You are rushing to work, walking across the street in the middle of the day. A million thoughts are racing through your head. “Did I forget to send that email out?” “My phone isn’t charged!” “Did I get back to him about my weekend plans?” “I am going to be so late to my next appointment”… You start walking across a busy intersection and out of nowhere a speeding car going 50 miles an hour comes to a screeching halt inches from you. Without a second to think your arm hair rises, your stomach feels sick and you feel that uncomfortable adrenaline rush you have felt before. You walk away from the near accident and are completely fine but you find for the next few hours you cannot get that sick feeling out of your stomach…
While you may not have experienced this exact scenario, chances are you have encountered a very stressful and potentially dangerous experience. Your body reacted the same way; tensing up, butterflies in your stomach, and the uncomfortable feeling of adrenaline. For some people, this feeling is constant. This can happen in many anxiety disorders from generalized anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder.
How can we help quiet the parts in our brain that cause our body to feel this way?
The above states of chronic anxiety can be addressed by neurofeedback generally but especially Infraslow (ISF) neurofeedback. Why is ISF especially helpful in quieting the stress response? More on the mechanism below but we now have direct evidence that ISF neurofeedback training produces relaxation and relief from anxiety.
In a soon to be published study, ISF neurofeedback was put to the test by using Biofeedback equipment that measured a subject’s physiological response to the training.
We found that during training blood pressure normalized, heart rate slowed, hands became warm and dry, breathing became deeper and slower and the big muscles in the shoulders (Trapezius) relaxed. All direct indications of the relaxation response.
Further, in a separate study of people trained with ISF neurofeedback, subjects noticed a profound sense of well-being as measured by psychometric testing.
But how does our body do this in the first place?
The above vignette can best be explained by the Central Autonomic Network (CAN). CAN is an internal regulation system the brain uses to control behavioral response. The components of this network are the circulatory system, the emotional regulation system, the brain network that maintains a sense of self, and the behavioral network responsible for the flight, flight, or freeze response.
When a person confronts a threat of danger, the sensory organs (eyes, ears, etc.) process the event via the CAN network. If the threat is real, or perceived as real, the fight, flight or freeze response becomes the dominant behavioral network. All other behavioral networks are quieted while the body and mind are involved in the pursuit of safety. This system is necessary for survival.
Problems arise when this network is chronically active, responding to routine events as if potentially lethal.
This chronic response does not allow for the complimentary network to respond: the rest and digest system that calms the behavioral response.
Self-regulation occurs via the interplay of these complimentary networks referred to collectively as the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). Generally, the ANS is separated into two divisions called the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Together these divisions of the ANS maintain constant conditions within the body.
The Sympathetic Nervous System
The sympathetic response or sympathetic nervous system, functions like a gas pedal in a car, providing the body with energy so that it can respond to stimuli that includes danger but also helps with, attention, emotional response, and self-regulatory activities that involve goal directed behavior. The sympathetic response adapts the body for physical, emotional and intellectual activity by increasing alertness, heart rate, blood pressure, and blood glucose concentration.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System
The parasympathetic nervous system is the “brake” that dampens the body’s stress response. It promotes the “rest and digest” response that calms the body after the danger /arousal has passed. These activities act to conserve energy as they slow heart rate, increase intestinal and gland activity, and relax sphincter muscles in the gastrointestinal tract.
While this system has evolved to protect organisms from danger and promote goal directed behavior, dysregulation in this system can cause many disorders and conditions.
Those that live with constant stress or have experienced stress in their developmental years may have a dysregulated CAN. Their SNS remains in an overstimulated state. Many people suffer from a dominant SNS of varying degrees. For many, this low-grade overstimulated condition has become a typical state of being. For others the symptoms have become more severe with little or no relief.
How ISF Neurofeedback helps to regulate the dysregulated CAN and provide help for anxiety
ISF works on many different levels. The earliest research on infraslow frequencies revealed a central role for slow processes in the stress response. More recent Research tells us that ISF helps to coordinate electrical activity in the brain. Moreover, ISF orchestrates the resources necessary for behavioral network activity. Importantly, the infraslow frequencies facilitate communication within and between behavioral networks. Lastly, it controls the activation and deactivation of those same behavioral networks.
The centrality of these slow frequencies in behavior, self-regulatory functions, and brain activation makes Infraslow neurofeedback a powerful tool to help with anxiety. In research and clinical practice, we are training key regions of the CAN with ISF neurofeedback. The clinical results of increased relaxation, better sleep, profound changes in physiology, and a renewed sense of well-being in daily life echo the results of our research.
Based on our clinical and research results we can state unequivocally, ISF helps with anxiety disorders.
Article co-authored by Leila Ostad