How We Breathe Influences Brain Functions And Behavior

woman yoga beach deep breathing exercisesDid you know that the rhythm of your breathing influences brain activity such as memory recall and emotional judgment?

In an interesting new study by Northwestern University School of Medicine, scientists have discovered that the rhythm of breathing creates electrical activity in the human brain that actually enhances emotional judgments and memory recall.

Specifically, these effects on behavior depend on whether you inhale or exhale — and whether you breathe through your nose or your mouth.

Here’s how the study worked:

  • Subjects looked at faces on a computer screen while having their electric brain signals recorded.
  • The recorded electrical signals showed subjects’ brain activity fluctuated with breathing. The recorded activity occurred in brain areas where emotions, memory and smells are processed.
  • Participants were able to identify a fearful face more quickly when inhaling, compared to exhaling.
  • They were also more likely to remember an object they viewed if they saw it as they inhaled rather than when they exhaled.
  • The recorded signals showed brain activity fluctuated with breathing. The activity occurs in brain areas where emotions, memory and smells are processed.
  • This startling effect disappeared if breathing occurred through the mouth rather than the nose.

What it means:

This study suggests that there is a dramatic difference in brain activity in the amygdala and hippocampus during inhalation, but not during exhalation. When you inhale through your nose, scientists found, you are stimulating neurons in the olfactory cortex, amygdala, hippocampus, and across the complete limbic system.

“Since the amygdala is strongly linked to emotional processing—especially fear-related emotions,” says Leanne O’Neil, owner of INDY Neurofeedback, “this new finding is fascinating. We all have experienced the faster pace of our own breathing when we are startled or scared.”

When faces were encountered during inhalation, subjects recognized them as fearful more quickly than when faces were encountered during exhalation. This was not true for faces expressing surprise. These effects diminished when subjects performed the same task while breathing through their mouths. Thus the effect was specific to fearful stimuli during nasal breathing only.

“If you are in a panic state, your breathing rhythm becomes faster,” O’Neil summarizes. “That said, you’ll spend more time inhaling when you are in a calmer state of mind. These findings suggest that rapid breathing may provide an innate advantage when we find ourselves in a dangerous situation.”

At INDY Neurofeedback, our clients are trained on proper breathing using the HeartMath emWave Pro system. We are fascinated about how our amazing brain works! If you have a question about brain health and brain behavior, let’s talk.

Non-Prescription Help With Adult ADHD

Although many associate ADHD or ADD diagnosis with children, the syndrome is not age specific. Since ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is the syndrome recognized by the American Medical Association, it is the term we reference here at INDY Neurofeedback.

How do you know if you have ADHD? In 2013, the FDA approved brainwave testing to diagnose ADHD by measuring brainwave patterns.  Christy Foreman, a director at the FDA, said in a statement that the protocol would help health care providers more accurately determine whether ADHD was the cause of a particular behavioral problem.

In addition to identifying ADHD, brain wave testing also provides the basis for neurofeedback training which can be used to help alleviate many of the symptoms associated with ADHD.  In October of 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report that is intended to serve as a guide for medical doctors in choosing appropriate treatment interventions for many childhood conditions.  The report lists neurofeedback as a Level One, Best Support Treatment for ADHD – as effective as medication but without dangerous side effects.

The following are common symptoms medical practitioners recognize as frequently occurring in adults with ADHD:

  • Impulsiveness
  • Disorganization and problems prioritizing
  • Poor time management skills
  • Problems focusing on a single task
  • Excessive activity or restlessness
  • Low frustration tolerance.

“If you have been diagnosed with ADHD, there are ways to help with your symptoms safely – over and above taking prescribed medications (which come with their own drawbacks),” says Leanne O’Neil, owner of INDY Neurofeedback.

“At INDY Neurofeedback, we can work with you to retrain your adult ADHD brain using neurofeedback techniques.”

Beginning with a consultation and a self-administered questionnaire, we’re happy to talk with you about your symptoms. If you wish, we can move forward with an initial QEEG brain mapping appointment to help you better understand what parts of your brain are most affected. (LINK to FEB BLOG #25, “My experience with brain mapping at INDY Neurofeedback”)

Next, we can set up a series of guided EEG biofeedback (a/k/a neurofeedback) with a trained professional to address your specific issues. The sessions are fascinating!

What else can you do to help address adult ADHD symptoms? Here are a few helpful recommendations:

  • Exercise regularly. And if you don’t exercise much, you aren’t doing your brain any favors. Physical activity can improve your memory as well as help you make decisions and pay attention.
  • Make healthy eating choices: Restaurant food and fast food is packed with calories, sugar, salt, and fat, and low on fruits and veggies. Limit junk food. Eat at home and plan your diet around healthy choices.
  • Get more sleep. Lack of sleep and ADHD often go hand in hand. Lack of sleep doesn’t just make you tired, it can also worsen symptoms such as lack of focus and problems with motor skills. Anxiety, depression, and stimulant medications can be to blame. Be frank with your doctor about your symptoms and quality of sleep.
  • Get a good diagnosis. If you have been diagnosed with ADHD, consider a QEEG brain mapping to fully understand the dysregulation.

Know that:

  • ADHD meds don’t always work well if you have substance abuse problems.
  • Drugs for major depression can make ADHD worse.
  • Some ADHD medications can make anxiety worse.
  • Don’t skip breakfast. Your first morning meal can help keep you focused longer as the day progresses. Choose healthy proteins.
  • Get rid of clutter. Messy homes and offices can make ADHD symptoms worse. Clearing the clutter can make you more productive and reduce stress.
  • Reduce screen time. Doctors have found numerous links between ADHD and over dependence on cell phones, screen time (including games) and Internet use. Stay on top of your screen habits – especially just before bed.

At INDY Neurofeedback, we can help with ADHD symptoms. Ask for a consultation to find out how we can help you.

What is Anxiety Disorder?

According to the National Institutes of Health, some 2.6 billion people – or 33.7% of the population of the world — will at some point experience an anxiety disorder. And yet, the disorder is widely misunderstood.

The experience of clinical anxiety can range from distractedness, to persistent fretfulness, to a full-blown panic attack, complete with hyper-ventilation, heart palpitations, and other physical symptoms. All of it feels scary and difficult or impossible to control — which compounds the misery.

The most common anxiety disorders include: include general anxiety disorder, agoraphobia (or fear of being in public situations you can’t escape), social anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), specific phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and separation anxiety disorder.

Happily, not only are these anxiety disorders diagnosable and controllable, but they are also very treatable.

Anxiety may, by definition, feel bad, but that doesn’t mean it is always bad. It exists as a way for your brain to grab your attention when you’re stumbling into danger, which is handled by two brain regions: the amygdala and the more complex cerebral cortex.

The amygdala processes very basic emotions like fear, anger, guilt, and envy. A good example of this is the fear you experience from a scary movie. The job of the cerebral cortex is to determine whether or not the threat is real, and what to do about it. Sometimes, however, the fear alarm gets stuck and the cerebral cortex has trouble trying to sort real risks from exaggerated ones. Moreover, extended bouts of insomnia can also produce anxiety.

How do you know if you have an anxiety disorder that should be addressed? Since there is no blood test to tell for certain, here are the red flags denoting a problem:

  • You have a high level of distress that gets in the way of day to day activity.
  • Your panic is persistent.
  • You avoid things because of your fears.
  • Your fears interfere with your daily life.

In general, says Leanne O’Neil, if your enjoyment of life becomes compromised by anxiety, it’s a good idea to seek help. Although no one can live a life untouched by anxiety, with the right skills and help, no one needs to live a life that is destroyed by it, either.

INDY Neurofeedback has an effective program to help those with anxiety. Come talk to us to see if it is right for you.

Understanding resiliency and why we want to achieve it

Why is it that some people react extremely negatively in the face of stress and adversity — sometimes even getting physically ill — while others seem able to shake it off and carry on? Since chronic stress can contribute to physical ailments such as heart disease and stroke, it’s important for us to know – is resistance to stress, a/k/a resiliency, something that can be acquired through training?

In a recent study, psychologists at Northwestern University used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study the brains of 218 young people living in violent neighborhoods in Chicago. The study found that the youths who had higher levels of functional connectivity in the central area of their brains (in other words, better resiliency) had better cardiac and metabolic health than their peers who had lower levels of connectivity (reference this study here).

What explains all this?

One possible reason, says Leanne O’Neil of INDY Neurofeedback, is that greater activity in the brain’s central network increases self-control. Self-control, in turn, can reduce the number of unhealthy behaviors people often use to cope with stress, such as eating junk food or smoking.

In other words, we can increase healthy behaviors with simple behavioral interventions.  In fact, one good example is mindfulness training through neurofeedback.

How might that work?  When we get help practicing:

  • attention control
  • emotion regulation
  • increased self-awareness,

we open up the potential to increase connectivity within the brain’s “central network”, leading to behavioral change. It does seem that our resilience is related to our brain connectivity, O’Neil concludes.

Someday we might be able to protect young people exposed to violence and adversity by supplementing their brains with neuroprotective growth factors. Meanwhile, O’Neil explains, we know enough to help less resilient brains through exercise, mindfulness training and other support systems, especially neurofeedback.

There will always be stress and adversity in our lives, it seems.  But we believe that resiliency is something that can be acquired through training.

Interested in finding out if neurofeedback can help you re-train your brain toward a specific behavioral goal? Call 317 888 8500.

What constant distraction does to your brain

How often do you check your phone?

Recent surveys suggest that not only is this the first thing most of us do upon waking, but that we go on to check our phones every eight to 12 minutes throughout the day.

Assuming each distraction takes about five minutes, followed by another five minutes to get back on task, in the space of an eight-hour work day, we interrupt our brains from what we are doing for two hours of those eight. That’s a lot of distraction.

Researchers and mental health professionals are warning us that these persistent distractions have a downside; they have seriously eroded our ability to concentrate, and that’s a big problem.

A 2005 study by London’s Institute of Psychiatry found that persistent interruptions and distractions at work had a profound effect on individual productivity. And things have not improved in the 13 years since that study.

For instance:

  • Constant interruptions can have the same effect as the loss of a night’s sleep.
  • Those distracted by emails and phone calls saw a 10-point fall in their IQ.
  • For every distraction (phone checking), it can take the brain three to five minutes to get back on track. That’s a lot of time lost from work.
  • Frequent distractions create a physiological hyper-alert state that activates adrenaline and cortisol production, which is a stress indicator.

According to psychiatrist Edward Bullmore, author of The Inflamed Mind, asking our brains to switch frequently and rapidly between different activities is harmful to our overall health.

“In the short term,” Bullmore says, “we adapt well to these demands. But in the long term, the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol create a physiological hyper-alert state that is always scanning for stimuli, provoking a sense of addiction that is temporarily assuaged by checking in.”

Our brains use adrenaline and cortisol constructively to support us through bursts of intense activity, but according to Bullmore, this backfires when it is over-used. Cortisol can knock out the calming, feel-good hormones serotonin and dopamine, adversely affecting our sleep and heart rates and making us feel stressed and jittery.

What to do?

According to Leanne O’Neil of INDY Neurofeedback, you can and should break this cycle of constant interruption. “Begin with awareness about what specifically you may be doing to sabotage personal concentration, and then implement steps towards changing your behavior. This means deliberately reducing distractions and being more self-disciplined about your use of social media.”

O’Neil encourages extending brain focus and concentration by finding things to do that engage you for a specified period of time with no distractions. “With practice,” she says, “this becomes easier to accomplish. You can also extend your focus when you want to check in with your phone by adding five more minutes to anything you are engaged in. Anyone can do something for five additional minutes, plus you are re-training your brain to stay on task.”

Brain re-training is what we do at INDY Neurofeedback. The goal of neurofeedback is to transform unhealthy dysregulated brainwave imbalances into normal, healthy, organized patterns. If you are interested in finding out more about how to improve impulsivity, hyper-activity, or poor concentration skills, give us a call.