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Anxiety and depression are two of the most common mental health disorders of the modern age. While the World Health Organization estimates that over 500 million people suffer from these diseases of the mind, it’s important to note that not all people who struggle with symptoms of depression or anxiety seek help.
Mood disorders can make even the smallest actions seem like insurmountable acts of willpower, and anxiety can paralyze one’s ability to take them on. While each is a difficult diagnosis in its own right, it’s estimated that approximately 50% of people with major depressive disorder also suffer from anxiety, and 30% of those with anxiety suffer from depression.
The recurrence of these afflictions can make treatment challenging, particularly since their root causes are not always directly addressed. We aim to correct this with neurofeedback and are strong proponents of neurofeedback as a strong complementary treatment that patients can – and should – consider.
Understanding Mood Disorders and Anxiety
Depression and Mood Disorders
Mood disorders, also known as affective disorders, alter an individual’s emotional state, making them more susceptible to feelings of extreme sadness or joy. What we colloquially call depression is actually a mood disorder clinically referred to as major depressive disorder. Other common mood disorders include:
- Postpartum depression, a severe depression felt by some 10-15% of women after giving birth.
- Seasonal affective disorder, referred to as “the winter blues”, characterized by feelings of moodiness and irritability felt during the cold months that usually resolve in spring.
- Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depression, marked by periods of extreme happiness and joy followed by intense sadness and distress.
- Dysthymic disorder, a chronic form of depression that is milder than major depressive disorder but particularly long-lasting (min. 2 years).
Mood disorders can affect people of all ages and social circumstances, with depression having been diagnosed in infants as young as 6 months old.
Anxiety is a feeling of hyperarousal caused by severe stress. It’s a natural and normal reaction that helps us navigate situations that threaten our survival, and has served a great evolutionary purpose in supporting our ancestors to stay out of harm’s way. On the other hand, anxiety disorders are a group of mental health disorders characterized by persistent feelings of fear in the absence of immediate or significant danger. People suffering from anxiety disorders commonly struggle with fear, increased heart rate, palpitations, nausea, weakness, shaking, and other physical symptoms associated with our intrinsic fight or flight response. They also shape their behavior to avoid their triggers, giving rise to a plethora of additional problems.
Common anxiety disorders include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder, marked by prolonged feelings of fear and worry without any immediate cause.
- Phobias, characterized by intense feelings of anxiety caused by certain situations or objects (i.e. flying, blood, spiders, etc).
- Panic disorder, defined by intense and short-lived feelings of extreme terror and distress.
- Social anxiety disorder, marked by feelings of extreme unease in social situations that can sometimes lead to isolation.
Anxiety is very common and affects up to 30% of adults at some point in their lives. It is more frequently diagnosed in women and is also common among teenagers, who may end up struggling with irregular sleeping patterns and poor class attendance as a result.
We regularly treat elementary, high school, and college students who are unable to attend school due to anxiety. Through neurofeedback, we are able to successfully calm their brains, allowing them to regain confidence and comfort with being in a school setting. In other cases, our clients have continued to function at a very high level, but report constantly battling anxiety and feeling exhausted by their efforts to get through a normal day. We often hear these clients report better sleep, less stress, and greater ease within their first ten neurofeedback sessions.
What Causes Depression and Anxiety?
The causes of mood disorders are multi-factorial and still under investigation. Scientists have identified a strong genetic component to depression by studying sets of identical twins, where it has been found that if one twin becomes depressed, the other will follow in almost 80% of cases.
Women are also known to be twice as likely as men to suffer from stress-related mood and anxiety disorders. Smoking, alcohol consumption, and substance abuse have all been shown to make individuals more prone to depression. Childhood trauma can also increase the risk of developing depression or anxiety later in life.
Neurofeedback for Anxiety, Depression, and Mood Disorders
Neurofeedback is a form of biofeedback that trains the brain to self-regulate. By placing a cap with sensors on specific areas of the scalp, we can listen in on brainwave activity and recognize dysregulated areas.
Studies have shown that depression is commonly marked by an activation difference between the right and the left prefrontal cortex. The left prefrontal cortex is associated with positive feelings and memories, and in individuals diagnosed with depression, it’s characterized by increased alpha activity. When alpha gets too high in the left prefrontal cortex, the right side takes over and feelings of lower mood and eventually depression appear. This dysregulation persists even when depression has been properly cured with medication, making individuals more susceptible to relapse.
With neurofeedback, we can manipulate the electrical signals of the brain and regulate the left prefrontal cortex. In our practice, we use pleasant feedback tones and screen brightness to retrain the brain for optimal health. By doing this, we minimize the chances of recurrence and can increase the effectiveness of therapy and medication.
There are various studies that document how neurofeedback can help treat depression and anxiety.
Neurofeedback for anxiety
- While studying how neurofeedback can help relieve phobic anxiety, researchers noted a drop in anxiety scores for the combined treatment (with EEG) group compared to the non-combined treatment group (Garrett & Silver, 1976).
- One placebo-controlled study found that only 10 neurofeedback sessions were enough to help relieve symptoms of anxiety in alcoholics, with results sustained on a 18-month follow-up (Passini, Watson, Dehnel, Herder, & Watkins, 1977).
- A randomized placebo-controlled study found that neurofeedback improved mood, confidence, energy levels, and composure in medical students (Raymond, Varney, Parkinson, & Gru-zelier, 2005).
Neurofeedback for depression and mood disorders
- Various studies (Allen, Iacono, Depue, & Arbisi, 1993; Gotlib, Ranganath, & Rosenfeld, 1999; Henriques & Davidson, 1990; Kwon, Youn, & Jung, 1996) found that drug treatment that produced remission for depression does not affect the frontal alpha asymmetry, indicating a continued susceptibility of the patients to future episodes of depression.
- One study showed that neurofeedback has significant effects in patients suffering from major depressive disorder.
- Various other studies suggest that neurofeedback is a good recourse for treating anxiety and mood disorders (Cheon, Koo & Choi, 2015).
How to Get Started with Neurofeedback
If you’re interested in neurofeedback therapy for anxiety, depression, or mood disorders, the first step is getting a brainmap to identify the nature of your mood-related symptoms. Through consultation with our neurotherapists in conjunction with any current providers you are working with, we can develop a comprehensive plan to address the dysregulation through a combination of neurofeedback and other therapies.
Once you’ve decided that you want to add neurofeedback to your protocol, all you have to do is connect with a qualified neurofeedback practitioner, such as Tennessee Neurofeedback. Our staff is board certified in neurofeedback and can create a treatment plan that’s suited to your individual circumstance. Drop us a line or give us a call and we can schedule an introductory meeting and plan your initial brain mapping session.
Afterward, it’s essential that you follow through with the treatment. Neurofeedback is not a quick fix, and it takes time to work (we normally recommend forty 30-minute sessions for anxiety or depression), so be patient. We’ll support you every step of the way and fine-tune each and every session to maximize results.
Lastly, don’t lose hope.
If you’re struggling with your mental health, know that recovery, while sometimes slow, is always possible, and if you’re going through a particularly difficult mental health episode contact a medical professional or call one of the following hotlines:
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) Helpline: 1-800-662-4357
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
- Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255