An individual’s emotional well-being is the very center of their quality of life. The ability to have a healthy emotional life, is influenced not just by external factors that are outside of one’s control, but also by heredity, biology, and lifestyle. The demands of our modern world has shown a documented increase in emotional stress, across the globe. Two of the most common outcomes of stress are anxiety, and depression. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, and anxiety is the most common mental illness in the US.
Anxiety and depression, as with other cognitive and mental dysfunctions, are often just responses to stress. Whether the stressors are environmental, biological, or emotional, the brain responds in an effort to deal with it. This is a survival strategy that allows us to avoid dangers in our environment. But when the stress response is prolonged beyond its evolved ability, damage to function and structure ensue. Recent epidemiology findings and studies show that 50% of individuals in the US reported that stress negatively impacted their lives, and the WHO dubbed it the “Health Epidemic of the 21st Century”.
Anxiety is not just the feeling of being worried or stressed. Usually, once a stressful situation passes, so does the anxious state that it produces. However, in cases where the stressor is prolonged or extreme, can leave the individual with chronic feelings of worry and foreboding. This is one of the main characteristics of Generalized Anxiety Disorder as classified by the internationally recognized Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Depression is not just the feeling of sadness, sorrow, grief, or despair. Similar to anxiety, the problem is not that the state of depression is experienced, but that it is prolonged to a chronic degree. When negative emotion is prolonged with an intensity that renders the individual incapacitated and unable to function in their personal life, it is considered to be clinically relevant and labelled as Major Depression Disorder, as defined by the DSM-5.
As with any state and trait of human cognition and emotion, anxiety and depression can be traced down to specific states of brain function. The study of brain waves (electorencephalogram/EEG) has had decades of research, and shown that there are unique features of brain wave activity that have a high diagnostic value for predicting anxiety and depression.
Depression has received decades of attention in clinical EEG research and application. Since anxiety and depression are both the common downstream effects of stress, the most well-known hallmark of the occurrence of either one, is in the presentation of what is referred to as “frontal Alpha asymmetry”. A specific ratio of Alpha and Beta brain waves between the left side and the right side of the frontal lobe, have been firmly associated with reports of anxiety or depression. There are also other EEG features of anxiety, such as excess of fast activity in central and midline regions of the brain, that have shown to be fairly consistent.
This malleability of brain waves shows that they can also be steered into a more healthy and functional direction. Unlike psychiatric medication, neurofeedback uses visual and auditory digital signals to reinforce a certain type of brain activity. The advantage with neurofeedback is that it is the least invasive possible kind of intervention that can be applied. It simply reinforces activity that the brain is already producing, and does not force artificial states that are foreign to the brain, as can often be the case for psychiatric medications that are meant to merely suppress symptoms. This is done through a process known as operant conditioning, where patterns of neural activity are more permanently established, and retain their longevity long after the training.
Neurofeedback is the absolute cutting-edge technology to safeguard against the insults of stress. Beyond just mere symptom management, neurofeedback targets the very core of a pathology by influencing neurological change that is at the root of conscious experience. Neurofeedback serves as a reminder of how truly powerful, complex, and mysterious the most important asset in our lives is. The emergence of knowledge about the brain is driven by the advent of modern science, which is dawning an era that will provide a sense of awe with its wonder.