We all know anxiety well. Even if we’re not an addict in recovery, we can all identify with the pattern of using addictive substances, such as alcohol, caffeine, sugar, to pacify our discomfort. When we decide, for whatever reason, not to use those substances what else is available to calm us? Is neurofeedback for anxiety helpful? Does meditation work? Through the lens of two groups--addicts and their family members--we’ll explore how neurofeedback and mindfulness meditation can help calm our anxiety.
Often when addicted clients become sober or ACOAs (Adult Children of Alcoholics) start to look honestly at their unhealthy patterns, the same emotion bubbles up with an intensity and vividness that requires them to address it directly: the emotion being anxiety. Underneath the habitual patterning of grasping at the comfort object (alcohol for alcoholics, and relationships for ACOAs) lies an anxious, fearful sensation. From the brain perspective, the addictive cycling is fueled by a habituation to the stress response, also known as “fight/flight” response, also called a state of dysregulation. Craving the object of “relief” can be originally an unconscious drive to bring the brain back into a state of calm, and regulation. Many addictions are the byproduct of trying to use the addictive substance to calm their anxiety or depression.
Does neurofeedback work for anxiety?
When we train the brain with neurofeedback it functions to re-regulate the nervous system, to bring it out of the dysregulated stress response and back into the calm, centered state. Over a series of training sessions the brain learns how to regulate itself and as a result we come into, and stay in a state of calm, centeredness, and mental clarity.
When we are in early recovery from an addiction, or choosing to give up our usual soothing substance neurofeedback acts as an important support. We feel less anxious so are better able to make healthy choices. We can:
- Notice our compulsive craving more easily,
- Delay the gratification or change how we calm ourselves, such as go for a run rather than head to the bar
- Tolerate the discomfort of anxiety without it taking over our thinking
Neurofeedback supports the brain being more resilient and less reactive, making it much easier to sit with emotional content, and hence to remain sober. Clients report recovery is easier because there is less impulse to manually soothe themselves with booze, relationships, sex, etc. They also have fewer relapses and when they do, recovery time is much quicker.
How does mindfulness meditation help with anxiety?
Anxiety feels sticky, painful and speedy, and the first impulse is to want to relieve ourselves by fixing it or getting rid of it. This often leads to what one would quickly go to without any hesitation: the drink or an unhealthy relationship. This process is often unconscious or semi-conscious: we watch ourselves partake without feeling like we can stop it. The point at which we notice that it’s our anxiety is usually after we’ve engaged in the self-soothing activity that we’re trying to give up. After we impulsively had the drink or re-engaged in an unhealthy relationship and we’re feeling frustrated we realize in hindsight that we were highly anxious leading up to the compulsive behaviour. In the moment, the main driving belief is: don’t feel the anxiety (fear); get rid of it however you can!
The truth is that the experience of anxiety as sensations in the body, is very workable. When we slow down enough and allow ourselves to notice our present-moment experience --the heaviness, racing thoughts, jitteriness, as an experience--it doesn’t kill us. Especially when we’re joining it with mindfulness meditation on the breath.
Studies show that mindfulness meditation, particularly, when the object of our focus is the breath, reduces anxiety and helps reduce the intensity and duration of the stress response when the brain goes into it. (Read an introductory article from Mindful)
Practicing 10-15 minutes of meditation each day is an important support for staying away from our addictive substances.
Here’s how a regular meditation practice helps:
- Teaches us how to disconnect our attention from racing anxious thoughts
- Cultivate awareness that is able to notice our thoughts and our felt experience in our bodies
- Supports the brain re-regulating
- Acts as a speed bump so that it is easier to recognize our habits as they are arising
- Cultivates our ability to tolerate anxiety
In our NYC neurofeedback clinic, where we also teach mindfulness meditation, we notice that having anxious clients first start with the neurofeedback training for a few sessions to help their brains come into a state of regulation, and then add the mindfulness training, is the most effective for better quality and regular meditation practice. Why? Being in a habitually anxious state is like the brain perceiving it’s on the edge of a cliff: danger is imminent. It is very hard for it to switch gears and apply the still and focused instructions of mindfulness. The neurofeedback trains the brain to be in the right state to then be able to apply the meditation instruction.
- working with the emotions using mindfulness in my blog.
- the brain, meditation and neurofeedback listen to this podcast by Natalie Baker
- Blog on brain training for depression
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Heather Coleman, LCSW, Certified NeurOptimal® Neurofeedback Trainer,meditation instructor, and practicing psychotherapist since 2006.Neurofeedback session and talk therapy sessions available with Heather:
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