1.1 Emotions Affect Brain Waves

A large percentage of the U.S. population (estimated to be between 12 to 34%, depending on the study) has an anxiety disorder that is sometimes serious enough to be diagnosed and usually medicated during their lives. It is the most frequently diagnosed mental health disorder. It affects over 40 million people annually, most of them women, who are 1.5 to 2 times more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders than men.

Living in a state of anxiety has multiple negative effects on people’s lives, destroying their health and relationships, both at home and on the job. Even mild anxiety – the kind we can hardly avoid in our stress-filled lives and fast-paced, demanding jobs (raising our kids and trying to ‘make it’ financially) – can have a detrimental effect on our health and relationships.

Anxiety, doubt, and worry keep us from taking risks, enjoying life, and moving toward our goals. They create a tremendous sense of pressure and fear about not being able to live up to expectations – your own as well as those of your spouse or parent or boss – and lead to a deep sense of failure or a feeling that you’re ‘faking it.’

The voice of anxiety makes us focus on what could go wrong at work (you’re sure you’ll be the next downsizing casualty), when the kids are out with friends (what kind of risky behavior are they engaging in now?), in your relationship with your spouse (why is he/she late again? Does he/she really love me?).

Anxiety robs self-confidence and makes life a struggle to get through rather than something to be passionately enjoyed. Anxiety causes people to withdraw from relating authentically to others, whether a spouse or coworkers, damaging both love life and work life.

The science of psychology has recognized for decades that anxiety negatively affects learning, creativity, and memory. Anxiety disorders contribute to illness and death by causing toxic hormones to be released and can be a direct cause of high blood pressure or rapid, irregular heartbeat. Anxiety and stress also measurably reduce the strength of our immune systems.

Hans Berger, an early 20th-century Austrian psychiatrist, is revered as the man who discovered the brain’s electrical rhythms. In 1908 he made this revolutionary discovery with primitive ballistic galvanometers that could barely detect the tiny microvolt level electrical oscillations in the brain. The biggest of these waves was, of course, the first to be detected with his primitive equipment, so he called them ‘alpha waves’ since alpha is the first letter of the Greek alphabet. Hans Berger thought these waves might be the source of ESP, so he kept his discovery secret for 10 years while he researched them carefully. While there is a link, Berger was unable to find it with his primitive equipment.

Berger is regarded as the ‘grandfather’ of brain wave research, and he was the first to discover that alpha waves were uncommon in highly anxious people and that if an anxious person did have a few alpha waves, they were smaller than usual (a weaker signal with less amplitude). And even today, if we lack ample alpha waves, we more easily fall victim to anxiety and stress-related diseases. Indeed a progressive loss of alpha waves is a hallmark of uncorrected aging of the brain and the descent into senescence and senility.

1.1.1 Early Research into Brain Wave Feedback and Anxiety

In 1977 (Hardt, 1977), my first research paper on anxiety and alpha wave neurofeedback training was presented at the Denver meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Hardt, J.V. Anxiety reduction through alpha EEG enhancement. Proceedings of the American Association’s Annual Meeting for the Advancement of Science, Denver, CO, Feb. 20-25, 1977.

A year later, this work was expanded and published in the prestigious Science magazine (Hardt & Kamiya, 1978). Hardt, J.V. and Kamiya, J. Anxiety change through EEG alpha feedback: Seen only in high anxiety subjects. Science, Vol. 201, pp. 79-81, 1978.

For this study, I selected subjects who scored either high or low in trait anxiety (meaning anxiety that was an enduring trait or characteristic of their personality) and used an early form of the Biocybernaut training protocol for alpha neurofeedback to increase and decrease their alpha activity, measured by an EEG. When my high-anxiety research subjects increased alpha wave production, their anxiety scores decreased significantly, and in proportion to their alpha increases. Alpha and anxiety seemed to be inversely related.

This paper caused quite a stir and generated more than 1,000 reprint requests from outside the USA. This was groundbreaking work, because no one believed that a personality characteristic like trait anxiety could be changed. Personality traits were considered to be stable over the adult lifetime. There was a view that perhaps, with 20 years of psychotherapy, you could tinker at the margins of personality traits, but the idea that you could significantly and profoundly alter personality with any method was not a part of modern psychology or psychiatry. The idea did exist that perhaps anxiety could be controlled with medication (which had many undesirable side effects). Yet with alpha brain wave neurofeedback of only 5.6 hours total over 7 consecutive days, our study showed a remarkable and lasting change in this personality trait. This and other research is further explained in Chapter 3, Calming the Hurricane in Your Brain.

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