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How to Balance Your Brainwaves, the Different Brain Frequencies & How They Impact Your State of Mind + The Difference Between the Mind & Brain

Dr. Caroline Leaf – In this podcast (episode #406) and blog, I talk about what brain waves are, why they are important and how we can balance our brain waves to improve our mind and brain health.

Our brain waves are active all the time because the brain is always active. The brain is active 24/7, 7 days a week!

Our brain waves change in terms of how they move through the brain, which is based on what we are thinking, doing and feeling. When slower brain waves are dominant, we often feel tired, slow, sluggish, or dreamy, and are not able to process information or emotions very well. When the higher brain wave frequencies are dominant, we can feel wired or hyper-alert, like there is just too much going on in our brains. A healthy brain tries to balance these extremes.

How our brainwaves function and our daily experience of the world are inseparable because the mind moves through the brain, and the brain responds to the mind. When our emotions are out of balance or very negative (like when we aren’t rising to the challenge and building new knowledge into our brains daily, or when we are responding in chaotic and reactive ways to the chronic and acute stressors of life), this will be reflected in our physiology (blood, hormones and so on) and in our brainwaves, which will be out of balance. Consequently, our self-regulation and self-assessment can be affected because we experience our mind in our brain and body. There is a corresponding relationship between the mind and brain that plays out in our mental, emotional, neurological and physical health.

When we change our perceptions, however, as we observed in our most recent research study, we can potentially change our brain’s response, our physiology and our cellular health, which plays back into our minds because of the feedback loop between the brain and body. For example, stress, when managed in a healthy way, can be a real asset to how we function, and we can see this in the brain. When we use stress to our advantage, we essentially use our more aware and ready state of mind to spring into action—we see balance, coherence and connectivity in the brain.

On the other hand, prolonged and unmanaged toxic stress can result in anxious, racing and chaotic thoughts in the brain, which can, in turn, affect the physiological system. This appears physically in a myriad of ways, from GI symptoms like IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and digestive difficulties to migraines, fatigue, sleep issues, phobias, skin problems and so on. Long-term exposure to chronic stress (the day-to-day events of life) and acute stress (the unexpected stuff that blindsides us and often gets worse before they get better) can negatively affect our neurophysiology (brain), physiology (blood, hormones, immune system and so on) and mind (mental processing and emotional control).

Essentially, the connectivity and balance that the mind, brain and body crave can be disrupted when we don’t manage our minds properly. Because of the neuroplasticity of the brain, if we aren’t changing our reactions to the stress, then we are reinforcing them—they don’t just go away. We are either reconceptualizing our reactions into something better or they are being strengthened into something worse, making it even more difficult for us to react well to life and make decisions.

If we choose to stay in a negative state, this can create a toxic response in the brain that can impact every system in the brain and body. The converse also applies; if we choose to start developing a “possibilities mindset”, seeing every opportunity as a chance to learn, grow and overcome, and we find the positive in the negative, our hope starts coming back, and we can positively affect our brainwaves and body – down to the cellular level! With brain imaging technology like qEEGs, we are literally able to see learning taking place and healing energy moving through the brain as we do this!

Why? As we think, feel and choose, the energy frequencies in the brain respond to our mind-in-action. This is the same for the preparation “work” being done just prior to the building of the thought, as well as the work done during the process of building the new thoughts with their embedded memories, which can eventually turn into habits. It is at this point that we, with our mind-management skills, need to intervene to direct our brainwaves, taking over the process of neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to change in response to external and internal factors).

Let’s look at a wave analogy to better understand how brain waves and neuroplasticity work. Imagine you are paddling out on a surfboard, far beyond the breakers, and the sea swells up around you. This is the delta wave, which has a frequency of 0-4hz (cycles per second). Delta waves are the slow, massively deep and powerful high voltage waves that are dominant in dreamless sleep, called non-REM (NREM) sleep, as well as intensely spiritual, nonconscious states. Delta is also associated with repairing thoughts and complex problem-solving. Very high amplitudes of delta are also found in people who are in touch with the nonlocal spiritual mind, even when they’re wide awake! The brains of meditators, intuitives, and healers have much more delta waves than the average brain. When we have unmanaged, chaotic minds, these swells become unmanageably huge, affecting our sleeping patterns as well as our daytime functioning.

Now, back to you on the surfboard: as you turn towards the shore, the waves peak a little more and move inwards a little faster. This is the theta wave, which has a frequency of 4-8hz and is often referred to as the healing and creative wave. It is very active when we are in REM sleep – the dream state. Theta is also associated with creativity, insight, healing, and light sleep, and is a dominant frequency in healing and highly creative states. It’s also very active when we remember emotional experiences; both good and bad memories can trigger theta bursts, while theta and gamma rhythms are associated with memory processes such as retrieval and encoding, and these rhythms increase when we regulate our thoughts.

As you move towards the shore, the waves start becoming almost like moving bridges, carrying you forward on their crest but also keeping you connected to the deeper swells. This is called the alpha bridge, as it bridges the nonconscious mind and conscious mind, reflecting the subconscious activity of the mind I spoke of in part one of this book. At 8-12hz, it reflects a peaceful calmness and a readiness to action. Alpha is associated with alertness, reflecting a mind in a state of peacefulness, readiness, meditation and self-regulation. Alpha connects the higher frequencies—the thinking mind of beta and the associative mind of gamma—with the two lowest frequency brain waves, which is why it is like a bridge between the conscious and nonconscious mind.

As you move even closer to the shore, the waves get faster and busier—the brain is “online”, which is low beta, 8-15hz. This is the wave you stand up on with your surfboard to ride to the shore with intense, focused and sustained attention. Low beta is associated with deep processing, focus and attention.

Finally, the waves crash onto the beach with a high, short and impactful burst of purpose, and you go with the flow, lying low on your surfboard. This is high beta, 15 – 40hz, and is an intense and focused wave that is paying deep attention—this is the actual choice you make. High beta are the brain waves associated with intense thinking, paying attention, and the actual making of a choice as the wave collapses, in a figurative and quantum sense.

As the wave runs up the beach in very fast ripples and rolls back, it leaves a mark in the sand. This is gamma, the high speed, low amplitude learning wave, which creates, innovates, and integrates information. Gamma flows from the front to the back of the brain at 40 times a second and contributes to our subjective experience of consciousness – our self-awareness. So, when we gather awareness, as in step 1 of the 5 steps, gamma is active, which indicates introspection, memory retrieval, high level learning, deep intellectual function, association and creative inspiration, thus integrating information from different parts of the brain and encoding memories. A brain producing lots of gamma waves reflects complex neural organization and heightened awareness, which means deep, integrative learning is taking place with heightened awareness and compassion. This is why alpha and gamma rhythms are related to visual processing prioritization, and whole-scalp gamma frequency synchronization is associated with consciousness.

Now, you may be thinking, all this sounds really complicated to manage, but it is something you can learn to do! I recommend doing a Neurocycle to help you recognize and manage mental stress and negative mindsets that can throw your brainwaves off balance, which is the 5-step mind-management system I have developed over the past 38 years and is based on my research and practice. (I discuss this in detail in my book Cleaning Up Your Mental Messmy app Neurocycle and in my recent clinical trials.) The 5 steps are:

  1. Gather awareness of how you are feeling emotionally and physically
  2. Reflect on why you feel the way you do.
  3. Write this down to organize your thinking and observe your patterns of thinking and responding.
  4. Recheck how you can see this in a different way; what is your thought “antidote?”,
  5. Practice your new way of thinking by VENTING YOUR JOY! Maybe you are celebrating a promotion, a great meal, a wonderful chat on a walk, an exciting new adventure coming up in your life, playing with your puppies…whatever brings you joy in life! As you vent your joy, visualize yourself on that surfboard riding those waves like I described above. The visualization will speed up and stabilize the balancing of your brainwaves, which will help you manage stressful situations and challenges better!

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