It is important to note that not all stress is bad. Everyone experiences a certain amount of stress on an almost daily basis, and it cannot be completely eliminated. Stress becomes a problem when too much is experienced, and it has a negative impact on behaviors, relationships, and health. The term “eustress” refers to positive stress that is associated with improved performance and productivity. “Distress” is negative stress that is associated with performance decrement and negative health consequences. The individual’s perception of the stressor and coping resources determine whether a situation is eustress or distress. College graduation is a stressor for most. The student who has a job or who has been accepted to a graduate program likely perceives the stress of graduation as eustress, whereas the student who has student loans and no immediate plans of a job or further education perceives distress.
Brainwave entrainment is a colloquialism for such 'neural entrainment', which is a term used to denote the way in which the aggregate frequency of oscillations produced by the synchronous electrical activity in ensembles of cortical neurons can adjust to synchronize with the periodic vibration of an external stimuli, such as a sustained acoustic frequency perceived as pitch, a regularly repeating pattern of intermittent sounds, perceived as rhythm, or of a regularly rhythmically intermittent flashing light.
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There are countless techniques for managing stress. Yoga, mindfulness meditation, and exercise are just a few examples of stress-relieving activities that work wonders. But in the heat of the moment, during a high-pressured job interview, for example, or a disagreement with your spouse, you can’t just excuse yourself to meditate or take a long walk. In these situations, you need something more immediate and accessible.
Recent research at the University of Lisbon finally uncovered the reason for the 350 year-old mystery, finding that the resonance of sound is the mechanism for entrainment of swinging pendulums and ticking clocks, and it seems likely that the energy transferred by sound is also responsible for other observations of entrainment, including brainwave entrainment.
Consider the following analogy. Imagine a ballroom full of people dancing together. When the music changes to a faster tempo, the dancers move faster in response to this. When a slower piece of music is played, the dancers’ rhythm slows down as well. In a similar way, the frequency of your brain will change in response to the frequency of the binaural beat that it is exposed to. For example, a person who is in a state of very deep meditation may have a dominant brainwave frequency of 5 hertz, so by listening to a binaural beat with a frequency of 5 hertz you can entrain your own brainwaves to a similar state.
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You’ve heard me talk before about how sound can make a difference to sleep. Patients often tell me that they fall asleep to relaxing music, they seem to find it really helps them let go of active thoughts and quiet their mind—which, like yours probably does, tends to race from one thing to the next all day long (aka I can’t turn off my brain syndrome).
Brainwave entrainment is a simple concept. It’s simply causing your brainwave frequency to align with some intended frequency in order to produce some intended result. It’s a way of modulating your brainwaves to resonate at a certain frequency. Being that there are certain dominant frequencies associated with different states of consciousness, this is being researched as a quick and effective way to induce states such as sleep, alertness, concentration, and even meditative and deep sleep states.
I am fortunate to be working with Deepak Chopra, M.D., and Dr. Rudy Tanzi, co-authors of the bestselling book Super Brain, on a technology called Brain Wave Entrainment. Deepak is very well known, but Rudy is an amazingly interesting person as well. He is the Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School and Vice-Chair of Neurology at Mass General Hospital. Rudy co-discovered three of the four original Alzheimer's genes and today runs the Alzheimer's Genome Project. He also plays the keyboards, including, at times, for Aerosmith. He is kind of a real life "Buckaroo Banzai."
People who handle stress well tend to employ what stress experts call an "optimistic explanatory style." They don't beat themselves up when things don't work out in their favor. So instead of using statements that catastrophize an incident, like "I'm a complete failure," they might say to themselves, "I need to work on my backhand." Or they'll transfer blame to an external source. Rather than saying, "I really blew that presentation," it's, "That was a tough group to engage." Replace the word "expect" with "hope." Expectations can only be used for those things over which you have the greatest personal control. You can expect to quench your thirst with a drink of water. You cannot expect to get the job you just interviewed for. You can hope to get it.
Because the mind and body are a single system, changing our brainwaves and spending more time in harmonious, relaxed, and restorative mind-states also affects our physical health. Physical health then reinforces our mental-state, and a feedback loop of either positive or negative processes becomes established. Research studies have shown beneficial effects of using brainwave entrainment for treating migraine headaches, premenstrual syndrome, and for managing physical pain.
There is no single relaxation technique that is best for everyone. The right relaxation technique is the one that resonates with you, fits your lifestyle, and is able to focus your mind and interrupt your everyday thoughts to elicit the relaxation response. You may even find that alternating or combining different techniques provides the best results. How you react to stress may also influence the relaxation technique that works best for you:
These tones are similar in that they pulse like binaural beats. The difference is that they don’t need to be listened to using headphones as the pulse, or beat, is not generated by two different frequencies. The sound is an on/off pulse. Although you don’t need headphones to seperate the frequencies listened to, they are recommended. I’ve had just as much response to isochronic tones as I’ve had to binaural beats. I’d try both though, especially if you don’t respond to one or the other.
Alpha is the next level down, between 8Hz - 12Hz, corresponding to being awake but deeply relaxed. It can be a little confusing that Alpha is lower than Beta, but it is named that way because Alpha was the first brainwave "discovered" (identified) by Hans Berger in 1929. Meditating in this state is very relaxing and most people find it very easy to become entrained in this frequency.
You may not always be in the mood for meditation when your thoughts are racing, though it is a powerhouse of a stress reliever; you may sometimes face relationship stress that isn't as well-managed by breathing exercises (another highly effective stress reliever) as it might be by learning communication techniques. Guided imagery is fantastic for before bedtime while games are an optimal stress reliever to share with friends.
The functional role of neural oscillations is still not fully understood; however they have been shown to correlate with emotional responses, motor control, and a number of cognitive functions including information transfer, perception, and memory. Specifically, neural oscillations, in particular theta activity, are extensively linked to memory function, and coupling between theta and gamma activity is considered to be vital for memory functions, including episodic memory.