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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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Failing socially and academically, Ethan hated school despite the efforts of his teachers and his mother to implement a program of special instruction and behavioral therapy. "He said no one liked him and he wanted to die, and when he would get really upset he would have to exhaust himself before he could get control," Black recalls. A child psychologist labeled Ethan with ADHD and prescribed medication, but Black was desperate to avoid drugs and turned to Wuttke instead. Using an evaluative brain-wave scan, Wuttke determined that Ethan lacked normal levels of beta, the relatively fast waves associated with attention and concentrated thought.

They implemented a training program of neurofeedback and listening therapy to boost this band and improve the boy's concentration, and within two weeks Black was a believer. "For the first time ever, he could tell me a story in sequence; within three weeks, he was scoring 100s on his spelling tests and just blowing us and his teachers away." After seven weeks, Ethan was able to calm himself, and the explosive anger was a thing of the past.

Black was so impressed that she applied for a grant to use neurofeedback with the juvenile offenders sent to her clinic regularly for court-assigned behavioral therapy. Counseling these young offenders had been "a waste of money," according to Black, but the seven juvenile offenders who entered the program of intensive neurofeedback therapy flourished.

"The judge came to us at the end of this program," Wuttke remembers, "and said, 'What did you do to these kids?'" Within weeks those who'd dropped out were back in school, performing so well on standardized tests that their learning disabilities seemed to have disappeared.

Such stories abound. "Our whole family was in trouble because of my daughter's depression and discipline problems," says Joann Bullard, whose daughter received treatment at Wuttke's clinic in the Netherlands. "She was going to have to go on medication because there just weren't any other options," Bullard says, but after 60 sessions of neurotherapy, "there was a total turnaround, and we're grateful every day." Another father, Ben Odukwe, says he visited specialists around the world after his son Onura was diagnosed with mild autism, but saw no real results until the boy entered Jacob's Ladder school and began a neurofeedback program under Wuttke's supervision. Onura's father notes that the boy's "communication, his confidence, his handwriting and dexterity all transformed," and at age 16, he's entering mainstream school for the first time.

Neurofeedback doesn't cure conditions like ADHD, depression or addiction. Instead, it enables people to produce the appropriate brain waves, which helps provide the attention, rest or contemplative awareness needed to deal with underlying issues. You can't manufacture these brain waves by force of will. I quickly discovered that success comes from letting go. "It's not a conscious thing," Wuttke emphasizes. You have to "surrender to the process [and] let your brain take over. You are going to deep parts of the brain and neutralizing disruptive brain waves, and often in this extreme state of quietude, key memories and patterns come up, almost like you're in a half dream state, and there's sort of a rewiring that occurs."

Wuttke likes to say our brain tends to follow certain "scripts," patterns of thought that take us to the same place over and over. Neurofeedback, as it forges new pathways in the brain, helps us devise new scripts.

Even as the technology has advanced and the success stories have grown into a rich anecdotal lore, however, neurofeedback continues to face skepticism and resistance from parts of the medical establishment. It has only begun to gain widespread acceptance as a therapeutic tool recently. "It was an up-and-coming treatment modality in the 1970s," says Evans, who has worked with the technology in academic and clinical settings. But he says neurofeedback lost scientific credibility when the early, simple equipment was adopted by and became associated with "hippies" in pursuit of "instant Zen."

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