Can Stimulating the Prefrontal Cortex Calm the Default Human Survival Flight/Fight Response?

When humans encounter situations that they perceive as threatening, the parts of the brain responsible for our survival (i.e., amygdala, hippocampus) kick in to determine if running away from the threat is possible, to fight if not, and if neither is possible to stand still, hold our breath to be quiet and ultimately faint.  This flight/fight/freeze/faint response is not only the default position of our brains, it can be so activated over time from trauma and stress that it stays turned on even when we are not in harm’s way.

As someone that grew up in a home that would now be described as chaotic, I found myself in a series of situations that I either ran away from or fought, with a few where I found myself frozen in fear.  As a young child we don’t understand how these experiences are effecting our development, we just do what we have to – anything to survive.  As a young adult, I began to sense the amount of pressure I held in my body and used that energy to drive myself forward, sometimes to the point of exhaustion.

Through several years of psychotherapy, I discovered that the survival response in my brain, when activated (which happened to be most of the time), reduced my access to the parts of my brain that helped me to focus and communicate.  I subsequently learned that this is referred to as ‘amygdala hijacking’ and I describe it as the amygdala literally turning off the light switch leaving it in the dark to fend for itself without being able to see that there is access to support, specifically the prefrontal cortex.  And when you can’t access this part of the brain on a consistent basis, it loses its ability to offer a more balanced perspective of life.  Remember that saying “If you don’t use it, you lose it”, well it applies here too.

When I discovered yoga, I found a way to keep these two parts of my brain connected and when I did, it reduced the level of anxiety in the moment and began to strengthen the bridge that allows space to response, instead of react.  One of the most powerful tools that I learned from my time on the yoga mat was deep belly breathing, which was the first tool that I took off of the mat and into my everyday experiences.

Research has shown that practicing such breath techniques has neurophysiological impacts through respiratory vagus nerve stimulation.  The vagus nerve is the main part of our parasympathetic autonomic nervous system that is responsible for rest and digest processes and when stimulated is closely associated with emotional balance, mental flexibility, empathy and attachment.  It does this through decreasing hippocampal activity among other things, reducing the reactivity in the fear center of our brain, making access to the prefrontal cortex easier.  Now, what I have to admit is that I practiced such breath techniques for years until I began to consistently experience the emotional balance I so craved.  So, from personal experience I know it works, yet it can take time.

So how excited was I when I read the recent research in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Psychiatry that looked at this bridge from a different perspective – stimulating the prefrontal cortex in order to allow it to stay online and calm the fear center of the brain when experiencing threatening circumstances, reducing anxiety.  This research looked at the effects of transcranial direct current stimulation, such as used in direct neurofeedback, of the prefrontal cortex on amygdala threat activity in people who experience chronic anxiety.  Neuroimaging was used to assess the impact and the results reveal a direct connection between the ability of the prefrontal cortex to regulate the fear response in the amygdala.  These findings offer more support to the neurocognitive mechanism contributing to the positive effects of direct neurofeedback and offer much hope to more directly and quickly reduce anxiety through such a non-pharmaceutical treatment option.

Are you looking for a magic pill for anxiety, but without the pill?

As a yoga teacher, you might expect me to tell you that meditation is the answer.  And, although meditation has absolutely been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety, many people who suffer from anxiety get anxious just thinking about the idea of meditation.  Instead, non-invasive brain stimulation (i.e., direct neurofeedback) might bring more immediate relief of symptoms, creating space in the mind to contemplate meditation and even begin to practice it!

As someone whose nervous system tends to lean towards anxiety, my yoga practice including but not limited to pranayama, meditation and self-inquiry has brought me much peace over years of practice.  Yet, when chaos would begin to brew as it will and I would begin to feel a sense of overwhelm, I would greet my fear all over again, like a familiar (yet not comfortable) old friend.  I wondered if all of my body-mind-spirit practices would ever be enough to soothe my root chakra to the point of simply accepting fear for what it is – an early warning system meant to guide me to safety.

It wasn’t until I experienced direct neurofeedback that I sensed that shift in my relationship with fear.  I came to understand that trying to train the mind when the brain is caught in a deeply patterned dysfunctional loop can only do so much to soothe my nervous system and create new neural connections.  Operating from the conscious mind, we quickly discover that making the unconscious conscious is really hard heart work!  Awareness brings understanding and understanding creates an opportunity for choice, yet our unconscious mind can throw so many barriers up to prevent such awareness for fear of breaking our hearts.

When we can work with the body directly – specifically the brain – we can address the root source of the problem, circumventing the barriers of the mind while supporting the body’s self-healing abilities.  For anyone that has tried acupuncture, this idea may sound familiar.  By soothing the fear centers in the brain, the mind begins to notice space where there was none before.  Space to consider our experiences (past and present) in a new light with a new perspective.  And when we venture into those places of fear, such as chaos, we have a greater capacity and ability to stand in our own power and not get swept up in that sense of overwhelm.  From this place of power, we being to experience a greater sense of connection, to our authentic self as well as to the larger collective consciousness, realizing we are not alone.

When we truly can accept that ‘we are not alone’ into our belief system and we add ‘interdependence’ and compassion to our value system, the fears of uncertainty and unpredictability that underlie anxiety can be replaced with equanimity.  With the help of direct neurofeedback, I no longer found myself plagued by the belief that independence is the source of happiness, where shame is abundant when asking for help or support, or the thoughts around needing to be perfect in order to be acceptable and loved, which drove me to exhaustion.  Direct neurofeedback appeared to create space in my mind for new beliefs and values much more quickly than psychotherapy and/or yoga alone.

Recent research on non-invasive brain stimulation such as direct neurofeedback in generalized anxiety disorder is beginning to explain such results.  If you are interested in reading more, click on the link below:

The Stigma of Stuttering – Can Direct Neurofeedback Improve Speech Fluency?

If you know – or have ever known – someone that struggles or struggled with stuttering, then you most likely are aware of how physically and mentally exhausting it can be for them to communicate as they attempt to control the disruptions in their speech caused by this neurodevelopmental condition.  And when we realize that this condition typically begins before the age of 6 and impacts about 5% of preschool children, then I’m sure that most of us can imagine how children might develop additional mental and emotional challenges, such as anxiety, embarrassment, shame and low self-esteem, that most likely will have a significant impact on how they experience life as they grow up.

The good news is that many children outgrow this condition as their brains continue to develop.  With the help of speech therapy, many others will be able to learn how to slow down their speech enough to manage the disruptions.  However, some (approximately 1%) will continue to stutter for a lifetime.  Research focused on these adults is beginning to show changes in the actual structures of the brain when compared to adults without this neurodevelopmental condition.  This is great news as it allows for exploration of treatments known to impact those brain structures.

Once such treatment, direct neurostimulation is beginning to gain some traction in the realm of research on stuttering.  There may be variations in the neurostimulation technique; however, the treatment is non-invasive and includes the delivery of direct, low-intensity electrical currents to the scalp.  If the intensity of the electrical current is higher, it will work to change the neurons (stimulating or reducing neural firing), while lower intensity currents will work with the brainwaves, specifically disrupting dysfunctional brainwaves patterns and supporting the brain’s innate ability to organize and regulate itself.  Either way, these treatments that gently work to stimulate the brain directly are bringing hope to those who continue to be challenged by this condition into adulthood.

So, if you, a loved one or someone else you know is part of the 1% of the adult population still dealing with this neurodevelopmental condition, consider reading the recent research by clicking on the link below:

Might direct neurofeedback be worth a try?

I’m a big believer in our innate ability to heal ourselves, the power of the human body and mind to continually work together towards homeostasis and health.  I also have personally experienced the chaos created in both by trauma, challenging my body and mind to maintain that state of equilibrium and well-being.  Through my own healing journey, I have discovered tools along the way that have worked to reinforce that innate ability to heal and feel sense of encouragement when the research supports personal experience.  Direct neurofeedback is one of those tools.

Trauma comes in all shapes and sizes, whether you experienced abuse or neglect as a child, grew up on a home with one or both parents suffering from a mental illness or addiction, or were a witness to domestic violence while living with adults or going through a contentious divorce.  The enduring nature of the trauma from such interpersonally violent upbringings stems from the impact on the developing brain and nervous system.  When we embrace this fact, then we can also embrace the fact that sometimes the mind cannot talk itself out of such experiences when not involving the body in the process.

The brain, along with the spinal cord, forms the body’s main control center of our central nervous system.  This control center is where incoming stimulus is evaluated and decisions about what action to take are made.  It is the neurons in the brain that support the mind’s awareness of sensations, emotions, thoughts and ultimately behaviors when they communicate with each other.  When our neurons communicate, they produce electrical pulses referred to as brain waves.  These brain waves can be compared to the radio waves and the various stations that we tune into to listen to the radio.  AM stations work on a lower bandwidth, while FM stations have a higher bandwidth.  Our brain waves change according to what we are “tuned into”, with our slower brain waves being the AM stations and our faster ones being the FM stations.  Therefore, the brain is the main body part that is driving our beliefs, perceptions and reactions.

Understanding this very complex organ has taken some time as we waited for science to catch up with the personal experience of many.  With the advent of the electroencephalogram (EEG for short), we are able to see the various brain wave activity and now research has been able to identify the brain wave patterns associated with various neurological and emotional conditions, including ADHD, anxiety and depression.  This information created the opportunity to identify and work with tools to change or modify those brain waves, supporting the brains natural tendency towards balance and health.

Therefore, we are now better able to understand that when our brain waves are out of balance we will experience dis-ease in our minds and bodies, creating an unnatural, unhealthy environment that jeopardizes our overall well-being and health.  This understanding allows a more specific focus on tools that change or balance our brain waves to return the brain to its natural healthy state and thus creating an atmosphere for peace of mind and strength of body.  It helps us to appreciate the past experience with psychotherapy (or “talk” therapy), where it has been shown that changing our perceptions changes our experience of the world.  It also better explains the use of drugs (prescription or otherwise) to alter the brain’s ability to function and alleviate symptoms of dis-ease in the mind and body.

A newer approach to what ails many in the Western world is the use of more traditional Eastern practices such as yoga, meditation and deep breathing, which research is now able to show that these practices support the brain’s natural balance by modifying the brain wave patterns that create the imbalance.  In addition to these techniques, which work best when implemented as daily practices over the long haul, direct neurofeedback is showing success in altering brain waves more quickly that underlie the symptoms of a wide range of conditions, offering more immediate relief.

If you would like to read more about the research to determine for yourself if this tool might be worth a try, click on the button below:

Neurofeedback – Promising non-pharmaceutical intervention strategies for anxiety and depression!

Many people that I connect with express a desire to try other approaches to address symptoms of anxiety and depression before turning to medications, especially when it is their children that are suffering from such symptoms, as all prescription medications come with undesired side-effects.  As a psychotherapist and yoga teacher, I share the research with them that shows the effectiveness of integrating these two (yoga and talk therapy) healing arts to support the shift in focus toward health promotion for those who prefer to take a more natural, holistic approach to healing. Now I am excited to share recent research that demonstrates combining neurofeedback with heart rate variability training (e.g., deep slow abdominal yogic breathing) provides another viable non-pharmaceutical approach to address the symptoms of anxiety and depression.  And the research showed a reduction in symptoms for both children and adults!

Neurofeedback is not new and is a form of biofeedback, where instruments are attached to the body to provide information to the individual on the functioning of their body.  Biofeedback, including neurofeedback, as a field of study has been growing since the 1960s.  Neurofeedback (or EEG biofeedback) is the form of biofeedback that enables people to change the brain’s electrical activity.  An EEG (electroencephalography) is the device that captures the real-time brain wave activity so it can be displayed and assessed for any unhealthy patterns that might be contributing to symptoms, such as anxiety and depression.  Being able to offer a way to change unhealthy brain wave patterns through neurofeedback is of special interest to those of us working with clients to relieve such distressing symptoms because the brain is a central contributor to the emotions, physical symptoms, thoughts and behaviors that define many problems for which people reach out for support.

Yoga and it’s slow, controlled deep abdominal breathing is also not new.  What is new is the research that is showing how this yogic breathing impacts heart rate variability (HRV).  HRV has been shown to be linked with an increase in cardiovascular disease, specifically when the variability is low.  (Please refer to last month’s Reflection to learn more about HRV.)  Stress and anxiety increases the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, the system responsible for the flight-fight response in the body, leading to increases in heart rate and a lowering of heart rate variability. On the other hand, activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, the system responsible for the rest-digest response in the body, has been shown to decrease heart rate and increase heart rate variability, specifically through the stimulation of the vagus (Cranial X) nerve that controls the heart, lung and digestion.  It is the controlled breathing found in a regular yoga practice that stimulates the vagus nerve, bringing balance to the activity of the sympathetic nervous system activity.

Even more recent research has brought these two healing modalities together to assess the impact of stimulating both the brain with neurofeedback and the vagus nerve with deep abdominal breathing on symptoms of anxiety and depressing in both children and adults.  The results showed evidence that such training may provide an effective, non-pharmaceutical approach to reducing such symptoms, with some additional benefits such as improving blood pressure!

To read the full research article, click on the link below: