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Washington Business Journal Article

How I … Became a Brain Coach
Peak Neurofitness LLC shows you exactly why you're stressed or anxious

Feb 14, 2014, 12:44pm EST
Chloe Johnson

how i became a brain coachCynde Margritz fell and pounded her head on concrete pavement at 5 years old, knocking herself out cold. Nearly 50 years later, she’s emerged with a business idea based on her ensuing hardships with brain performance. The former NASA Spacelab program manager is ready to share her wisdom at Peak Neurofitness with other executives who share the same anxiety and concentration hindrances she did.

What was your work before Peak Neurofitness? I was in the space industry for 13 years. Most of that time was with NASA. I worked on the origins of space station. I worked the end of the space lab program, closing out the space lab program when I helped shrink-wrap the module for shipment to the Smithsonian. I started out in hardware development, and I did a lot of program management and international relations and negotiation. I’d often find myself being a biologist. Or I’d often find myself being the interface between the engineers and the scientists, or the principal investigators, the people who were flying experiments on the space station or the space shuttle.

How did you discover the treatments you administer at Peak NeuroFitness? I was looking for something for my own ADD, for my own anxiety. I had a head injury as a kid, which I never associated with any difficulties growing up. There’s a lot more awareness about concussions now. But I was looking for something to help myself. My husband is a biomedical engineer, and he suggested, “Why don’t you try neurofeedback?”

So I always did really well in school. I was the high school valedictorian, but I had to have some commitment and effort to get it done. I never really realized I was operating under this little bit of a fog. I knew some things were easier for some people than others, like focusing. In college, I was the one pacing back and forth at the back of the classroom, being in constant motion, trying to get my brain activated. I took this one training and the fog lifted. It was kind of like a Eureka moment — “Wow, is this the way everyone else operates?” The way neurofeedback works is the first session lasts a couple of hours. So it wore off. I’m like, “I would like more of that, please!” I went back the next day for further training, and that was sort of the beginning.

What made you want to build this into a business for other people? Really seeing that there were people out there, just like me, that were suffering needlessly with things like focus, attention, anxiety, people with head injuries — just a desire to get this modality out there. It seems very innovative. It’s actually been around 30 years. NASA was involved in the origins of neurofeedback. They were doing some experiments with rocket fuel, to look at the effects it had, studying how they could develop some countermeasures.

They were working with a population of cats. These cats were very resistant [to the effects of the fuel], and they went back and said, “What’s the deal?” [The cats] had been part of a previous study where they were reinforcing a particular brain wave, called sensory motor rhythm. That was the origin of realizing that was really doing something for these cats’ brains. There was a woman in the lab who had epilepsy. They said well, it stabilized these cats against seizures — that’s one of the effects of rocket fuel. So she volunteered, and she was the first person to have neurofeedback, and it helped her seizures.

How do you explain neurofeedback to potential customers? It’s basically biofeedback. If you break down the words “bio” and “feedback,” it’s giving you information or feedback about how a physiological parameter is operating. It could be temperature, it could be heart rate variability — those are all other forms of biofeedback that we tend to use as well, in conjunction with the neurofeedback sometimes, for added oomph.

But with neurofeedback, we’re working on giving you information on how your neurons are firing and about how your brain waves are working. That tends to be more powerful than any other physiological parameter we can give you feedback about. We’re just going to the central nervous system and helping it learn how to perform better. It’s sort of like an electronic coach that has amazing insight into when your brain is working more optimally. We can tell you when it’s working more optimally, and that’s the system the brain uses to learn.

How do you spread the word about your business? It’s so new that two methods work really well. First, word of mouth. People see the results that other people got and say, “Hey!” I got my first NASA clients. I had trained my husband — he used to be very nervous giving presentations and his agency had gone through five different reorganizations. People were like, “Well, why aren’t you worked up about that? Why are you so calm?” And he told them about his training, and people were like “I want some of that!” So I then went on site and did some of my first trainings. But of course, I really test-vetted some of my concepts for executives at NASA. We also give a lot of talks. People really have to get an explanation of what it is to understand what it is before they know that they want it. We do them at schools, businesses, conferences.

You used to hold “Brain Day” at NASA. How did that come about? Just really people seeing other people at NASA and saying “Gosh, this looks really great. I like the results that you’ve gotten. I’d like some of that too.” That was in the very beginning [of the company]. I went down one day and hooked up the chief medical officer at NASA. This was sort of what gave me the go-ahead to offer it there. I hooked up him and most of his crew, and by “hooked up,” I mean putting sensors on and doing neurofeedback.

The business seems very focused on executives and people with a specific set of stresses. Is that specific customer base hard to grow? Well, we have two tracks, really, with a clinical track and a peak performance track. They’ve sort of grown in parallel. The clinical track is more if you have a mental health need — a diagnosed need, like ADD, PTSD, depression, anxiety. It hasn’t been hard to grow, because once people are aware of it, they want it. It’s very unique in the marketplace. There’s nothing else that really does the same thing.

What’s your competition in the neurofeedback field? There are about five providers in Northern Virginia. We’re pretty well distributed. No one offers our unique package. We’re really coming at it from a brain fitness orientation, rather than a clinical orientation. Even our clinical side of things is packaged more as brain fitness. People feel very liberated when they come in and see, “OK, this is the brain map, this is the electrophysiological basis for what I’m feeling. I’m not nuts, I’m not lazy, it’s not a lack of motivation. It’s a brain thing.” And hey, by the way, we can treat that brain thing. It’s very empowering and it offers people hope.

What are the most common issues you work with among executives? The biggest thing I work with executives on are focus, stress resilience. In addition to wanting to perform well for their jobs, they want to be there for their kids. They want to be able to relax — we call it “relax at will.” We teach executives to power down. NASA uses it for their pilots. We work with brain states. One of the higher brain states is beta, and the pilots that would go into beta and stay in beta were the ones who would burn out. But they realized they could teach them to shift back into an idle mode, a calm, idle mode called alpha. In alpha, they could have a chance to recover between bursts of maneuvers.

It’s sort of the same things executives might do during their days. They’ve got a conference call and then they can come down and have a little down time in between. So we teach them to shift down into this calm state, so they have a lot more resilience to their stressors during their day.

There’s a 90 percent success rate for your program. How does the company define success for a client? We do a couple of things. It is personal, based on the client. We ask them to set goals. My peak performers are often people who want to excel in multiple areas, so I ask, “If you could be doing anything right now, what would you be doing?” It gives you a lot of insight into the person. “What would you like your legacy to be? What’s standing in your way.” What are blocks either personally or professionally, and then those blocks are what we work on. We take that information, personal goals, the brain map, what’s going on with the brain and determine what we can realistically attain. These things that are going on with the brain are correlated with your blocks.

Those are the things we’re going to work on. Then we have ways of measuring success. We can do another brain map. We also do performance testing, where we look at your brain’s reaction time, your brain’s response to stress, its response to boredom, your attention, and how your attention shifts in different conditions. We can retake those performance tests, which is another objective measure of success. Ultimately, the executive will say, “This is working for me.”

How long do these sessions last? The interesting thing is, you don’t do it forever. Like learning to ride a bike, you’re teaching your brain a skill. Like with stress, every little stressor takes you one level higher, and if you don’t have the ability, how do you teach yourself to come back down? We teach the brain to come back down and reset the stress level — your brain learns that skill and keeps it. Our goal is to get an executive not coming in anymore. Sleep is a big thing we work on with execs — they’ll say, “I’m sleeping well seven nights out of 10.” So we might space their training out to every 10 days. People just slowly taper themselves off, because the results are lasting and they’ve got the goals they want to attain.

Do you find it more difficult to treat clinical track patients? It can be, yes. And it might be an executive comes in with a head injury. The two client populations can overlap. But it could be a longer process. It particularly is a longer process if it’s a fairly recent head injury, within the past year.

You have programs where people come in to Peak Neurofitness offices, but you also offer remote treatments. How does that work? We do work with executives remotely. The furthest away one was in the Marshall Islands. Their Internet and power’s not too reliable, so it’s really interesting trying to work it when the connectivity was available. But we rent the equipment, and we work remotely through things like GoToMeeting. They attach the sensors, and we can virtually run the session on our end.

So you’re actually controlling what’s happening from Virginia? Yeah. We have clients in England, New York, Canada, Mexico, and the guy in the Marshall Islands just finished his program. It’s really cool, but it can be challenging, time-zone-wise.

VIsit article: How … I Became a Brain Coach

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