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How You Can Train Your Brain to Help Reduce Stress

Neurofeedback is an emerging method that relaxes, enhances creativity and improves mental health.

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By the early 1990s, the same technology that brought us personal computers and Xboxes had changed all that, and without huge research investments therapists could focus specifically on brain waves that correlate to mental states. A quantified EEG could show that a patient's brain contained waves outside the normal range, and new software made it easier to create training protocols or use existing ones to boost or reduce activity across a frequency or region of the brain. Neurofeedback began to gain a devoted following of patients and clinicians who swore by its effects. Martin Wuttke is one of those clinicians, a neurofeedback pioneer known for getting remarkable results—starting with himself.

A former heroin addict, Wuttke discovered meditation could help him beat the drugs, and soon he was running meditation and counseling sessions for other addicts. "I found that the key to recovering from addiction was a spiritual experience," Wuttke says. "That's what the Twelve Steps [of Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous] are all about, but I felt like that had gotten lost." To facilitate that experience and give it credibility by grounding it in science, Wuttke turned to neurofeedback.

Alcoholics and drug addicts often have too many fast brain waves—which is perhaps why they seek a chemical fix to calm and soothe overactive brains, he says. With the right technology, neurofeedback practitioners believe they can wake up parts of the brain that are too sleepy and calm down regions that are spinning out of control.

For Wuttke, the results were life-changing. As people moved through his program, he says, "Their depressions went away, their pains went away, their anxieties went away." Wuttke believes patients become less likely to backslide once they realize they have access to inner calm without drugs or alcohol, an insight he describes in terms of "awakening."

Neurofeedback's potential hit home when Wuttke's son, Jacob, was born with brain injuries and major developmental problems. "At age 2, he had no muscle tone and some severe difficulties," says Wuttke, "but the pediatric neurologist couldn't give us any answer about why or how to treat him." Wuttke and his wife at the time, Amy O'Dell, took matters into their own hands, developing a comprehensive treatment regime incorporating neurofeedback.Facing the difficulties of asking a child so young to control his brain waves, Wuttke and O'Dell observed the feedback screen and stimulated their son when his brain produced the desired patterns. "We would be very quiet when his brain wasn't within parameters, and then when it was, we would squeeze him and say, 'Good work!' and orient his brain to those moments."

At the beginning of the process, Wuttke describes his toddler son as "hypotonic": unable to sit on his own or hold his head upright. But "within 60 days, his brain started to come alive," Wuttke says, and this cognitive awakening was the first step in a process that soon had his son crawling, walking and running. After witnessing the results, Wuttke and O'Dell established Jacob's Ladder, a school for developmentally challenged children in Atlanta, Georgia, run by O'Dell. Although Jacob couldn't retain five letters of the alphabet at age 6, by age 14 he was reading at a 12th grade level, and the school had achieved national recognition.

That experience helped Wuttke formulate his "neurodevelopmental" approach, in which he uses exercise, dietary supplements and neurofeedback in concert to establish and rewire broken pathways in the brain. Since then, Wuttke has trained thousands of neurofeedback practitioners and garnered a cadre of patients who describe neurofeedback in transformative terms.

Beth Black, for example, fairly raves about the way Wuttke's neurofeedback regimen impacted her 7-year-old son. "Ethan's a completely different kid now," she says. When Black adopted Ethan at 5 months old, he'd already endured severe neglect and suspected pre-natal drug use by his mother, so it wasn't entirely surprising that the boy faced challenges. Still, by the time he entered first grade at age 6 it was clear to Black, director of the Family Art Therapy Center in Clayton, Georgia, that Ethan's problems were cause for serious concern. "We first noticed that when you teased him, he wouldn't understand or react normally, but would have these explosive tantrums," she explains.

 
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