Anxiety and your brain

Written By Justine Loewenthal (Registered Counsellor and EEG Technician)


Anxiety can be a normal response to many situations, and can assist one in staying motivated and driven. When this anxiety negatively impacts on the ability to function well in social, school and work environments, and hinders the ability to experience normal emotions with appropriate self regulation, professional help may be needed.

Compelling evidence exists for a biological predisposition to anxiety. Various studies have been done to show different neurological profiles that can result in anxiety. With the help of specialised scans called PET scans, some have shown that there is often increased fast brainwave activity, especially in some of the frontal areas, in the brain of an anxious person. If too much fast brainwave activity is produced, it can cause agitation, heightened alertness, hypervigilance, increased mental activity, the feeling that thoughts are going fast, increased activation of body arousal (e.g. sweating, heart palpitations) and difficulty calming down.

Other studies have shown that a decrease in the production of the slow frequencies (speeds) of brainwaves, usually an Alpha frequency, also creates anxiety. Good Alpha production promotes mental resourcefulness, enhances sense of relaxation, and facilitates cognitive processing and emotional stability. Alpha is the idling state of the brain and allows us to switch off and calm down. If not enough Alpha is produced, the person will feel as though they cannot relax. Alpha is also important for learning and attention. Closing of eyes, deep breathing and meditation can enhance Alpha production.

A routine EEG (primarily used to exclude epilepsy and other neurological issues) and a quantitative EEG (a comparison of the person’s brainwave profile to the norm for his/her age and gender) can be done to identify the neurological basis for the anxiety. These two different types of analysis of brainwave activity will identify areas that are producing too much or too little of certain speeds of brainwaves (frequencies) and where the connectivity between areas is not optimal. With anxiety, inefficient communication within the emotional and executive frontal areas is often seen on a quantitative EEG, and can cause difficulty with impulse control, correct interpretation of social situations, ability to evaluate one’s own behaviour, distractibility, poor self regulation and inappropriate emotional response to situations.

Neurotherapy offers a non-invasive option to reduce anxiety and is supported by a large body of research.  It is distinguished from other forms of biofeedback because of its focus on the regulation of the brain and central nervous system. This training technique is used to teach the brain to enhance certain frequencies of brainwaves and reduce the production of others as identified in the quantitative EEG.

Medication and psychotherapy can also be effective in treating anxiety.


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