“Stress” is one of the most commonly known words in today’s modern, fast-paced society. We are warned of it, advised to manage it, and encouraged to spend our earnings to escape it. But few of us genuinely understand what exactly stress is, how it occurs in our bodies, and how it affects our biology overtime. Few of us know that not all stress is created equal, and how to identify the warning signs of when stress becomes too much.
While we typically engage in recommended ways to overcome stress such as exercise, nature walks, and a balanced diet, these remedies often do not entirely relieve the symptoms of stress that we experience in day-to-day life. This is not because these methods do not work, but rather, mismanaged stress left unaddressed takes deep root within our biology, physically changing our brains and how our bodies function over the long run.
Neurofeedback therapy or training is a remarkable new application of a well-known technology found to reduce the symptoms of excessive stress, decrease anxiety, relieve emotional pressure, increase feelings of self-control, and equip individuals to cope with stress more efficiently over a lifetime.
So, what exactly does the infamous word “stress” entail? Well, it is first important to note that we experience stress all of the time, and that is due to the fact that stress is actually necessary for survival. Stress colors life! However, there are various types and degrees of stressors that human beings experience in life today.
A most basic definition of stress can be understood as any emotional experience that takes us away from our neutral, baseline-level of functioning, a state known as homeostasis. When thought about in this way, it becomes clear that both positive and negative experiences can move us out of a neutral, homeostatic state. These perceived experiences span all walks of life, yet vary from person to person – what may be enjoyable to you could be perceived as burdensome to me.
Positive stress, also known as “eustress,” is a good type of stress that is acute (short-term) in nature and perceived as within our coping abilities, meaning we believe that we can handle it. Good stress feels exciting, exhilarating or pleasantly challenging, like going on a date, riding a roller coaster, or meeting a deadline. This stress motivates us, focusing our energy and improving our performance.
Negative stress, on the other hand, also known as “distress,” is a bad type of stress that can be both acute and chronic (long-term) in nature and is perceived as outside of our coping abilities, meaning we are not as sure about or we genuinely believe that we cannot handle these stresses. This stress feels overwhelming, worrisome, or even suffocating, like feeling overworked, experiencing problems with money, or being in a threatening/abusive relationship. Bad stress causes feelings of helplessness and anxiety, draining our energy stores and decreasing our performance. Left unaddressed, negative stress of this nature can begin to “pile up” within the body and lead to what is known as “chronic stress.”
Acute vs. Chronic Stress
While acute stress, both good and bad, comprises the general demands/threats of everyday life, chronic stress is an accumulation of prolonged, poorly managed, and seemingly endless negative stress overtime.
Acute stress keeps our stress response system well oiled. These stresses can be both physical and emotional events such as taking an exam, having an argument with a loved one, or almost getting into a car accident. In these circumstances, our stress response helps us in dealing with, and in some cases even surviving, the given situation. In fact, scientists believe that our bodies were designed to live and grow with stress of this nature. We can understand this by looking back to our great primal ancestors, whose biology adapted to encountering and overcoming immediate short-term threats, leading to the evolution of our “fight-or-flight” stress response system.
The important thing to note about acute stress is that it is typically event-oriented; it activates our fight-or-flight stress response, persists for a short period of time, and then ceases to exist, allowing us to return to homeostasis. Like a solvable puzzle, once the demand or threat is resolved, the stress goes away. This acute ON/OFF pattern is natural and adaptive for our stress response system, allowing us to build resistance towards similar stressful situations in the future.
Chronic stress, on the other hand, can wreak havoc on the body and mind. This stress is the product of repetitive negative experiences day-in and day-out, whether it be poorly managed/ignored emotional stress or the build up of everyday stress overtime. In these circumstances, the individual perceives no way out of a negative situation, such as working a job that is highly stressful or unfulfilling, living in poverty, or being trapped in an unhappy or abusive relationship.
As a result of this “no end in sight” perception, the body’s fight-or-flight stress response is constantly in the ON state, exposing the body to a continuous flood of stress hormones and draining the energy stores meant for thinking, learning, and growth. The body is put under constant physical tension and immense emotional pressure.
Scientists believe that while our anatomy may be instinctually capable of handling episodes of acute stress, we are not designed to live in fight-or-flight mode all of the time.
The important thing to note about chronic stress is that while it can typically originate from an external event, it is often prolonged by internal thoughts and worry. Although we may still possess the same stress response system as our ancestors, our thinking brains have evolved and changed dramatically over time. As a result, we are capable of permanently keeping our stress response turned ON with our psychological and emotional states alone (no active threat required!). Prolonged chronic stress breaks down our bodily systems overtime, and has been found to lead to both physical and mental illness.
Top 10 Signs of Stress:
- Feelings of hopelessness, worry or anxiety
- Anger, irritability, or depression
- Back, jaw or muscle pain
- Poor concentration and performance
- Fatigue or burnout
- Brain fog or memory problems
- Overeating and weight gain
- High blood pressure
- A weakened immune system
Neurofeedback to Relieve Stress
Neurofeedback training has shown immense application in the field of stress reduction and stress management. Although neurofeedback involves highly specialized technology, the therapy itself is an effective form of all natural stress relief. Its concept is based on the theory that unhealthy changes in body function or behavior are represented by corresponding irregularities in brain wave patterns. For example, it has been found that patients who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder display irregular activity in the fear center of their brain, which sits on the right side of their head just above the ear.
Similar to seeing your reflection in a mirror, neurofeedback uses the patient’s own brain waves as a self-regulating tool. The patient is guided using positive and negative cues in order to reinforce or inhibit certain brain wave patterns. These neurological changes are long-lasting as they are reflected by the growth and development of new brain cells (neurons) in their connections and firing patterns.
Neurofeedback for Stress Research
Neurofeedback training is an effective therapy for decreasing stress when everyday stress becomes too much. Research involving normal aging adults and younger adolescents reported improved attention and working memory performance as well as executive function. Studies conducted on adult workplace stress management and emotional health demonstrated lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure, reductions in stress symptoms, and increased work-related scales of job satisfaction and value of contribution.
Neurofeedback training has even shown application in both athletics and the performing arts. During off-season training, the soccer club AC Milan used neurofeedback to help players remain calm and focused while watching footage of their errors. The result of increased mental and physical control paid off when many players joined the Italian team that went on to win the 2006 World Cup. Judges from Britain’s Royal College of Music reported that students who trained with neurofeedback displayed a whopping 10 percent improvement in their stage performance.
Neurofeedback has also been found to improve stress symptoms and quality of life in patients of varying conditions. Fibromyalgia patients reported significantly lower pain and fatigue scores after training with neurofeedback. Young males suffering from severe traumatic brain injury (TBI) demonstrated significant post-training improvements in mood and irritability, mental sharpness, and academic performance. Research has also shown marked improvements in patients suffering from insomnia, reporting decreased symptoms of hyperarousal and anxiety, as well as less time till falling asleep and less disrupted sleep through the night.
Together with the clinician, neurofeedback training allows individuals to take life into his or her own hands and work toward building healthier brain activity and long-lasting coping mechanisms.