Thriving brains navigate challenges before they become stressors. They self-regulate and they make conscious choices that promote wellness. In reality, we frequently carry unhealed past adversities and live and work in over stimulating and often energetically toxic environments, all of which takes an immense toll on our neurology. To objectively and creatively work with our neurology, we may need to explore and accept vulnerabilities that may not be immediately changeable, so we can focus on what we can change. From this place of acceptance, we can spring into action in a new empowered way.
Our brain cells communicate through electrical patterns called brain waves, categorized as alpha, beta, delta, gamma, or theta. Each of these patterns represents different states of consciousness, depending on whether we are relaxed, sleeping, meditating, concentrating, alert, frightened, etc. We frequently measure these waves via a non-invasive electroencephalography (EEG). When in states of stress and anxiety, we tend to operate from high frequency beta waves. When relaxed, we operate from lower frequency brainwaves. The good news is that we can transition between these states via mindfulness, meditation practices, and binaural beats. Training our brains in this way has many benefits such as promoting relaxation, enhancing performance, reducing stress, pain, migraines, and a host of mental health related problems (Cruceanu & Rotarescu, 2019; lee et al., 2019; Rebadomia et al., 2019). By training our brains using meditation, neurofeedback, binaural beats, or other entrainment tools, we learn to recognize when we enter lower frequency brain wave states and with practice, we can mindfully shift into more productive states. We spend most of our day operating from predominantly from beta wave states, which is often fitting, keeping us alert and focused as we move throughout our day. However, when Beta waves are dominant, especially in higher frequencies, they limit creativity and can cause hyper alertness, which fuels stress, anxiety, and burns up our energy. In this high alert state, our nervous system is more likely to get activated, pushing us into fight-flight or freeze, and reducing our ability to objectively act.
Depending on our neurology, mindfulness/meditation history, and unique preferences, what works for one individual to shift out of Beta wave states, enabling us to relax and gain important insights, may or may not work for another. For instance, those who regularly practice meditation will have a greater ability to maintain the concentration needed to shift with traditional sitting meditation methods. Some need a physical ritual like running, walking, yoga, sweeping, etc. to shift to lower frequencies. Others prefer repetition and vibration using chants such as ‘OM’ to transition to other states (Anand, 2014; Harne, & Hiwale, 2018). From Beta, we can move to:
Alpha waves, commonly accessed via mindfulness, promote a relaxed state of alertness that promotes reflection, relaxation, and cognitive performance (Cruceanu & Rotarescu, 2013; Rebadomia et al., 2019). With practice, we can sink deeper into the lower frequencies.
Theta waves promote memory consolidation (Reiner, Rozengurt, & Barnea, 2014) and a greater ability to recognize unwanted prejudices towards others, enabling them to act counter to ingrained instinct hey can recognize the difference between the rational course of action and the ingrained instinct (Cavanagh, Guitart-Masip, Huys, Frank, 2013). In Theta, we are more likely to practice non-attachment, enabling us to objectively navigate challenges, and to re-orient ourselves via renaming and reframing.
Gamma waves are the subtlest of the brainwave frequencies, requiring a quiet mind and yet when in this state, we are highly active, with enhanced focus, heightened senses, consciousness, compassion, and a greater felt sense of inner and outer connection. We can access and sustain gamma waves by practicing a variety of focused loving-kindness practices (Berkovich-Ohana, Glicksohn, & Goldstein, 2012; Lutz et al., 2004). Within this frequency, promoting open-heartedness, we are likely to feel more connected and a greater sense of wellbeing. Because Gamma waves promote feelings of well-being and connection to self and others, those who lack time in Gamma states are more likely to feel disconnected and depressed (Khalid et al, 2016).
Delta waves promote relaxation and sleep modes. It makes sense that those who operate in high frequency beta states, rapidly burning energy stores, may subconsciously gravitate to rituals to shift to a more relaxing state.
Our mental health and related behaviors and rituals are closely linked to brain wave states (Newson & Thiagarajan, 2019). Some conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder typically occur in individuals who are more lower frequency dominant: delta and theta, with decreases in alpha, beta, and gamma (Newson & Thiagarajan, 2019; Travis, 2019). In terms of addictions fueled by high frequency beta states, the addictive behavior is likely shifting the brain in a helpful way. Our behaviours and rituals span a variety of culturally acceptable and not so acceptable activities and mind altering substances. Whether labelled bad or good, if we objectively explore our behaviours, we may find they are indeed shifting us into the more focussed or restful state we are craving. These shifts may be described as ‘zoning out’ or ‘switching gears,’ but in neurological terms, we are transitioning between brain wave states (Newson & Thiagarajan, 2019). Given these behaviours or rituals may be serving us in this way, if we want to make changes, reducing harm, we will be far more successful if we can replace them with new rituals that serve us in this same way. Furthermore, to interrupt unwanted habits, we often need to re-orient ourselves, relating to the behaviour in a new, non-threatening way. Genuine and lasting re-orientation typically happens in lower frequency brain wave states when our sense of threat is low, we are relaxed, and open hearted; this is why hypnotism can be so effective in interrupting habits (Li et al., 2017). Essentially, if we hope to change behaviours, it is important to consider how we can self-compassionately and creatively work with our neurology to set ourselves up for success.
Think of an activity that helps you relax. Quite likely, the mental and/or physical ritual you are thinking of is putting you into an alternate brain state that is enabling you to shift to a preferable state of consciousness. If a habit is helping us move to a more restful brain state, we can expect resistance when we try to break it. For example, if you want to change a habit that is currently the one tool that helps you switch gears, zone out, tune down, etc., you will need to find a substitute, reducing reliance on the unwanted behavior. This is where we get to try on several tools, play with them, see what resonates, and cultivate a new habit from there.