Sexual abuse. Emotional neglect. Parental mental illness. Domestic violence. All these are examples of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), traumatic events that happen in childhood and can cause issues into adulthood.
This type of chronic stress in childhood is likely to cause a child’s brain to develop to be ready for more chronic stress. These children are more likely to view the world as a terrifying place. They may develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other mental health problems later in life.
Of course, in an ideal world, no child would be traumatized. But we live in a world far from ideal, and ACEs are depressingly common. The research found that 62% of adults reported they had experienced at least one type of ACE before the age of 18, while 25% reported three or more.
But the good news is that just as the brain responds to negative experiences in childhood, it can also change and respond to positive experiences, even in adulthood. With the right treatment, it is possible to experience healing from childhood trauma.
There are specific therapies that are particularly helpful in overcoming Adverse Childhood Experiences. Our ACEs Healing Modalities Blog Series aims to explain these therapies, as part of our dedicated mission to help people to heal from childhood trauma. We encourage you to learn more about the eight ACE healing modalities which we will publish, including neurofeedback here, to explain what they are and how they could help you or those you love.
What is neurofeedback therapy?
Neurofeedback therapy may all sound very sci-fi – having wires and sensors attached to your head and seeing what your brain is doing right now. But neurofeedback has been used to help many conditions, including common responses to childhood trauma, such as ADHD and PTSD.
So, how does it work? Neurofeedback uses electrodes to monitor brain activity. In a session, you will have electrical sensors attached to your head. You can see how your brain is functioning in real time and how it responds to different situations.
This allows you to understand the inner workings of your brain and show reactions that you may not have been aware of.
The next step is to use neurofeedback therapy sessions to train the brain to work differently where needed. This is done by encouraging desirable brain waves. The therapist might have you watch something on a screen while measuring brain waves. The screen brightens with positive wave types; the idea is that you will try to repeat their behavior to get the reward of the brighter screen.
Over time, the theory goes, this will move from therapy sessions into everyday life – as you learn how to shift your brain waves during neurofeedback therapy, you can apply these shifts to your everyday life.
‘Neurofeedback is not considered a cure, but rather a method of managing or regulating the workings of the brain so it functions in a healthier manner.’ Psychology Today
Neurofeedback for childhood trauma and PTSD
Can neurofeedback help in healing from childhood trauma and PTSD? The short answer is yes. Neurofeedback for PTSD aims to teach the brain to work differently and is one of the recommended ways to help heal childhood trauma.
Normally, the body enters ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ mode when a person feels threatened, but when a person has suffered trauma, this state of heightened awareness may be continuous – they are always on alert. Neurofeedback therapy can train the brain away from this state and towards a more restful place.
Healing after childhood trauma is a process, and the aim of neurofeedback is not to heal the trauma itself, but to lessen the effect the trauma has on your brain. Participants have reported feeling calmer after the sessions, having learned how to reduce the brain waves associated with anxiety. Analysis into this has shown that it may be helpful for adults and children, though the evidence is not definite, and more research is needed.
EMDR vs Neurofeedback
EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It is used to process trauma; in a therapy session, the patient will recall a traumatic experience while the therapist instructs them to move their eyes in a different direction. This lessens the intensity of the response to the trauma by redirecting attention elsewhere.
So EMDR and neurofeedback therapy aim to regulate the brain’s response to certain events, and both can be part of a childhood trauma healing plan.
But which is better?
The answer is that it depends on the patient, but here are some pointers that might help you decide:
- Have you suffered a single traumatic event or been exposed to ongoing trauma? EMDR processes a particular traumatic memory, while neurofeedback calms your nervous system as a whole, so EMDR might be better suited to isolated events and neurofeedback to a continuous period of trauma.
- How comfortable are you remembering and talking about this trauma? EMDR requires recalling traumatic experiences – if you struggle to do so, neurofeedback might be a better option.
These therapies, however, are not mutually exclusive – you can try both and see what works for you.
Finding a neurofeedback therapist
If you want to give neurofeedback a go, it’s worth taking the time to find the right therapist.
The International Society for Neuroregulation & Research allows you to search for neurofeedback therapists based on location and specialty.
Therapists do not need to be certified to offer neurofeedback, but it is possible to find certified practitioners. The Biofeedback Certification International Alliance offers a neurofeedback certificate to those who have completed relevant education and training.
As well as location, it is important to check insurance coverage and payment options and ask questions about the practitioner’s specialism, and how many sessions they think you may need. Finally, the therapist fit is important – we have some guidance on choosing a therapist that is best for you and your needs.
During this Mental Health Awareness Month, learn more about healing from ACEs by subscribing to our newsletter. Help us help others by supporting our work. Read about the ten categories of ACEs by following our blog. Do you know your ACE score? Take the ACE test here.
Childhood trauma should never happen, and can cause huge damage, but it is not the end of the road – I hope to share that there are ways for survivors to not just survive, but thrive.