Written by: Amanda Levison, M.S., LMHC, LPC, CCBT
Content Warning: Spiders, Insects
Let’s discuss a hypothetical scenario. Say you’re watching a scary movie about spiders, and after the film is over, those 8-legged creepy crawly insects are still on your mind. You start to feel on edge, and your mind begins to wonder if spiders are lurking in your home's corners and dark spaces. Your brain interprets the brush of your tag from your shirt on the back of your neck as a giant spider sending a rush of adrenaline through your body and triggering your fight or flight response. Although no spider was there, you’re now left with excessive worrying over spiders being in the home and dealing with physical symptoms of tension in your shoulders and stomach, heart racing, and labored breathing. These are all symptoms of someone experiencing anxiety (and perhaps even a phobia of spiders).
So, how do we retrain our brain’s responses to an interpreted threat to reassure us that we are in a safe environment? Everyone’s experience with anxiety may look different, so it’s essential to educate ourselves on the following: what anxiety is, its symptoms/causes, and what the treatment options are for us to have a better chance of achieving a sense of well-being and peace in life.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a normal human emotion that everyone experiences from time to time. However, when anxiety becomes constant, excessive, or irrational, it can interfere with daily life, and it may be a sign of an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders in the United States, affecting millions of people every year. Anxiety disorders refer to a group of mental health conditions characterized by persistent feelings of fear, worry, and anxiety. Physical effects of anxiety include:
They may also experience psychological effects of anxiety, such as:
Fear of separation
Difficulty falling asleep
A specific situation or object can trigger these conditions or occur without any apparent reason. Some common types of anxiety disorders include
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Excessive and persistent worry, fear, and anxiety about everyday situations and events. People with GAD often find it difficult to control their anxious thoughts and may experience physical symptoms such as restlessness, fatigue, irritability, muscle tension, and difficulty sleeping.
A type of anxiety disorder characterized by sudden and recurring panic attacks. These attacks can be very frightening and often happen without any warning. Symptoms may include intense fear, sweating, shaking, heart palpitations, and a sense of impending doom or danger.
Social Anxiety Disorder
When a person experiences intense fear or discomfort in social situations. It can manifest in various forms, such as fear of public speaking, meeting new people, or being in crowded places. This disorder can significantly impact an individual's daily life and relationships.
An excessive and irrational fear of a particular object, situation, or activity. People with specific phobias experience intense anxiety and panic when exposed to the object of their fear, even if it poses no real danger. This can significantly affect their daily lives and lead to avoidance of certain situations or objects. Some examples of specific phobias include fear of heights, spiders, snakes, flying, and enclosed spaces.
All these conditions can significantly interfere with a person's daily life, impacting their ability to work, study, maintain relationships, and their ability to just function in everyday situations. The exact causes of anxiety disorders are not known, but they are believed to be caused by a combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors.
Some risk factors for anxiety disorders include a family history of anxiety disorders, childhood trauma, and ongoing stressful life events. Anxiety may also be linked to underlying health conditions or side effects from medication. That is why it is essential to know and understand what factors in your daily life serve as triggers for anxiety and know the symptoms of it to seek the right form of treatment to better your well-being.
Neurofeedback and Anxiety
Anxiety can be a challenging condition to manage, but there are several treatments available. If you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety, it is essential to seek professional help. A mental health professional can help you determine the best treatment for your situation. Treatment options may include therapy, medication, or a combination of both.
One specific treatment is neurofeedback, which is gaining popularity as a non-invasive, drug-free method to reduce anxiety symptoms. Neurofeedback is used for all age groups and individuals to understand how to manage their emotions better and more effectively. Neurofeedback involves monitoring and training brainwave activity through sensors placed on the scalp. The feedback from the sensors is used to help the individual learn how to regulate their brainwaves, which can reduce anxiety symptoms over time. If you’re wondering how a typical session would look in more detail, here is what it entails:
During a neurofeedback session, the individual would be instructed by the practitioner to sit in a comfortable chair while sensors are placed on their scalp to measure their brain waves. These sensors or electrodes are connected to a computer, which displays the individual's brain activity in real-time (but does not stimulate). Healthy and balanced electrical signals typically lead to positive and pleasant stimuli.
The individual is then asked to perform a task, such as playing a game or watching a video, while the computer provides feedback on their brain waves. This feedback can take the form of visual or auditory cues, such as a change in the screen's color or a sound.
The individual is then encouraged to change their brain activity to achieve a desired outcome, such as reducing anxiety levels. This enhancement is focused on the increasing connectivity between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala when exposed to a threat or trigger cues.
Over time, with practice, individuals can learn to regulate their brain waves and reduce symptoms of anxiety. The stronger the connectivity, the stronger the anxiety-reduced levels become.
Looking back at the spider and movie scenario, you would be repeatedly guided to generate brain patterns correlated with a calmer state of mind. During this process, you would become more aware of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, which allows the practitioner to understand and identify patterns in your reactions that contribute to the development of anxiety. Each session will aid in modifying your emotions and responses to allow you to gain control over situations that would initially induce fear or stress.
Neurofeedback is often used in conjunction with other therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or medication, to provide a comprehensive treatment plan for anxiety. Working with a licensed and experienced practitioner who can tailor the treatment plan to meet the individual's specific needs is essential. The number of sessions required will depend on the individual and the severity of their anxiety.
The overall process and training vary, with some feeling relief in their results right away and others beginning to feel the benefits after at least 3-4 weeks or 6-8 sessions. What’s important is that with intensive commitment, you are sure to gain relief and a sense of control over your anxiety symptoms to enjoy the long-lasting benefits and manage life better.
Mindfulness and Relaxation
In combination with Neurofeedback, mindfulness and relaxation techniques is a part of the process as strategies to help individuals become better equipped to manage their anxiety symptoms. In today's fast-paced world, taking time off to relax and recharge is essential. Relaxation techniques can help you reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and improve your overall well-being.
This technique involves taking slow, deep breaths, filling your lungs with air, and then exhaling slowly. This helps relax your body and slow your heart rate, reducing stress and anxiety.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
This technique requires you to tense and relax different muscle groups in your body, one at a time. This helps to release muscle tension and promote relaxation.
This technique involves imagining a peaceful and calming scene in your mind, such as a beach or a forest. This helps distract your mind from negative thoughts and promotes relaxation.
Yoga combines physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation to promote relaxation and reduce stress.
By incorporating these relaxation techniques into your daily routine, you can improve your overall sense of well-being and reduce stress and anxiety. Remember, relaxation is an integral part of a healthy lifestyle.
Overall, neurofeedback is a promising treatment option for anxiety that has shown positive results in helping people manage their symptoms and increase mindfulness for a healthy and stress-free life. If you are considering neurofeedback as a treatment option here at the Neurofeedback and Counseling Center of PA, we would be happy to consult with you to determine if this is the proper treatment. Contact us at (717) 202-2510 or firstname.lastname@example.org, and we can work together on managing your anxiety symptoms and work towards a happier and stress-free lifestyle.