Your brain’s top priority is always keeping you safe and alive — not happy and calm. For this reason, your brain is wired to be fearful and reactive. To avoid harm and pain is its natural instinct. To accomplish this, your subconscious brain is always scanning your environment for anything it considers a threat. Multiple pathways carry information from your bodily senses straight to your brain to allow you to react quickly if needed.

Unlike other animals, humans are unique in that danger doesn’t have actually be present and imminent to warrant a response. Our big, sophisticated brains can kick into high gear when just remembering, anticipating, or imagining things. You can literally put your brain and body into a panic when there’s no actual danger present.

Anxiety starts in your brain and can end there.

The Stress Response Is a Good Thing Gone Bad

When we could have been some predator’s dinner, our cautious spidey sense was an evolutionary advantage that helped our species survive lethal threats. While you hopefully don’t find yourself in mortal danger often these days, this hair-trigger reactivity still exists in your brain today.

And sometimes, the fear response is warranted and is still a good thing in situations where you need to react fast. But most of the time currently, your brain sounds the alarm far too often over minor incidents. For example, when your friend doesn’t respond to your text for hours, your boss asks you to stop by their office later, or the neighbor’s dog poops in your yard — again!

When your brain activates the fear response, it releases a surge of neurochemicals that trigger a cascade of bodily reactions that you may be all too familiar with — the pounding heart, quickened breath, sweating, and that “jump out-of-your-skin” feeling. When this happens too frequently, your amygdala, the fear center of your brain, can get stuck on “high alert” permanently, which can have serious negative consequences for your mental and physical health and result in a constant feeling of unease or anxiety.

When your brain activates the fear response, it releases a surge of neurochemicals that trigger a cascade of bodily reactions that you may be all too familiar with — the pounding heart, quickened breath, sweating, and that “jump out-of-your-skin” feeling. When this happens too frequently, your amygdala, the fear center of your brain, can get stuck on “high alert” permanently, which can have serious negative consequences for your mental and physical health and result in a constant feeling of unease or anxiety.

What is Anxiety Exactly?

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S. affecting 40 million adults according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

But what exactly is it?

You may have seen anxiety and worry used interchangeably. They are actually two different things. Worrying is thinking about a potential problem, and anxiety is feeling it in your body.

They both start in your brain, but anxiety shows up more as symptoms, actions, and behaviors. Oftentimes, anxiety doesn’t have one specific conscious cause that you can pinpoint and is just an underlying condition that exhibits physically. Physical symptoms of anxiety include:

  • stomach pain, nausea, or digestive problems
  • headache
  • insomnia or other sleep issues (waking up frequently, for example)
  • weakness or fatigue
  • rapid breathing or shortness of breath
  • pounding heart or increased heart rate
  • sweating
  • trembling or shaking
  • muscle tension or pain

Here’s What Anxiety Looks Like in Your Brain

Brainwave image

In your brain, anxiety involves the limbic system interacting with the amygdala, hippocampus, and hypothalamus, to turn on the fear circuit. Because anxiety evokes the fear response, your body activates the fight-or-flight alarm and releases stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline. Being in a continual state of stress can result in serious damage to your brain and body.

A healthy well-balanced brain and nervous system will generate the right brain waves at the appropriate levels at the right times. Your brain produces five types of brain waves, which are electrical impulses between neurons that communicate actions, emotions, and thoughts:

  • Alpha,
  • Beta,
  • Delta,
  • Gamma
  • Theta.

An anxious brain usually exhibits decreased alpha waves, increased beta waves, and low delta and theta waves. Anxiousness and feelings of panic can be caused by the thoughts and fears in your brain, but they can also be the result of your brain waves. It works both ways. When your brain is stuck in a state of hyper-arousal, it is going to produce the accompanying brain waves. In that case, anxiety is a chemically driven state stemming from an imbalanced and dysregulated brain.

You Can Reduce Anxiety by Increasing Your Brain’s Alpha Waves

There’s always electrical activity happening in your brain, whether you’re aware of it or not. It’s how your brain functions and communicates with itself and your body. Throughout your day, depending on what you’re doing, any one of the types of brain waves is going to be dominant.

Alpha brainwaves are most commonly associated with focus and being in a calm, relaxed state. If you’ve ever been totally immersed in what you’re doing, lost all sense of time and self, and are extraordinarily productive — you’ve experienced a burst of alpha waves in what’s called a “flow state.”

Research shows that increasing the production of alpha waves can reduce stress and anxiety and allow people to maintain more focus. It specifically suggested that increasing both alpha and theta activity in the brain’s occipital lobes helped decrease anxiety and improve functioning in people with generalized anxiety disorder.

Ways to Increase Alpha Waves

The answer to easing and reversing anxiety is to turn down your brain’s stress response and turn up your brain’s relaxation response. Technically, your brain needs to increase its slow wave activity and engage the parasympathetic nervous system so your mind and body can become less aroused and reactive. There are many ways you can encourage your brain to increase the production of alpha waves and calm anxiety naturally.


Neurofeedback is a way of treating anxiety at the source, your brain, permanently and without medication. Research shows that neurofeedback successfully trains your brain to decrease the activation of the amygdala so that it doesn’t initiate the stress response as often. And it increases the connectivity and ability of your intelligent brain, the prefrontal cortex, to calm and regulate your brain and body.

Neurofeedback is a specialized form of biofeedback therapy, where people learn to influence their body’s autonomic nervous system at a subconscious level to permanently alter their own brainwaves. Neurofeedback has been around since the 1950s and is a reputable, scientifically proven modality practiced by trained practitioners.

Neurofeedback is a noninvasive therapy where EEG sensors are placed on the scalp and ears to read the electrical activity of your brain. Brainwaves are monitored by a computer which gives real-time feedback to the person training in the form of an auditory or visual reward, like music or a video game. With consistent repetition, the brain learns to self-regulate and makes permanent physiological changes to function more optimally. The altered operation continues
after the training session.

Science Supports Neurofeedback

D. Corydon Hammond, Ph.D., wrote in the summary of his research, “Neurofeedback Treatment for Depression and Anxiety“:

Neurofeedback is an encouraging development that holds promise as a method for modifying biological brain patterns associated with a variety of mental health and medical (e.g., stroke, head injury, effects of aging) disorders–particularly because unlike drugs, electroconvulsive therapy, and intense transcranial magnetic stimulation, it is non-invasive and seldom associated with even mild side effects.”

A more recent study, Real-Time Functional Connectivity-Informed Neurofeedback of Amygdala-Frontal Pathways Reduces Anxiety, concluded:

The present results demonstrate for the first time that successful self-regulation of amygdala-prefrontal top-down regulatory circuits may represent a novel intervention to control anxiety. As such, the present findings underscore both the critical contribution of amygdala-prefrontal circuits to emotion regulation and the therapeutic potential of connectivity-informed real-time neurofeedback

Lifestyle Changes

Meditation and Mindfulness

Science has also linked meditation to increased alpha waves. Studies on Buddhist monks show that as monks progress in their practice, alpha waves increase in their brains. Fortunately, you don’t have to meditate as much as a monk. Even a few minutes a day can boost your alpha brain waves. EEG testing on people practicing meditation reveals that meditation affects brain wave production even after the meditation session ends, and regular practice can change your default brain wave activity.

Like meditation, studies show that mindfulness can lead to increased alpha-wave activity. Very simply, mindfulness is a way of thinking. It’s being aware and being aware of your own awareness. It’s training your brain to pay attention and notice what’s happening as it’s happening without automatically reacting. Mindfulness teaches you to shift control of your brain from your limbic system to the intelligence of your frontal lobe.


Another way to boost your alpha waves is through high-intensity workouts. When you exercise, you release endorphins that give you an elated “high” feeling. Even after working out, when your body calms down and is resting, your brain has increased alpha waves.

Deep breathing

Deep breathing can effectively engage your parasympathetic nervous system, stimulate your vagus nerve, and decrease anxiety. Research suggests that it may also boost alpha activity in key areas of the brain.


Studies show that yoga practices can change your brain structure as well as your brain waves. Yoga seems to have positive effects on brainwave activity by stimulating the activation of alpha, beta, and theta brainwaves. With these waves, cognitive function, memory, mood, and anxiety improve.


Anxiety begins in your brain and can end there.

Neurofeedback can teach your brain to increase its production of calming brain waves permanently. Calm and less anxious can become the default state for your mind and body.

Neurofeedback successfully treats many other conditions, including depression, autism, ADD and ADHD, brain injuries, OCD, stroke recovery, PTSD, addictions, seizure disorders, migraines, chronic pain, dementia, and more. By fine-tuning the brain’s performance, neurofeedback can also improve focus and concentration. For example, neurofeedback brain training could improve a person’s performance at school, golf or other sports, or at work.

Peace and calm are possible.

At Grey Matters of Carmel, we are passionate about helping people live their best lives. Give us a call or send a message today at (317) 215-7208 to talk about how we can help you.