"Over the past eight years Google searches of anxiety have more than doubled," noted researcher, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz in his NYTimes opinion piece on anxiety in America. Statistics indicate that anxiety, which arise when stress levels are too high, is officially the most common mental condition in the United States. And anxiety, when present in chronically high levels, is strongly related to degenerative illnesses, including heart disease and Type II diabetes.
But who are the most anxious people in the U.S.? His study, using Google's analytics of frequency of web search key words associated with anxiety, which are highly correlated with the the presence of actual medical conditions, shows that the most anxious Americans are not New Yorkers, or from Denver, Colorado, but from low-income, lower educated communities. The state with the highest levels of anxiety? Maine, at 21% above the national average. And within New York state, those from NYC, stereotyped as the most neurotic city, ranks lower than Buffalonians. And areas of the U.S. that were hit by recessions the hardest had highest levels of anxiety.
For those in the business of mental health and stress reduction, these findings are not surprising. Here's why.
What is Stress?
I asked our neurofeedback trainer in Boulder, Colorado, Joy Om, to contribute her expertise about stress and how it works in the brain.
Joy Om: Stress is our body’s actions--releasing hormones, emotions, muscular and digestive system changes--to information that is registered as threat or danger to our immediate well-being and survival. This information may be from ourselves or our environments, which can range from simple daily challenges to serious life-threatening events, but the key is that the body responds to as in the category of "threat/danger," which it may or may not actually be. Often the body going into a stress response is based on perception, or rather mis-perception, rather than what is actually happening. For example, being told by our boss that we didn't do our best work on a project (low threat) is different from being fired and never again finding work (high life threat), but unfortunately our bodies will often produce stress hormones in amount and longevity that reflect the latter rather than the former event.
How Can stress affect you mentally?
The effect stress has on our health depends on the way we react to it. In a perceived highly stressful situation, our ‘fight or flight’ response is invoked. Hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin (so-called ‘stress hormones’) are released, blood rushes to specific muscles (to enable us to fight against or flee from an enemy) and we feel a burst of energy and strength. This response is useful when we are up against a real threat, however, when it is invoked when we are not actually in danger, it has detrimental effects on our health and mental well-being.
Those who are overly reactive to stress can suffer from anxiety, debilitating panic attacks or symptoms of serious issues like a heart attack. Even those who do not suffer from anxiety but are subject to chronic levels of stress may find that their performance (academic, sporting, etc.) is impaired. Stress can cause memory and concentration problems, and bring about a constant state of worry and a negative outlook on life.
How to cope with Stress: Neurofeedback for Anxiety?
Neurofeedback is an important tool for regulating the stress response in the body. Here's a video explaining why.
The short answer is that the brain is designed to use energy efficiently. The stress response is "sprint" energy. Life is a marathon. So when the brain trains in being alerted to use real-time, present moment data to make decisions it sees that sprinting isn't the best energy for life when there is no immediate danger. As a result, those stress response symptoms we call in their chronic forms: depression, anxiety, insomnia, PTSD, complex trauma, and even behavioral conditions in children, start to shift. And those maladaptive responses are replaced with what's appropriate for the here-and-now. And studies have shown that neurofeedback can train the brain to respond in a positive manner to challenging situations besides using the stress response.