of our breathing unless we’re out of breath. We will teach you to take control of your breathing to help you during times when you feel stressed or anxious. It is also a helpful strategy to help you get the most out of your brain training session. During most sessions, you can expect that we will spend some time working on deep breathing.
There has been significant research that states that an “attitude of gratitude” can have a significant impact on symptoms such as depression and anxiety, and can even help children feel more mindful and less entitled. A practical way to increase feelings of gratitude is to keep a gratitude journal. This is where you take time every day to write down 5 things for which you are grateful. We will sometimes refer to this as your “Daily 5’s.” There are even smartphone apps that you can download to keep track of your Daily 5’s.
What is “Brain Training” and how do I do it?
Your job during brain training is not difficult. Your brain is the most complex organ in the universe, and the process of self-regulation that your brain is undergoing is a complex process. However, your job during brain training is very simple: RELAX! The best brain training sessions that you will have, depending on your ability to be relaxed and still. It may be helpful for you to think about getting into a state called the AARF state: Awake, Alert, Relaxed and Focused.
Think of neurofeedback as a learning process. It is a skill, and just like playing the piano or shooting baskets, it takes practice to become an expert. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t seem to get it within the first session or two. When we look at your brainwaves, we are looking for areas of your brain that are not working as efficiently as they should be. This may mean that there are areas of your brain that are working too hard or areas that are not working hard enough. We know that each area of your brain is responsible for a specific function such as motor movement, speech, emotional processing, or decision-making. When one of these areas is not working as efficiently as it should be, you may experience this as a problem in your day-to-day functioning, or what we may call a “symptom.”
When you come in for your session, a clinician will put sensors called electrodes on your scalp. The purpose of these sensors is to read the electrical signal that your brain produces. You will not feel anything from these sensors; they are passive. Just as a thermometer’s job is to measure your temperature, the only job of the electrode is to measure your brain’s natural activity. The clinician working with you will monitor your brain’s activity and use the computer to ask your brain to perform more efficiently. When the computer detects that your brain is performing toward increased efficiency, you will get some feedback. There will usually be some sort of tone or sound and a picture on the screen will let your brain know that it is performing more efficiently. The clinician will explain a little more before each session as to what you can expect for feedback during your training that day.
The most important skill you will develop in training is maintaining relaxed focus – we call it “being actively passive.” You will not necessarily be able to “feel” anything differently. You can’t control your feedback by changing your thought process. There is nothing you can do in your conscious awareness to give yourself a greater reward. There are many subtle shifts that your brain makes in order to facilitate this process, and you need to sit back, relax, and enjoy seeing your brain learning what it needs to learn in order to function more efficiently. Often children excel at this type of training because they don’t try too hard to control their feedback. As you are training remember the AARF state: awake, alert, relaxed and focused. Notice what you notice and enjoy the journey.