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What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is the fear of the unknown. Hence, just like fear, anxiety is a key to survival used by our bodies to respond to threats with a fight-or-flight response. However, anxiety responds to an unknown threat, whereas fear is a reaction to a known external danger.

Almost everyone gets anxious from time to time. In fact, according to experts, normal anxiety is beneficial. It helps you stay focused and energetic, keeps you on your toes, and motivates you to cope with challenges. In addition, it helps you complete a task at hand and meet strict deadlines at work.

It’s only times when feelings of intense fear overpower your mind that raise concerns for a pathological (abnormal) anxiety disorder. An anxiety disorder interferes with your ability to cope successfully with life challenges.

How Common Are Anxiety Disorders?

Anxiety disorders are the leading cause of mental health concerns in the United States. According to the statistics of the Anxiety And Depression Association of America, an estimated 40 million Americans battle an anxiety disorder yearly.

What Are the Symptoms of an Anxiety Disorder?

When you’re struck by anxiety, your body and brain go on high alert. Hence, symptoms that then emerge are those of fight-or-flight response, such as:

  • nervousness, constant worry, or feeling keyed up
  • racing thoughts
  • pounding heartbeat
  • rapid breathing, or hyperventilation
  • trembling or muscle twitching
  • excessive sweating
  • feeling fatigued
  • difficulty concentrating
  • difficulty sleeping or insomnia
  • upset stomach
  • having “butterflies” in your stomach
  • having the urge to stay away from situations assumed to precipitate your anxiety

The Biology Behind Fear and Anxiety-Related Behaviors

With an anxiety disorder, people have difficulty differentiating between cues that are a threat versus those that are safe. A 2016 study published in the journal Current Biology revealed similar findings. They display intense emotional reactions that are disproportionate to the situation and wouldn’t be a big deal for others.

Moreover, people with an anxiety disorder have a poor ability to respond well to stressful situations, as shown by a 2010 Stanford University School of Medicine study. As a result, when unresolved emotions begin to bubble up, an anxiety disorder ensues.

The Stanford researchers learned that exposing healthy people to an emotional conflict activated a unique part of the brain. That area of the brain inhibits the amygdala, which dampens negative emotion or behavior. The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure in your brain. It plays a crucial role in regulating emotions and behavior as well as the processing of fear.

In contrast, that brain area failed to light up and inhibit the amygdala when exposed to ‘threat’ cues in people with anxiety disorders. The researchers tied this finding to the loss of connection between that brain area and the amygdala.

What Are the Treatment Options for Anxiety?

There are several types of treatment options for anxiety. Some of the important ones include:

1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is one of the most effective psychological therapies for anxiety disorders. It focuses on behaviors and cognition related to psychological distress. CBT helps address your fears and teaches skills, new behaviors, and thought patterns that enable you to feel better and stay that way.

2. Medications

Although several medications are available for anxiety, they carry intolerable side effects that can be as grim as suicide. Most of the medications used for the long-term treatment of anxiety are antidepressants. Unfortunately, the initial use of antidepressants can worsen anxiety due to a serotonin-driven anxiety circuit.

Moreover, medications, most often than not, only mask anxiety symptoms for as long as you’re taking them. Once you stop them, your symptoms are likely to rebound.

The pitfalls associated with medicine use also back up the need for new, alternative treatments for depression and anxiety disorders. This is where the role of Complementary and Alternative Medicine therapies like neurofeedback comes into play.

3. Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) Therapies

These include:

  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Guided imagery
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Yoga
  • Acupuncture
  • Neurofeedback

What is Neurofeedback, and How Does it Work for Anxiety?

Neurofeedback, or EEG (electroencephalogram) biofeedback, is a cutting-edge, non-invasive technology. It teaches self-control of your mental state by monitoring brainwave activity and delivering a feedback signal.

A typical session involves measuring a patient’s brainwave patterns with specialized sensors while they watch a movie or listen to music for 20 minutes. These sensors are connected to a computer that displays the brainwaves.

During a neurofeedback session, a training plan is created. First, the areas of your brain contributing to anxiety are monitored in real-time. We then steer your brain activity where it needs to be.

When your brain is approaching a more relaxed state, as depicted by the appearance of alpha waves on a computer screen, the system generates a positive reward, such as a pleasant tone. This reinforces the change and gradually trains your brain to accept that change.

On the other hand, if your brain is heading towards an anxious state, this information is quickly projected on the monitor screen, enabling you to shift your mental state.

Neurofeedback therapy gives you a clear image of what’s triggering your negative emotions and what you can do to turn them off.

With repetitions, neurofeedback training helps train and fine-tune your brainwave patterns, modifying your response to stressful situations that trigger anxiety. With practice, you can learn to produce healthy brainwaves and avoid brainwaves that trigger your anxiety symptoms.

Moreover, neurofeedback appears to enhance the lost connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala that triggers anxiety. (Prefrontal cortex is that unique area of the brain that we mentioned above). The stronger the connectivity, the greater the reduction in anxiety. That, in turn, allows sustainable control over anxiety, even after neurofeedback is stopped.

What Are Brain Waves, and How Do They Relate to Neurofeedback?

Your brain is made up of billions of cells, some of which are termed neurons. These neurons constantly talk with each other, and the electrical activity that emanates from this talk is detected via EEG.

Specialized sensors attached to your scalp tap into those electrical signals and project them as waves on a computer screen.

Neurofeedback technology uses sound or video signals to feed that information back to your brain, reinforce specific patterns of waves, and eventually retrain your brain.

Brain waves mirror your feelings and thoughts, behavior, stress levels, mood, and overall brain function. Knowing the different types of brain waves can further help you understand how neurofeedback works to alleviate your anxiety symptoms.

What Are the Different Types of Brain Waves?

Brain waves are divided into five bandwidths depending on their frequency and speed:

Gamma waves 

These are the fastest of all brain waves. Your brain produces gamma waves during periods of intense focus, learning, and problem-solving

Beta waves 

These are generated when your mind is active and alert.

Alpha waves 

These occur when you’re relaxing and recharging.

Theta waves 

These emanate when:

  • you’re drifting off to your dreamland
  • are in a highly relaxed state of mind (such as during deep meditation)
  • your brain switches to an automatic decision-making gear (known as the “autopilot” mode)

Your brain is most creative when it’s in the theta wave range.

Delta waves 

These are the slowest of all brain waves. For example, your brain generates delta waves when you’re in the deepest states of meditation or deep, dreamless sleep.

What is the Alpha/Theta Neurofeedback Protocol?

The alpha/theta (A/T) protocol that boosts these brain waves is the most popular protocol used during neurofeedback for anxiety disorders. It trains your brain to shift from an alpha state to a predominantly theta state while staying awake.

Usually, your brain activity transitions from beta to alpha, then to theta, and finally to delta as you drift off. The transition into sleep evokes a state where you gradually lose track of reality and merge it with subconscious images. This is the stage when your brain is moving from the alpha to the theta waves.

Alpha waves thus bridge the inner and outer worlds. For example, in individuals with anxiety, the A/T training targets the alpha waves to achieve a state of relaxed wakefulness. That is why knowing about brain waves is critical to understanding how neurofeedback works.

A/T neurofeedback training induces a “crossover” in which theta activity overtakes alpha power. As a result, the delta activity stays at lower levels to avoid sleep, and beta activity also remains low to avoid inducing anxiety.

A/T training guides your brain to a relaxed twilight state you usually experience when falling asleep or waking up. This is a state where it’s hard to tell if you’re awake or asleep because your brain is somewhere between the two.