Anxiety can manifest in a variety of ways: a chronic anxious feeling, panic attacks, specific phobias, social anxiety, excessive worry, freezing up, avoidance of anxiety-provoking situations, agoraphobia, heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli (e.g., sensitive to loud noises), obsessive-compulsive disorder, or just a heightened reactivity to stressful situations.
When it comes to anxiety, there are two separate structures at play in the brain: the rational, cognitive brain and the reactive, emotional brain. The cognitive brain includes the frontal lobe which oversees reasoning, decision making, and high-level thinking. The emotional brain consists mainly of the limbic system. While the two are constantly communicating with each other, anxiety, stress, and panic cause the emotional mind to essentially overpower the rational mind.
Getting to the roots
The limbic system is made up of numerous brain structures within the central “core” part of the brain. Key players include the hippocampus, hypothalamus, amygdala, and cingulate. As a whole, the limbic system is largely responsible for emotional processing and regulation, memory, learning, and arousal. The amygdala’s job is to warn us when dangers are present and to initiate the body’s fear response: fight-flight-freeze. So, when there’s a perceived danger, the amygdala is activated and sends messages to other parts of the brain to prepare for action.
When the amygdala sounds the panic alarm, the hypothalamus responds by activating the sympathetic nervous system which, in turn, stimulates the secretion of adrenaline and noradrenaline by the adrenal glands. This is what causes the physiological symptoms related to anxiety, such as rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, cold extremities, etc.
While this fear response serves an important survival function, in folks with anxiety and panic disorders, the limbic system is overactive, meaning it is initiating the fear/anxiety response even when no actual danger is present.
Additionally, two parts of the frontal cortex interpret the messages from the amygdala to determine whether the stress response should continue or subside. The dorsal anterior cingulate cortex amplifies the message, while the ventromedial prefrontal cortex quiets the signal. In the brains of those with anxiety, the former is often overactive and the latter is underactive, leading to prolonged and amplified stress reactions.
There are even observable differences in the size of some limbic system structures within the brains of those with anxiety. The hippocampus, largely involved in memory, learning, and emotional regulation, has been found to be smaller in volume, while the amygdala tend to be larger than average.
The QEEGs of individuals with anxiety often show an excess of faster beta brainwaves, particularly in central and posterior regions. Excessive high beta, depending where it is located, is often associated with heightened stress reactivity, hypersensitivity, rumination, worry, and overthinking.
However, the particular pattern associated with anxiety varies from person to person and depends on a variety of factors. For some, a lack of alpha in posterior brain regions and/or too much alpha in anterior regions might underlie their anxiety. Asymmetry (the balance of brainwaves between various regions) in the anterior regions is another well-recognized marker for anxiety.
How we can help
At NeuroGrove, the first step of any treatment package is a comprehensive assessment that includes QEEG brain mapping, LORETA 3D neuroimaging, various testing, and a thorough discussion of symptoms and goals. This allows us to assess for underlying brain patterns that may be causing or contributing to your anxiety.
Both neurofeedback and neurostimulation can then be used to restore healthy brainwave activity, calm over-active regions, and improve communication across the brain. Biofeedback and mindfulness training can also help you to gain more control over your autonomic nervous system, allowing you to modulate anxious physiological responses like breathing, heart rate, body temperature, and muscle tension.
Through movement therapy, we teach you how to provide a healthy release for the fight-flight-freeze response and connect with your body, building self-awareness and self-empowerment. Functional medicine testing and nutritional coaching can also help address common contributing factors to anxiety, such as diet, hormonal imbalances, adrenal exhaustion, inflammation, etc.
Whichever services you choose to engage with, we will work collaboratively with you to address your anxiety from an integrative lens and focus on improving your overall brain-body wellness so you can be the best version of you!
What the research says
Anxiety and panic disorders are the most common mental health concerns in the world. They can affect a person’s ability to work, interact with others, experience new things, or complete tasks necessary for growth and survival. Due to the prevalence of anxiety, a great deal of research has been done to better understand related underlying mechanisms and the most effective treatments. Research suggests that neurotherapy and other integrative modalities can be effective, non-invasive approaches for reducing anxiety.
In one study, 14 participants were asked to complete a pre- and post-intervention self-report anxiety measure (Dreis, Groufer, Perez, Ruso, Fitzsimmons, & Jones, 2015). They were provided with two 30 minute sessions of QEEG amplitude neurofeedback per week for 14 weeks. At the conclusion of the study, researchers found statistically significant improvements in participants’ scores, implying a reduction in anxious symptoms and suggesting that this form of neurotherapy can provide clinically meaningful relief from anxiety and panic.
- Dreis, S. M., Gouger, A. M., Perez, E. G., Ruso, G. M., Fitzsimmons, M. A., Jones, M. S. (2015) Using Neurofeedback to Lower Anxiety Symptoms Using Individualized qEEG Protocols: A Pilot Study. NeuroRegulation 2(3), 137-148.
An additional study questioned whether combining heart rate variability (HRV) biofeedback with neurofeedback could help to reduce symptoms of anxiety among participants. Brain activity, blood pressure, breathing patterns, HRV, and self-reported psychological symptoms were measured with each participant before and after the study. Results showed reductions in overall anxiety symptoms and significant changes in EEG brainwave patterns, as well as breathing rate, HRV, and blood pressure. By addressing the connection between the brain and body, it appears that combining HRV and neurofeedback training can effectively address the roots of anxiety to provide significant relief.
- White, E. K., Groeneveld, K. M., Tittle, R. K., Bolhuis, N. A., Martin, R. E., Royer, T. G., Fotuhi, M. (2017) Combined Neurofeedback and Hearth Rate Variability Training for Individuals with Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression: A Retrospective Study. NeuroRegulation 4(1) 37-55.
For more studies on neurotherapy for Anxiety, see our Research page.