Using Biofeedback in Addiction Treatment

biofeedback therapy for substance abuse treatmentA noninvasive and self-guided therapy technique, biofeedback teaches a person how to control bodily functions to improve overall function. Electrical sensors are attached to the body to measure things like heart rate, muscle tension, breathing, temperature, sweat glands, and brainwaves, Mayo Clinic explains. A therapist can then help a person recognize bodily cues and how to positively modify them to help with things like chronic pain, stress, high blood pressure, headaches, and relaxation. Biofeedback is a therapeutic method that centers on the connection between mind and body, and holds that by improving a person’s awareness of their bodily functions, emotional and physical health can be improved.

Addiction is a chronic and relapsing brain disease that the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) publishes impacts and alters brain chemistry and wiring, leading to compulsive and dysfunctional behaviors. In 2014, more than 21 million American adults struggled with addiction, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reports. In the field of addiction treatment, biofeedback typically refers to neurofeedback, which involves measuring brainwaves and helping to alter them to improve cravings, minimize relapse, and manage withdrawal.

How Biofeedback Works during Addiction Treatment

Electroencephalographic (EEG) biofeedback, often called neurofeedback, measures alpha and theta brainwaves by placing electrodes on the scalp and using special machinery that gives both auditory and visual information, usually on a computer screen. Quantitative EEG (qEEG) methods can underline the exact brainwaves that have been impacted by drug abuse and dependence.

When a person abuses drugs or alcohol, changes are made to the chemical makeup of the brain. Levels of some neurotransmitters may be artificially elevated while others are diminished. When drug use is repeated regularly, the chemical alteration in the brain can become more established, and the brain may actually make different connections and create “shortcuts” to reward. Without the presence of the drugs and their interaction on brain chemicals, withdrawal symptoms can occur, leaving individuals feeling anxious, depressed, irritable, restless, and physically ill, and creating difficulties sleeping and thinking clearly. It may be hard to feel happy without drugs after this level of physical dependence has formed, and individuals may have strong cravings to keep taking drugs, in part to avoid the negative symptoms of withdrawal, and also to feel “balanced.”

Drug-seeking and compulsive behaviors may become commonplace, and individuals may no longer be able to control the frequency, amount, and duration of their drug use. Addiction therefore impacts emotions, behavior, and the physical wiring of the brain.

When used during addiction treatment, neurofeedback may be able to help by:

  • Diminishing drug cravings
  • Minimizing episodes of relapse
  • Managing withdrawal symptoms
  • Improving emotional health
  • Heightening cognitive abilities
  • Enhancing overall life function
  • Improving sleep
  • Reducing impulsivity
  • Heightening focus and attention
  • Controlling moods and emotions
  • Managing stress and tension
  • Modifying negative thoughts
  • Decreasing self-destructive behaviors and improving self-regulation

Everything a person does or thinks is influenced by the brain. Brainwaves impact how a person feels, thinks, and therefore acts. In this vein, by learning how to strengthen the bond between mind and body, and by recognizing how bodily functions interact with thoughts and therefore actions, a person may be able to actually relearn how to think to improve their overall wellbeing.

A trained therapist can use the details of the qEEG scan to determine exactly how brainwaves are functioning and what areas could use improvement. Therapists can recognize potentially dysfunctional brainwaves and help clients to learn more effective ways of thinking – in a sense retraining the brain. Positive imagery can be introduced, and new patterns can be established. Clients are trained to visualize success and envision themselves being happy and healthy in specific and general terms, depending on the session and goals. Controlling things like breathing, for example, can help to lower heart rate and blood pressure and thus quell anxiety and produce calming results. Neurofeedback training can improve self-regulation, which can enhance a person’s overall emotional and mental state. Several sessions may be helpful as it can take time to learn these new ways of thinking.

Neurofeedback and biofeedback may also be useful as part of an integrated treatment plan for co-occurring disorders. Mental health disorders, such as mood and anxiety disorders, often co-occur with addiction, and neurofeedback may be able to improve symptoms of both addiction and mental health concerns. Neurofeedback and neurotherapy methods use brain mapping to identify potential problem areas in the brain and shows individuals how bodily functions impact brainwaves.

Biofeedback has been shown to be clinically effective to treat many different conditions. Per the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback(AAPB), these include chronic pain, epilepsy, anxiety disorders, cerebral palsy, attention and hyperactivity disorders, insomnia, migraine and tension headaches, enuresis, urinary and fecal incontinence, stroke, rheumatoid arthritis pain, Reynard’s disease, TMJ conditions, rectal ulcer and pain, motion sickness, irritable bowel syndrome, hypertension, and neuromuscular disorders. Biofeedback is considered to be an adjunct therapy type, meaning that it is optimally used in conjunction with other methods.

Biofeedback as Part of a Complete Treatment Plan

Studies published by EEG Info highlight that neurofeedback may be able to improve long-term abstinence rates over traditional drug rehab alone (from 20-30 percent to over 50 percent). The journal Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback reports on studies that showed improvement in overall mental health, hope for success, withdrawal symptoms, and lessened cravings in people studied who were battling opioid addiction and treated with neurofeedback training.

Neurofeedback may be particularly beneficial on adolescent brains, which are not yet fully formed. As published in the journal Child & Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, neurofeedback shows promise as a method with very few side effects for treating teens who suffer from stimulant abuse as well as conduct or attention disorders. Neurofeedback was initially introduced to treat alcohol addiction and has since been shown to be beneficial in treating opioid, cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine addiction.

The complexity and individual nature of the disease of addiction means that there is likely not one single form of treatment that will work for everyone every time. Instead, the journal Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback postulates that while neurofeedback can be a useful tool for substance abuse and addiction treatment, it is ideally used as part of a comprehensive treatment model that will be personalized for each individual.

Biofeedback is not optimally used as a primary treatment method, but rather as part of a more complete treatment plan. Traditional therapeutic methods, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and pharmacological tools, are generally included in a treatment plan for addiction. Both CBT and neurofeedback can help individuals to recognize potential triggers and help them cope with stress and anxiety. When used together, these therapeutic methods can complement each other.

Stress can increase vulnerability to relapse, and neurofeedback training can help a person to remain calm and focus, thereby learning how to manage stress and the body’s reaction to it in order to think rationally and make better decisions. Medications are also often an important part of an addiction treatment plan, as they can help to manage the symptoms of withdrawal, reduce cravings, and treat symptoms of co-occurring disorders. When used in combination with necessary medications and traditional therapy methods, biofeedback can be a helpful component of a complete treatment program.

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