Learning to relax the mind and the body is essential to relieve stress. But how to do so? It has been proved that many relaxation techniques provide a healthier way to manage daily stress: they help with sleep disturbances, decrease the activity of stress hormones, decrease muscular tension and chronic pain, and ease the digestion process. How can we amplify those states of well-being? Description of a not-so mystical phenomenon that will help us understand the relation between our brain and our ability to relax.
brain training scheme
The brain, a pathway of neurons.
Did you know that the brain is made of an average of 86 billion neurons? Without them, we could not do anything! We wouldn’t feel emotions, we wouldn’t speak, we wouldn’t be able to rememberer or learn … Every time I think, do or feel something, I am using this incredible network that receives, processes, and transmits information coming from outside or from my own perceptions through the senses, allowing me to adjust and adapt to the environment.
Imagine: each neuron is in contact with 10 000 other neurons! Through electrical and chemical signals occurring via specialized connections called synapses, neurons are able to exchange information and to communicate. Using neurotransmitters, they transfer signals across a synapse from one neuron to another. The result: a huge interconnected network, a sort of highway for information, where a nerve impulse can travel as fast as 120 m/s or 267 m/h!
The brainwaves, witnesses of our mental activity.
We can imagine the brain as a sort of electric generator. Its power can be observed through an ElectroEncephaloGram (EEG) that detects electrical activity in the brain cells. Using electrodes pasted onto the scalp, it is then possible to measure the electrical impulses that the brain cells communicate with. Depending on which mental state it is in, the brain produces a type, or a combination of brain waves, that can be classified as followed:
. Gamma brainwaves are waves of mental awakening (>30Hz). They reflect intense and high level mental activity.
. Beta waves, waves of the daily monitoring activity (13-30Hz). They are generally produced in active states of awakening.
. Alpha waves, waves of light relaxation (8-12Hz). When our attention gets loose, or when we close our eyes (to lower the amount of visual stimulation), the cerebral activity slows down: the brain generates waves of lower frequencies called alpha waves. Those waves have been observed after practicing relaxing or meditative exercises.
. Theta waves, deep relaxation waves (4-8Hz). Those brain waves are produced in a state of daydream or profound relaxation. When a tasks become so automatic that your brain mentally disengage, the theta state is often free flow.
. Delta waves, sleep waves (0.1-4Hz). They are generally related to unconscious and deep sleep states.
If you want to train your brain to relax, it then seems natural to consciously attempt to modify its brainwaves, especially by increasing alpha waves, the waves linked with relaxed mental states.
Neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to reorganize itself throughout life.
Another extraordinary function of our brain is its plasticity or neuroplasticity. The brain has this incredible ability to adjust its activity in response to new situation or to changes in its environment by forming new neural connections.
Let’s picture the brain as a forest: if we walk on a same path over and over, a trail will appear. The same way, every time we learn something new, new neural connections appear. The more we repeat this new skill, the stronger the connection between neurons will be. Following a new learning, new neural connections appear, and the training of this new learning will make this new neural path stronger. Remember the first time you biked. The first experience was a lot to take on: you had to keep the balance, choose a direction, remember how to pull the brake… Today, you don’t even think once on the saddle: the information flows at the speed of light!
On the opposite, a neural pathway that is not used will disappear if not activated: that’s the reason why it’s so hard to speak a language you learned a few years back but never practiced. The same way, playing your scales on a daily basis is a requirement if you don’t want to lose your musical skills!
The brain is capable of learning, and therefore to transform at any age: if we stimulate it, it will adjust and adapt according to our experiences.
Learning how to relax: the techniques at disposal
It seems that to learn how to relax, we need to learn how to slow down our brainwaves: when we practice relaxation, we decrease the amount of beta and gamma brainwaves and we stimulate the amount of alpha brainwaves, the waves linked with relaxed states of mind.
To do so, many relaxation techniques are at disposal. In general, they involve refocusing the attention on something calming and increasing awareness of the body. Yoga and meditation are known practices for exemple. Other efficient techniques includes progressive muscle relaxation or visualization. Whichever practice you choose, its mental consequence is identical: the relaxed state of mind shows an increase of alpha brainwaves.
And like any other practice, regularity is key! A relaxation technique will help you unwind instantly. But a regular practice will train your brain to learn how to relax. The more you practice, the easier your brain is learning how to relax, the more beneficial the relaxation technique will be!
Using Neurofeedback to efficiently train your brain to relax.
Discovered in the sixties, Neurofeedback is a very efficient technique to learn how to relax. The brain is observed in action and the feedback of the brain activity is showed to the person who is being treated (usually through visual or sound). Neurofeedback is training in self-regulation using the neuroplasticity of the brain. This technique is based on electrical brain activity measured by EEG.
The patient witnesses live his brain activity, and has therefore the possibility to try to modify its signal. He can then attempt to increase its alpha brainwaves. A regular training to relaxation using neurofeedback will reinforce his ability to produce alpha brainwaves which will put himself in a relaxed mode. The same way, the strategies (conscious or unconscious) applied to attempt the increase of alpha waves and its relaxation level will be reinforced.
The Neurofeedback technique is extremely powerful as it’s the only existing one that shows the patient a direct feedback on his consciously alterable mind!
Our brains are more stimulated than ever. It feels good to know that thanks to their brilliant abilities, it is possible to train them into learning how to relax. A regular practice is key to consciously impact our brain’s possibilities for a healthy state of mind.
If you’d like to know more about neurofeedback, read our dedicated article: Neurofeedback, a unique technique to train our brains to relax