VIC 19 | Neurofeedback

Today, KL Wells interviews Vanessa Sexson, a neuro-therapist who has been in the healing profession for 30 years.

In this episode, Vanessa addresses what neurofeedback is and how it can change your life. She discusses how to train your brain to experience change through breathing, re-training, and a no-talk option to heal.

The re-training addresses dysregulation and, therefore, relief from symptoms. Clients experience positive change as they feel, think, and perform better.

Learn about improved resilience, optimal performance, and harmony for our brain, body, spirit, heart, health, and self. Join in!

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Vanessa Sexson On Neurofeedback – What It Is And How It Can Change Your Life

We are here with Vanessa Sexson. I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I am to have her here. We met quite a while ago in Bozeman, Montana when I was having some major challenges with my son. Now he’s about ready to turn 32. I reached out to Vanessa to reconnect and find out what she was up to. I found out that she’s been on quite a journey since we saw each other last.

She was so foundational pivotable life-affirming and life-changing for me in the midst of the crisis that I was dealing with relative to Sam. We always need someone that’s going to hold the ground for us, tell us the truth, and help us navigate the best way possible. For me, that was Vanessa. It is with great pleasure that I say hi to you and turn it a little bit over to you.

Thank you. I remember that day very well when you and Sam walked into the office. First of all, I was honored and thrilled to work with both of you because one of my greatest passions is working with people who are smart and creative. That’s what I got from both of you. Thank you very much. Those are incredibly kind words.

I might start now and go backward. My journey is finding the love of neurofeedback and biofeedback. Living in Bozeman, there were not a lot of services, particularly for people with addiction. That is how I landed on neurofeedback. Looking back, I wish I would have started with neurofeedback in Bozeman at that time because it is an avenue that is so individual and helpful and a way to train the brain.

How I landed on neurofeedback was partially from you and Sam, and what I’ve calculated as 108 clients. I call my journey myself, a daughter, a dog, and 108 clients, being extremely creative, all of whom sat and said the same thing to me, “Is there something more I should be doing?” That sentence both haunted me and blessed me because it led me to neurofeedback. Is there something more we can do for everybody?

Personally, growing up as a very introverted shy child, all the teachers said, “What’s wrong with her?” instead of, “Let’s honor who this person is in the world.” This led me to the dog. The dog was in dog training. He’s part Husky, part Pomeranian, part who knows, cute and beautiful town husky. He’s gorgeous and naughty. He gets kicked out of three preschools.

There was a trainer there named Caroline that was in search and rescue and something called nose work. I said, “Can Coby, the Husky, join your nose work group?” “Absolutely not. We do German Shepherds and dogs that we know will be successful.” I pout. She calls me back this fabulous and says, “Let’s give Coby a try.”

They put the scent of a birch on a Q-tip and they hide the Q-tip in a 100-year-old pig barn in Bozeman, Montana. It’s fabulous. It smells of mice, pigs poop, and everything. Coby has three minutes to go in the barn and find a Q-tip that smells like birch. Coby doesn’t care about birch. He cares about chicken, bison, mice poop, and whatever.

After training him, here’s what amazes me, Coby would go in the barn. In three minutes, he would find the smell on a Q-tip, come to me, and say, “There’s the smell.” His reward at first was meat then it was the simple me saying, “Good boy.” I said, “Coby will do all that for a good boy?” She said, “Yes.” “How?” She said, “You trained his brain.” That was the keyword. I go home. I type in, “Train your brain.” What came up is neurofeedback. This dog training was also pivotal in me going if this Coby who got kicked out of three preschools has the potential to find something he doesn’t care about. What is it I have the potential before and these 108 highly creative, fabulous people?

Off to neurofeedback training I go terrified. In my training, having to train myself, you put electrodes on your head. It’s all measuring electrical activity. The first day I go in, they measure the electrical activity in my brain and look at it. At that moment, I looked at my brainwaves, which were on a big PowerPoint slide on the wall for everybody to see. My first thought was, “There’s nothing wrong with me. It’s my brain. This is how my brain functions.”

I take it one step further. There’s a lot I can do better like Coby in training. I can train my brain to do even better. I have the potential to do anything I want if I train my brain. That combined with what sounds opposite sounds like a contradiction of, “There’s nothing wrong with me.” I can look at my brain and go, “You’re introverted.” That’s because it’s in there. It can’t change, then I go back to the office after all the training and I needed hours. I said to all my clients, “Can I, in essence, practice on your brain?”

Not one client said no to me which honored my heart. We proceeded to do lots and lots of training with neurofeedback. Majority of my clients have problems with addiction. With the problem of addiction. I’ve been told the same thing over and over. That is, “Nothing works.” “Let’s try neurofeedback.” I hook up the brain and then here’s another pivotal move. I’m learning all the way with everybody else of, “Here is your beautiful brainwaves. Here, in essence, your body waves. Here’s how you’re breathing, temperature, sweat, and heart rate. We hook you all up. It doesn’t hurt.”

You get to see live brainwaves across this screen. Many people seeing that had the same experience that I had of, “These two things are happening. I’m looking and noticing nothing’s wrong with me and honoring my unique brain and how it functions. I now know how I can train my brain to do things better and differently to up the potential or performance of the arena in which I want to go.”

It has been an absolute game changer for me and for many clients. I write down what people say. I wish I could publish it everywhere, but everything’s HIPAA protected. One client says, “When you do the neurofeedback, I feel like my brain is dancing.” How beautiful it is? It’s like a massage for the brain. This very cynical young man did a treatment. He left, texted, and wrote, “I felt love in my heart.”

When you do the neurofeedback, you feel like your brain is dancing. Click To Tweet

How does that happen? When we’re training either with a visual with a picture, we use one with a caterpillar. You’re watching the caterpillars. It’s very elementary, and your brain is controlling the caterpillars. At the same time, we’re teaching you how to breathe in a smooth pattern. The brain loves it. It’s this fun little game puzzles, taking your brain to the gym, and then getting upset. We train our brains to drink or use drugs. Now we’ve got to go in this resistance to it.

At the neurofeedback, it’s going, “Let’s enhance these natural brainwaves without medication or any side effects. Let’s bring your brain for these alpha brainwaves to go smooth,” and it is. It’s dancey. Your brain gets rewarded, then you leave the session, and your brain goes, “I felt good when I did the little caterpillar dance.” Your brain wants to repeat it. It does. It feels fabulous.

VIC 19 | Neurofeedback
Neurofeedback: Neurofeedback enhances these natural brain waves without medication and any side effects.

I want to highlight for our audience the notion that we have the science now. It’s an evolving field, but to know that we can look at our brains, which is amazing. We then can see our brains in action. We know that we can do things that help us optimize our brains, which is fantastic. It changes the game completely.

It doesn’t hurt. I had a patient here in Sedona. When he came in, he said, “I was terrified to come in.” “What were you terrified of?” He said, “I was afraid this would hurt. It was a lot of fun,” which is part of the joy that I take in it. It’s fun and individualized. Your brainwaves are similar to a thumbprint, and they’re going to be uniquely yours. Watch the brain play and learn to get its own dopamine so that you feel better and get over some hurdles.

Your brain waves are similar to a thumbprint and will be uniquely yours. Click To Tweet

Another fabulous thing that it has taught me is how often I’m wrong. I had a young teenage girl coming in for quite a while. She was struggling. Her mom kept on saying she has ADHD. I tend to steer away from labels. I had a tough time with that. “She’s a four-point, has an after-school job, doing great, and fine.” Her pediatrician called the same thing. When something’s up, “I see her an hour a week in my office under these conditions, and she’s fine.”

I get the equipment. I get trained. I get her all hooked up and said, “I’m going to prove to everyone how fine you are.” Sure enough, she has these little blips of where her brain is checking out. Whatever it was, we were describing it as ADHD and I had to go okay, “You all were right. You win.” It has been a fit in that realm as well.

What I love about you is this heart of discovery, and this willingness to say, “Let’s relook at this in a different way based on new information.” Not everybody is wired that way. They have a certain lens and a certain viewpoint that they have on things, and that’s it. We’ve arrived at what we know. We’re not willing to explore, be creative, and see what else has emerged in the 20 or 30 some years that we’ve been practicing. Thank you.

You’re very welcome. It’s the line-and-dog training of, “We can train your brain to whatever potential you have or give it relief.” For PTSD, I try to steer away from labels, but it’s a way in which we can communicate. The protocol for PTSD has been enormously helpful for a lot of people and traditional talk therapy, when we talk about trauma, you’re asking your brain to do something that struggles to do. With neurofeedback, you don’t have to say a word. You don’t even have to tell me what the trauma is and we get you, hopefully, some relief. I have found that one to be immensely satisfying and successful.

VIC 19 | Neurofeedback
Neurofeedback: When we discuss trauma, you ask your brain to do something it struggles to do. So with neurofeedback, you don’t have to say a word about your trauma.

What are the results that you’re seeing in your practice relative to this in addiction or alcoholism?

There are parts of your brain that are doing different things. Depending on where we put the electrode, we’re going to have a different effect. There are many studies on how it’s helpful for addiction. I’ve noticed it is less helpful of putting the electrode in the addiction spot, but very successful in upping the dopamine or giving relief, reducing what we’re going to call PTSD, and upping feel-good. We’re upping these alpha brainwaves. It feels like you had a massage or you went to yoga.

My biggest success has been, “We notice your brain is underfiring here. Let’s up it.” By nature of the being of our brain, we feel better. I did not know until I did this training that breathing is the most important thing that we do. Our breathing is the boss. When we get scared, we hear a bump. Our breathing is affected first, then it says to the central nervous system, “Let’s freak out,” then the brain is the last one to the party.

VIC 19 | Neurofeedback
Neurofeedback: Breathing is the most important thing that we do. Our breathing is the boss.

I always think it’s in reverse. I think my brain is smart and my gut is dumb, not true. Everything is boss. When you get to see also your breathing patterns, most people have a tendency to hold or to restrict breath, which is the main problem then that the brain is having because the brain needs all that air. It could be going back and saying, “Let’s teach you how to breathe to calm your nervous system down. “

Some sweet young client who always wanted an A-plus. She was watching and was so stressed out about her waves on the screen that she couldn’t get the caterpillar to move. She wanted to win the game. Sometimes it’s a matter of learning, breathing, and then also two things. Oen is for someone who’s suffering from addiction or who’s not is simply seeing, “Look at my brain. Nothing’s wrong with me, but if I do this or do this, I have the potential to feel better and do better.”

I’m wondering out of all kinds of parts of what you’ve said there. Dopamine is a hormone. Cortisol is a hormone relative to stress and fight-flight-freeze. Part of it is, are you dampening the cortisol and amplifying the dopamine?

We’ve got all our endorphins, lots of them and many that we don’t even know about. We want to teach those to run in a smoother higher frequency way. We say, “We’re going to encourage you. I’m going to play this tone. Every time your brain makes this wave at this higher frequency, I’m going to reward it.” We’re going to take away the reward. Maybe it’s the caterpillar or music to offer that reward. By nature, the cortisol is going to reduce because we’re calmer. It’s also going to reduce because I’m breathing. I’m getting more air throughout my system, and therefore my brain.

I’m thinking about this in relation to something I heard in terms of 5 minutes of anger equals 3 hours of the suppressed immune system. You have emotional fitness to be able to modulate your own emotions and experience because we are gifted with the gift of awareness and paying attention to what’s going through our minds and what we’re feeling. Through this, you’re able to be in more agency and power over how your brain is operating.

As learning to do that, through all these avenues, maybe mine would be that I have a very choppy way of breathing. That becomes habitual. Many things do become habitual. How do I work with that part of my brain? How do I train the parts that are overfiring to be quiet and the parts that are quiet to fire up? So much of it is that breathing cycle. It goes back to the core things that we all need that frustrates me too like, “There should be something more. We need sunshine. We need to breathe properly, to stretch, do yoga, and to giggle. Mostly, we need to breathe in a smooth way. We need way more validation and comfort.”

There’s so little validation in our culture. I’m going to invent a validation shower. I’m like, “You would get in and these good jobs would come down.” Right back to the dog, look at what the dog is willing to do to say, “Good job.” In essence, that’s what neurofeedback is doing. It’s going, “Good job, brain.” You get the satisfaction of seeing it on the screen.

I was reading an article that said, “One of the top things that contribute to great relationships over time is saying thank you on a consistent regular basis.” When you boil these things down, these are simple, easy things that if we foundationally adopt, we’ll be happier healthier humans.

We could find something that either gives you comfort or that you didn’t know. We can see, “This part of your brain is overfiring again. This one is underfiring.” I didn’t know that my whole life. The gentleman in Sedona example that I use came in and he presented himself as an expert breather. He was like, “I do yoga. I do this. I do energy class. I’m an expert. Hook me up. You’ll see.” It was the worst breather I’ve seen. He was surprised. He goes, “This is so good to know. This was the piece of the puzzle that was missing.”

There are many examples of people that go, “I didn’t realize that.” There’s a teeny negative to that in that sometimes we have fear of what all somebody will find out. A lot of us avoid going to the doctor because of what they might find. Many times when I do like a mini-brain map, I will say, “It appears that you have A, B, C, D, and I will read it off,” a handful of people had said, “That was private and personal. I had no idea that you could see that by doing this mini-brain map.” It can be a little frightening, too. I once said to one person, “There’s a possibility of a learning disability in there.” He goes, “That’s a secret. I didn’t want anybody to know that.” “It’s okay.”

“I’m not going to tell anybody.”

My favorite is, “If you hook me up, can you see my thoughts?” I’m like, “I probably don’t want to see it. No, thank you.” We’re honoring the people that walked through my door and having the courage to walk in the door. I tell every single person that, “It takes so much courage to walk in the door.” I’ve added this to my menu of services, “Here’s this biofeedback and neurofeedback to assist into hopes we can answer this. How do I get just a little bit better? How can we work fuller to our potential?”

Every person come in and said, “I’m going to trust this space. I’m going to trust you with this space to get to a better space.” I’m honored about that. The neurofeedback solves one more thing for me. That is, in my own journey of bumping into so many platitudes and clichés, the, “Fake it until you make it. You’re fine. Follow these steps or this,” take stripping me of the uniqueness of who I am and also finding out that it doesn’t validate you. You need to do this differently in a way where I’m like, “That’s a personal opinion of me trying to formulate who I am into somebody’s workbook versus, ‘Look at that. This introversion, for example, is in my brain.'”

The notion of we frame things, generally speaking, most people frame things in terms of good, bad, right, and wrong. If you can step back from that and approach most things with a curious spirit, and with, “This behavior doesn’t get the outcomes that I want to create. It’s not good or bad, right or wrong. It’s not getting me in the direction that I truly want to go.” That’s steeped in the addiction community, the world, and alcoholism.

This whole stigma, judgment, more overlay, “You’re a bad person. You’re wrong. You are going to go to hell,” all the things which drive generally people deeper and deeper into the disease. It’s to be able to create a psychologically safe space, which is one of your superpowers, so that people can enter and feel safe. Almost immediately, they can drop the armor to a certain extent and then step into possibilities that they had never quite frankly probably experienced before.

Create a psychologically safe space so people can enter and feel safe, immediately drop the armor to a certain extent, and then step into possibilities they had never experienced before. Click To Tweet

Thank you for that. When we are safe, we can drop that armor. In my opinion, neurofeedback is incredibly complicated. One woman I trained said, “When we were training, it felt like getting blasted with a firehose of information like it almost hurt.” I know this little teeny sliver. That sliver is giving so many people hope, relief, and redirection that I’m very curious and hopeful to see where neurofeedback goes in the next few years. For me, it’s been a pivotal absolute game-changer again for myself for everybody that’s allowed me to work with them with adding neurofeedback to why they were coming in spending incredibly.

Your journey in terms of continuing to explore neurofeedback takes what form? Does it take more education? Are there more courses or certifications or whatever along those lines or is it playing with it?

I would say I’m on the first rung and I got this ladder to go up and the classic I’m on the shoulders of these fabulous intellectual giants that have passed on their massive intelligence to pieces of it to me with the training. I have a long way to go. I’m still calling myself new to this. I get incredibly excited about it, which we get excited about a few things, but this brings me great joy.

When my daughter was too young to have a driver’s license, occasionally, we’d go jetskiing and quarter lane. It was too so we would wait until the staff that would rent us the jetski couldn’t see us and then we would swap places so she could drive without her license. She loved it so much. We didn’t get to go too often. She would get there. She would grab the grips of the waterski. She would make this strange sound.

I have heard her make that sound any other time but the neurofeedback, that computer program makes this little ding ding ding. Every time it does that, I feel myself making the jetski noise, “Here we go. What are we going to find?” It’s the absolute thrill of knowing that people my motto experience change. One hundred percent of people that have come in have said, “This is what changed for me.” To me, that is greatness. It’s jetski. It’s the thing you love so much that it gives us a gut response.

I know there are going to be people that are reading this through the lens of, “This is the thing that will fix my loved one.” I want you to address that because this is one tool potentially out of a whole toolbox. You have decades of experience in this arena. I don’t want people from a simplistic perspective to grab a hold of neurofeedback and go, “This is it.”

If only. It would be great. The greatest thing that this could offer somebody is relief and hope or for people who have a sensitivity to medications. This is an avenue for people in which there’s no medication. That could give that hope. There’s no magic bullet for any of us no matter what we’re struggling with. It is combining all these pieces and knowing, “I have the potential, but it’s going to take me my lifetime probably to get there.”

We all have, “I’m bored of this workout class. It didn’t get what I needed over here.” I keep trying things in energy classes. I’ve been doing Qigong. We have invisible balls, swords, and tables. The teaching of the movement, combining movement with breathing too, and I’m, “That’s another tool that I can use.” Despite the magical science, as I like to call it, it’s another little nugget that we have to assist and help or offer us something that we didn’t know.

There’s so much research and discussion in books now related to how trauma is an underlying root cause of so many things. I’m curious as to what your perspective is from that perspective.

Neurofeedback for trauma is incredibly useful. I see that it grabs onto parts of the amygdala where trauma likes to hide. It can take a little bit out. It makes some air in there. Maybe we’re not recalling that as jumpy, having triggers, or whatever. It is incredibly helpful. There is so much more work coming out on trauma and neurofeedback. I have had probably the most success in treating trauma than in treating anything else in my office. It’s very helpful. I’ve treated myself with it.

Neurofeedback for trauma is useful. It grabs onto parts of the amygdala where trauma likes to hide, takes a little bit out, and makes some air. Click To Tweet

Acknowledging, “This works.” I’m willing to put electrodes everywhere. I was terrified in the beginning, but now I will try. It’s very helpful. We’re all still learning. What’s going to happen to your brain versus my brain is going to be very different. The advantage of seeing that and of going, “We’re all going to have a different response to what happens.” The good news is you won’t get hurt. You could leave with a headache, but that’s about it. It cannot hurt you. Hopefully, you’ll leave with relief.

Is this a methodology or modality that you do over and over again or is this something that you do a few times? I’m asking that question at the same time I’m in my head, I’m going, “Since our brains are all different.”

It seems to average about twenty sessions for most people. Some people have one treatment and go, “I feel better.” Part of that is the validation of, “I’m okay. I can breathe. I need to learn to breathe better.” Other people find that going along weekly for about twenty sessions is very helpful. It’s been a little experimental in that I was in Bozeman, and now I’m in Sedona most of the time, and people in both weren’t getting treated. I was going back every 1 or 2 months.

It was interesting how the brain had for some people shown it didn’t need that tune-up. People could feel, “I need a tune-up for this and this.” The variety pack of what it helps and why people are coming in is limitless. A woman came in for reoccurring cold sores. She says, “Is there any way neurofeedback can help this well?” “I don’t know. Let me research it.” Lo and behold, we do seven sessions. She never had a cold sore again.

Is this a placebo? Who knows? I don’t think so because we can see it on the computer. It’s the courage of the person coming in dropping the armor and saying, “Here’s what I would like to work on,” or the surprise of, “Here’s something that we found that you might want to add to working on that,” however many sessions. We can watch the progression or you might want to steer somewhere else, “I worked on trauma, and now I want to work on something else.” It could take a different direction as well.

VIC 19 | Neurofeedback
Neurofeedback: It’s the courage of the person coming in, dropping the armor, and taking a different direction to be better.

I’m wondering, is there something I should have asked that I didn’t ask or is there something that you want to say that hasn’t been said yet that would be important for our audience to know?

The main message I would like to say is neurofeedback exists. Even if you go in for not even one treatment, but one, “Let’s have a look,” and hope that many people can have the experience that I did that is, “Look. I’m me.” There’s some great comfort and validation in, “I’m me,” and then, like the dog training, “Where do I want to take this?” We need the we are okay, the good job, and the validation to get to the next step. It is something that both of these training have taught me. It’s an avenue that’s out there. It doesn’t hurt. There are no side effects. There’s no medication. It feels good and it’s fascinating.

People do want to be careful about who they choose to do their work with because it matters. I have a Counseling and Master’s degree. I have always said through the decades that I’m looking for that top 5% to 10% of professionals in whatever avenue I’m looking for help. Be very choice about who you choose to work with because not everybody is as skilled as Vanessa is and open to learning and continuing to explore this avenue and other avenues.

Be choiceful. Make sure that you’re getting somebody who is skilled, learning, continues to grow, humble, and creates a safe space. It’s important to say that, too. Where can people get a hold of you? You alluded to Bozeman, Montana and Sedona, Arizona. Are you going back to Bozeman at this point, or is Bozeman in the rearview mirror for you?

Both. I’ll probably keep going back for every month or two for as long as my energy will allow. I am in both places. It can be reached. There’s a website and there’s a Bozeman and Sedona phone number.

What’s the website?


How do you prefer people to get a hold of you?

Either by phone, text email, it’s all good. Thank you so much. I’m glad that you tracked me down and that we had this conversation. I appreciate you.

I’m thrilled I tracked you down, too, because I thought about you often through the years. It’s very rare that people reach back to somebody who helped way long ago to touch base and say, “This is where we are in our lives and our world, and to say thank you for you playing a pivotal foundational role at that time.” We have this conversation then you tell me about neurofeedback, and I’m like, “Say more,” because I’m a huge learner. I want to know more. I’m thrilled to have you on and to share this with our audience. We may be continuing this conversation at another time. Thank you.

You’re welcome.

Important Link

About Vanessa Sexson

VIC 19 | NeurofeedbackI have been in the healing profession for 30 years, currently as a clinical neuro-therapist with treatment offices in Bozeman, Montana & Sedona, Arizona. I have a love for the human psyche, animals, science, nature and strong creative curiosity. I have a frustration for platitudes and find that when we can see proof of what our brain and body are experiencing it can expedite our positive process. I have been told you can hear laughter from the office even with the door closed. That is my favorite compliment! My family, dogs, and adventure followed by solitude are my comforts.