Current scientific evidence points toward a type of brain that is predisposed toward alcohol addiction. Many people have heard of the heritability of alcoholism. I had always focused my thoughts on the liver. An alcoholic is said to have a naturally high tolerance because their livers work just a little too well. The alcoholic’s liver is a real alcohol metabolizing work horse, allowing the soon-to-be alcoholic to drink more with less of the negative effects of being intoxicated. With the increased exposure to the drug over prolonged periods of time, the easier it is for the person’s body to get hooked.
Later it became clear to me that the specific effects of the drug were attractive to certain kinds of people, mainly anxious ones. Alcohol, like benzodiazepines, is a powerful anti-anxiety medication. For the anxious person with no other option available, alcohol can be an island of safety and relief. The more often the anxious person takes their “medications”, the greater the likelihood that their bodies will become physiologically dependent.
As I become more familiar with the research on the brains of alcoholics and study the QEEG’s of my own clients living in sobriety, I have developed a much more nuanced perspective on the psychophysiology of addiction and “anxiety”. I use quotes here because the word has a deferent meaning for each person that uses it. I will put off that discussion for a later blog.
The main take home point is that for many, the same brain that pushed them into addiction often remains even after they are sober, although often the situation has gotten worse. Many alcoholics continue to suffer from a pre-existing stress disorder even after they get clean. This is part of why relapse is so, so common in this group. Obviously, many of the therapeutic activities they engage in help, but often only after a series of painful and costly relapses. Neurofeedback offers those suffering in sobriety a way to get a fresh start and remove a huge part of the suffering that drove them to drink, made it so hard to get clean, and continues to threaten their sobriety.
3 Ways Neurofeedback Can Keep You Sober
1) Treating Alpha Deficiency: Perhaps the most common finding in QEEG studies is that alcoholics typically don’t produce enough alpha, especially in the sensory cortex of their brains. Alpha is the brainwave most closely associated with relaxation, mindfulness, and rest. For healthy people, it increases by 50-100% when they close their eyes (called the “alpha response”). Alpha plays a critical role in the transition to sleep. For those with too little, they feel chronically tense, often have trouble sleeping, and are frequently not comfortable in their own skin. Unfortunately for them, the first drink of alcohol causes a dramatic increase in posterior alpha. Except after the alcohol wears off, alpha is lower than it was before. After the chronic alcoholic gets sober, their alpha power will remain lower than it was before drinking for some time, if not for the rest of their life.
2) Excessive Beta: Beta is the frequency of volitional and engaged mental activity. In the right amounts, it allows a person to stay focused and get things done. However, excessive beta activity is often the result of thinking too much, sometimes about the same things repeatedly. In the higher frequencies, excessive beta means worry, rumination, and too much thinking. Beta often reflects the degree to which the brain is able to inhibit its own activity. When beta is too high, it may mean the brain is having trouble “turning off”. The brains of alcoholics after becoming sober are markedly higher in beta frequencies. This suggest that many are suffering from cortical hyperactivity. Alcohol, which activates one of the brain’s main “break pedals”, can bring on instant relief. In my clinic, we normally start with a slow frequency pEMF stimulation regime, which changes the ratio of excitatory and inhibitory neurons, giving the brain a better organic capacity to calm down. We then follow up with neurofeedback training, which teaches the client to voluntarily control that activity, so they can turn it on when they need to and then turn it off when it is time to rest.
3) Impulsivity and Relapse Prevention: The healthy brain has mechanisms that allow us to stop ourselves from doing something stupid, especially after having done the same stupid thing repeatedly in the past. The regions of the brain involved in inhibition of behavior are located in the central and frontal regions. Depending on the QEEG (brain map), sites along these regions can be targeted for neurofeedback training to increase the sober alcoholic’s ability to comfortably abstain from taking the first steps toward drinking. Part of this has to do with the brain’s ability to use past experience to guide current behavior. If we can make decisions that are directed toward creating happiness and avoiding suffering, we can avoid allowing life’s many pitfalls to push us back into our addictions. When we find dysfunctions in one or more of these area, the client often lack’s the “emergency break” that would otherwise allow them to stop that painful emotion into an action they will later regret.