Can Biofeedback Fight Addiction?

by | Jan 17, 2017 | Addiction | 0 comments

Home » Addiction » Can Biofeedback Fight Addiction?

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Biofeedback uses advanced technology to give us greater control over cognitive function. (Sergey Kohl/Shutterstock)

If you’ve ever seen certain movies, such as Limitless or Lucy, you’re well aware of the commonly regurgitated myth that we only use approximately 10% of our brains. This myth stems from the fact that different parts of the brain control different functions. And in many cases, these functions work involuntarily. This led some to believe that much of our brain remains unused, causing them to wonder what would happen if we could manage to use the entire thing. And while that myth generally only pops up in science fiction, it maintains at least one real-world implementation. This is known as biofeedback.

When you think about it, retaining complete control over our brains would lead to trouble. Imagine being forced to actively think about every single heartbeat. Ponder the implications of having no muscle memory of which to speak. On the other hand, imagine how greatly your health could improve if you gained just a bit more control over these functions. If you could better understand how your brain and body work, you could potentially overcome a number of mental and physical health issues. Researchers believe addiction to be one of them.

The type of biofeedback generally used in addiction treatment is EEG biofeedback, also known as neurofeedback. We’ll discuss neurofeedback in greater detail below. First, however, we’d like to begin with a brief introduction of biofeedback in general. This fascinating treatment method serves a number of purposes, many of which might service addiction recovery in various ways. In most cases, these relate to stress relief and relaxation. But when recovering from alcoholism or drug addiction, it never hurts to improve our general health. Biofeedback presents us with just one option for doing so.

What Precisely Is Biofeedback?

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Certain tools may allow you to practice biofeedback from home. (Monika Wisniewska/Shutterstock)

Biofeedback utilizes electrodes and finger sensors, which provide us with information regarding heart rate, blood pressure, skin conductance, temperature, muscle tone and pain perception. They also monitor sweat and breathing. When our body undergoes stress, whether emotionally based or due to physical problems such as migraines, these processes undergo alterations. If we understand these processes, we can theoretically alter our brainwaves accordingly. This means that we can relieve ourselves of headaches and emotional stress. With enough practice, we should even be able to accomplish this without the use of equipment such as sensors. This, however, often takes a fair bit of time.

Until the patient is ready to practice on their own, biofeedback generally takes place in a therapist’s office. You can, however, acquire sensors that will hook up to your computer at home. But even if you choose to do this, remember that you will require a therapist’s aid to understand the process initially. They will work with you to develop relaxation techniques that improve your body’s involuntary functions. This can enable you to slow your breathing, lower your blood pressure, and even alter your brainwaves. As noted above, many use this for headaches or other physical ailments. But some of these relaxation techniques may affect addiction as well.

Such techniques utilized in biofeedback include deep breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation. The latter requires you to alter muscle contractions in various muscle groups, tightening and subsequently releasing tension in each muscle. Biofeedback may also utilize meditative techniques, such as mindfulness and guided imagery. Mindfulness requires you to maintain focus, letting go of negative thoughts and feelings. If you’ve ever tried walking meditation or Zen sitting meditation, you should already be familiar with mindfulness training. Guided imagery maintains some similarities to mindfulness. With guided imagery, however, you focus your thoughts entirely on one specific image. For instance, you might try to imagine the look and feel of a specific object, such as a piece of fruit. This frees your mind of other thoughts, allowing you to relax and relieve stress.

Regardless of the relaxation technique used, your progress will show on the monitor. The sensors will pick up on changes in your biological functions, relaying this information through visual signals. In other words, you can literally see the stress fade away. Once you grow familiar with the process, you should find yourself able to benefit from relaxation techniques without any equipment.

Difference Between Neurofeedback

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Neurofeedback utilizes EEG headsets as opposed to other sensors. (wideonet/Shutterstock)

The difference between various forms of biofeedback revolves largely around the type of technology used. Neurofeedback uses EEG sensors, reading brainwaves to determine patterns. While hooked up to these sensors, patients often watch a specialized video. The audio and the images on the screen then change in accordance with the patient’s brainwaves. For instance, deviations in desired neural activity may result in a change of brightness or contrast. In other words, the patient actually does nothing. The video does all the work, and the patient’s brain changes almost involuntarily. This marks a difference between EEG biofeedback and biofeedback techniques reliant on mental exercises.

Despite this difference, neurofeedback retains certain similarities to other forms of biofeedback. Most notably, all forms of biofeedback appear to focus on operant conditioning. This means that changes in brain and body functions result from repetition. As the brain continues to reach desired patterns, the patient is rewarded with positive reinforcement by allowing them to watch the video unaltered. After a session, the patient may feel tired or fatigued. But during the period between sessions, their brain will alter in a positive way. Over time, they will become calmer and exhibit more rational behavior. This makes their recovery much easier.

Neurofeedback largely works due to the manner in which substance abuse damages the brain. Our brains work very differently after we expose them to drugs or alcohol for extended periods of time. Not only do we become more emotionally detached, but we also suffer impairments of basic brain functions. These include cognition, memory and motor skills. In other words, we no longer think or even move with as much ease as we did before our addiction began. We may also suffer impairments of visual ability and spatial reasoning. To make up for this, our brain may actually compensate by using the wrong regions of the brain to perform these functions. Neurofeedback helps to amend this state of affairs.

Aside from improvements to basic brain function, EEG biofeedback may also reduce cravings. In addition, biofeedback in general may help with co-occurring disorders such as anxiety and depression. Biofeedback and neurofeedback also benefit those who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. For dual diagnosis facilities such as Amethyst, neurofeedback may therefore prove promising as a short-term treatment method. The question remains, however, whether more treatment centers will begin utilizing this highly beneficial tool in the near future.

Biofeedback and Addiction Recovery

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The ability to study and alter brainwaves may have huge implications for the future of addiction treatment. (Shidlovski/Shutterstock)

One of the greatest advantages of EEG biofeedback in addiction treatment is the propensity to measure treatment progress. Not only might EEG measures allow for marking cognitive behavioral progress, but relapse vulnerability as well. Those who suffer from comorbidity with mental disorders will especially benefit from this. The ability to measure treatment progress also benefits harder to treat patients. This includes those with cognitive impairments, those who use particularly addictive drugs (such as crack cocaine), and those who simply resist conventional treatment methods. Using psychophysiological markers provided by biofeedback better enables treatment professionals to monitor the success of such patients.

Studies on this issue show that researchers will require more data in order to understand these progress markers. Specifically, they require research regarding the long-term effects of drug abuse on emotion, memory and behavior. They also must better understand how cognitive function affects outcomes such as relapse rates. With this information, however, treatment professionals utilizing biofeedback methods could greatly improve the treatment community as a whole. Using neurofeedback in addition to other forms of biofeedback may prove especially beneficial. As the patient’s cognition improves subconsciously through EEG biofeedback, relaxation techniques will allow for more conscious improvements. These two treatments together may therefore allow for rapid treatment progress.

The primary roadblock standing in the way of widespread implementation is the need for technology. Biofeedback requires electrodes and sensors, high-tech computer software, monitors and audiovisual stimuli in the form of specialized videos. To purchase and maintain these devices, treatment centers require funding. Some private treatment centers may already utilize biofeedback. Most state-funded facilities, however, remain largely under-funded. This makes it more difficult to utilize biofeedback in addiction treatment on any sort of grand scale. Those who wish to make use of this treatment must therefore go through the hassle of tracking it down first.

Biofeedback marks a potential revolution in the future of addiction treatment. It could allow patients to recover effectively without the need for medication-assisted treatment. Focusing solely on brain function, addicts and alcoholics can fight the disease at its source. But while this prospect may sound appealing, it remains unfeasible for many treatment centers. Unfortunately, without greater access to local or federal funding, this revolution may never come to pass. Fortunately, conventional methods continue helping addicts and alcoholics every day. As for the harder cases, we may have to wait and see what the future holds. In the meantime, biofeedback offers a glimmer of hope for a future in which addiction becomes easier to treat than ever before.

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