What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a general term used to describe worry, fear or apprehension. Under normal circumstances, it is our body’s response to a traumatic, dangerous or fear-inducing circumstance. When the worry progresses to interfering with daily activities, it is time to seek help. Anxiety disorders can affect relationships, work, sleep, and the ability to relax and enjoy yourself. Symptoms can include feelings of dread, fatigue, fear, nausea, trembling, and poor concentration. Severe anxiety can manifest as a “panic attack, basically your nervous system on overload!

There’s a wide variation in how people experience anxiety, which is why there are so many types of mental health diagnoses that involve anxiety. Panic disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Social phobias, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and even specific phobias like fear of heights, spiders, or flying. Sometimes an anxiety response will crop up because of a trigger or little reminder of a traumatic event – such as the smell of the hospital soap after visiting a loved one in the hospital.

How anxiety manifests in the brain

When someone feels anxious or fearful, their body goes on alert. This is the brain’s and sympathetic nervous system’s cue to ready the body and mind for fight or flight. Norepinephrine and cortisol hormones flood the body boosting perception, reflexes, speed, speeding up the heart and respiration, and slowing down digestion. When the circumstance passes, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over calming the body down for rest and recovery. Someone suffering from anxiety may not be able to get calm. Thoughts race, panic sets in, they avoid friends or specific circumstances, and it may be difficult to sleep. Quantitative Electroencephalograms (qEEG or brain map) of someone suffering from severe anxiety typically show too many high beta brain waves on the right lobe.

What research says about persistent distress and its effects on the brain

Persistent distress and severe anxiety can be unhealthy for the brain and the body. Brain research has showed that it can be toxic to brain cells, is linked with anxiety disorders, and that it can alter brain physiology. Brain scans show that the amygdala area of the brain, which processes fear, grows in size, while the hippocampus area of the brain shrinks, harming long-term memory. Stanford University Neuroscientist Dr Sapolsky has spent his life’s work studying the effects of chronic stress on physical and mental health. Diabetes, hypertension, insomnia, and digestive disorders are just some of the negative physical effects of severe anxiety and chronic stress.

How neurofeedback can help

The good news is that brains are resilient and have the ability to make new connections all the time. They can learn new ways of responding and break out of harmful patterns. Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback training that can help anxious, overstimulated brains learn more productive patterns of self-regulation. This process begins by completing an evaluation to learn about your specific anxiety symptoms and how neurofeedback works. Then, a short appointment is set up to complete a brain map, which creates a roadmap of the electrical activity in your brain. From there, a custom protocol is designed to retrain your brain over the course of several weeks. Typical appointments last 30 minutes and involve sitting in a comfortable chair watching a video through special glasses and headphones, hooked up to software that monitors brainwaves. When brainwaves jump out of bounds, the audio and visual inputs dim or change. This draws your brain’s attention teaching it to respond in a more balanced way. This simple but impactful training helps break harmful feedback loops, and encourages your brain to build new pathways. Much like learning to drive stick shift, the effects are long-lasting and pain-free.

Relief is available

If you’re located in Northern Virginia near Manassas, Dr. Ed Carlton, founder of the Carlton NeuroFeedback Center, offers free evaluations to anyone interested in learning more about neurofeedback training for anxiety. A certified Neurobiofeedback provider and chiropractor, he has had remarkable success alleviating anxiety and insomnia symptoms with neurofeedback by helping patients reset their brain’s anxiety response to normal levels. If you’re seeking long-lasting, drug-free relief, call Dr. Carlton today.