What is stress?

Stress is a normal physical response to threatening situations or events. When an individual feels threatened the body's defense system kicks into action. This stress response is known as the “fight-or-flight” reaction.

When you perceive a threat, whether real or imagined, your nervous system responds by releasing stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones prepare the body for immediate physical action: to either fight the threat or flee from the danger. When stressed, your heart will beat faster, muscles will contract, and blood pressure will rise. All of these physical changes enable increased strength and focus, and the faster reaction times required in emergency situations.


In small doses stress can have a positive effect; stress can help you stay focused and alert, stress can facilitate your ability to perform under pressure, it can encourage motivation and concentration. However, the more that a body’s stress system is activated, the easier it is to re-activate and the more difficult it becomes to shut-off. Chronic or long-term exposure to stress can cause severe damage in terms of physical health and psychological well-being.
Modern living, ever increasing demands at work, reduced time with the family and general information overload can take its toll and lead to feelings of stress.


Naturally, stress affects people in different ways. However, here are some of the common signs of stress:

If you frequently experience these symptoms then it may be as a result of high levels of stress. Reasons for suffering from stress can include continued excessive pressure or responsibility at work, and experiencing important personal life events, such as moving house or getting married.



What are the effects of stress?


Prolonged experiences of stress can have a detrimental effect on our health and if not dealt with properly can lead to long-term psychological and physiological problems. These include anxiety, depression, heart disease, digestive system disorders, increased blood pressure, suppressed immune system, headaches, musculo-skeletal disorders (e.g. back pain), and even premature aging.

When feeling stressed we perform less well. Research in companies and organisations have shown that stressed workers are more likely to be unhealthy, poorly motivated, less productive and less safe at work. Long-term stress in the workplace may lead to psychological problems, prolonged absenteeism and high staff-turnover.


How does neurofeedback reduce the impact stress?


In order to reduce feelings of stress it is necessary to change the way our brain responds to it. If your brain is oversensitive/reactive to stress it will have difficulties in “winding” down after a stressful day. In a sense, stressed brains have difficulty in recovering from stressful events. Neurofeedback directly addresses this imbalance by training the brain to enter particular “neural” states which are conducive to relaxation and recovery.


When we close our eyes, our brain tends to produce alpha waves - it is essentially a recovery stage where the brain is recharging its energy. When we open our eyes, the alpha waves diminish, which is called alpha blocking. However, people that are stressed, nervous, fearful and anxious about the future, often fail to enter this recovery stage. In essence, their brains cannot recharge, which over a prolonged period of time, may lead to exhaustion and eventually to burn-out.


The two brain maps below illustrate this stressful state. There is a failure to increase/enhance alpha waves and decrease beta waves when in the eyes closed condition relative to normative agematched EEG data. This is indicated by the blue colour in the alpha brainmap and with orange/red colour in the high beta brainmap. Continued alpha blocking during eyes closed is just one indicator that is sometimes present in people that are stressed.


In contrast, healthy alpha enhancement during eyes closed during rest and reduced beta activity is shown in the next pair of brainmaps to the right. 





What exactly is neurofeedback and what does it entail?


Neurofeedback* is also known as "EEG Biofeedback" as it is based on the brain's electrical activity, the electroencephalogram (EEG)*. It is a painless, non-invasive method which helps people to modify their brainwave activity to treat stress that is excessive and debilitating.

 

Research suggests that dysregulation of brain activity or maladaptive brainwave patterns are frequently associated with medical and psychological disorders, including stress symptomatology. Neurofeedback directly addresses problems of maladaptive or dysregulatory brain activity by correcting abnormal brain waves, and in turn, enabling the individual to manage stress more effectively.


Electrodes are applied to your scalp and brainwave activity is transmitted to a computer. Momentary increases or decreases in brain activity are monitored and instantly fed back to you in either a visual or auditory format (e.g. video/games, sounds), so that you see and hear representations of your brain in action. By having an awareness of fluctuating brain activity, you can attempt to influence and change their brain patterns through feedback presented in the form of video-files, DVDs, games or sounds.


An individual gradually learns to gain control over certain brain frequencies, which after a number of sessions, will eventually be reflected in more effective stress-management, and more efficient (work) performance.


Neurofeedback can result in significant long-term improvements in behaviour, mood and performance.


At PeakMind we use personalised data to guide the neurofeedback training*. Neurofeedback training can be conducted either within one of our clinics or at home or in the workplace*. Our personalised approach helps to ensure the success of each individual client.


The effectiveness of neurofeedback has been well-documented by scientific research*. Neurofeedback therapy is completely safe and non-invasive. In fact, many doctors and psychologists have incorporated or consistently recommended neurofeedback as part of the treatment for their patients. 


If you or one of your employees experience high levels of stress, neurofeedback training can help reduce the negative effects this can cause. Neurofeedback can help individuals modify their brainwave activity in order to manage stress more effectively. For further information about neurofeedback please go to “Neurofeedback: What is it?”*


Further reading

Thompson & Thompson (2007). “Neurofeedback for stress management”. In Lehrer, Woolfolk & Sime (Eds) Principles and practice of stress management (3rd ed.). New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.

This chapter looks at the history of neurofeedback and stress management, theoretical foundations, assessment, and side effects of intervention.
 
Hammond (2005). “Neurofeedback treatment of depression and anxiety”.
This paper reviews the neurofeedback literature with these problems, finding particularly positive research support for the treatment of anxiety disorders.


Specific articles can be found under Performance research.



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