Have you ever been in a hurry and driving? It seems like everything’s an obstacle. The traffic lights turn red at just the wrong time, stop signs and pedestrians appear out of nowhere, and the tree-lined streets you’re passing through are just a blur.
Jennae’s life felt like that. She started counseling after she was turned down for a promotion at work, and she couldn’t stop spinning stories about what that meant: “Nothing’s good enough. I even bring work home, but there’s always more to do. I don’t think my boss likes me, and I’m afraid she’s going to let me go.”
Obstacles seem everywhere. And if you keep driving as usual, you’re in danger of crashing the car or running out of gas.
Jennae struggled with worry. “I feel like I’m in free fall,” she said. “I must be messing up in some way, but I don’t understand how.”
The truth was that Jennae loved her job. She organized events for a university, and the next step would have given her a lot more responsibility and creativity. The problem, as I saw it, was the spinning thoughts. If you can change your thoughts, you can change your life.
We started neurofeedback and cognitive therapy, which work well together. Cognitive therapy helps change patterns of negative thoughts common to worry, and as a result reduces stress. Neurofeedback helps facilitate that change by engaging the brain at a level that can bypass the usual doubts and fears.
Jennae’s “brainwaves” suggested a strong artistic ability and a sharp mind, a good match for the work she loved. They also suggested a difficulty with self-soothing and an imbalance that most people describe as “busy brain” and worry.
At first she felt calmer and happier for a day or so after the session, and then the effect faded. This typical for early sessions; your brain needs frequent reminders to “stay with” new patterns.
By the 8th session, Jennae’s calmer mood was lasting most of the week, and she was falling sleep more easily. Sleep is often one of the first things to shift with neurofeedback.
As Jennae grew calmer, she was able to work more quickly and delegate more. She felt calmer at work because she literally had more time.
“My boss told me I need to more of a leader,” she said. “I thought she was just using that as an excuse to brush me off, but now I’m seeing that I really do hold back and stay quiet most of the time. I guess I didn’t think I had much that was worth saying. I’d like to change that.”
She started her 14th session feeling excited. “I brought up an idea in a meeting, and someone didn’t like it,” she said. “I started going down the old paths, pulling back, but then I realized that I don’t have to react that way. I don’t have to get overwhelmed. And I didn’t!”
For Jennae, this was a fundamental change in her thinking. Instead of feeling swept into her old thoughts, she saw herself as having a choice between several possible responses, and was able to choose the one she wanted.
It’s as if the car she had been driving had slowed significantly. There were still red lights and stop signs and pedestrians, but they didn’t seem like obstacles any more. “I feel more in charge of what I do,” she said, “more like an adult.”
Over the next few months, Jennae found that she could comfortably and respectfully disagree with colleagues and share ideas with her boss. “In the past I would have been petrified,” she said.
After 20 sessions, the survival part of her brain was no longer running the show. We decided to shift neurofeedback from a more typical neurofeedback training to a Deep Relaxation* approach. This approach is often used for processing past emotional experiences, enhancing creativity, integration, and optimal performance.
Jennae began to sort out what it meant to her to be a leader. She stopped bringing work home, and felt more productive. When stressful things happened, she quickly came back to calm. “Something clicked,” she said. “I realize that when I do what I can, it is enough.”
Throughout this process, Jennae and sorted through options, and created a vision of what she wanted from her work. At one point I asked her about the promotion. “Oh, it will come, she laughed. Or something else will. I feel good about how work is going and for now I’m just enjoying that.”
The road home
Jennae made big changes over about six months. Watching her make these changes was amazing, but it wasn’t magic. The way I understand it is this: by giving her brain a nudge, neurofeedback helped get her mind unstuck, to find its own balance.
If she were driving a car, it would be like she’s not even on the same trip. Instead of a city drive with red lights and stop signs, it’s a leisurely drive through the countryside, and enjoying the scenery.
Of course obstacles come up. But instead of spinning thoughts, Jennae is often able to use the obstacles to remind herself to slow down, perhaps pull over, and maybe learn something about herself.
Jennae’s habit of worry is gone. By changing her thoughts, as well as the way she was thinking, Jennae set her life on a fundamentally different path.
Neurofeedback is also known as alpha-theta neurofeedback.
Note: Counseling services are absolutely private and confidential. Clients described here are a composite of several actual clients in counseling with me; all identifying details have been changed.