One of the ideas that really stuck with me after reading Rebels and Devils recently, was Christopher Hyatt’s simple explanation of how we regulate our energy on a day to day basis, and how it affects our ability to live strong, productive and wilful lives.
‘There are four types of energy direction and two primary cycles. First, there is energised enthusiasm which in turn is usually balanced by deep relaxation – the second type of energy. This cycle is the fundamental healthy, creative, rebellious ebb and flow of life. Third, there is deep tension and, fourth, agitated tiredness. These last two are signs that the fundamental ebb and flow of life is disturbed.’
The third and fourth types of energy he describes are symptomatic of stress and an inability to cope, and they form the second cycle. He goes on to say that getting off this second cycle and switching back to the more healthy first cycle can be very unpleasant; most cannot do it and instead will seek a quick fix that has relieved their pain and discomfort in the past, even if it is only temporary. This often comes in the form of coffee, alcohol, prescription drugs such as painkillers and sleeping pills, illegal drugs or bouts of aggression. This cycle inevitably leads to addiction, depression or paralysing anxiety.
The reason I think the idea of the two cycles struck such a chord with me, is that it describes very well the method by which I once became trapped in a loop of depression and how I ultimately overcame it. I have since looked further into the mechanisms of what makes a healthy cycle, and would like to share some of my findings.
Brainwaves are electrical impulses arising from communication between neurons in the brain, and are at the root of all of our thoughts, emotions and behaviours. They are measured using EEG, and have a frequency range of between 0.1 Hz and 40 Hz, banded as follows:
Gamma 30 – 40 Hz Higher Awareness
Beta 14 – 30 Hz Focus
Alpha 8 – 14 Hz Relaxation
Theta 4 – 8 Hz Dreaming
Delta 0.1 – 4 Hz Deep Sleep
The dominant two frequencies during our waking hours are Alpha and Beta.
When we are producing Alpha waves, it is likely that we are in a state of quiet contemplation, light meditation and calmness, with a sense of being here and now without the need for conscious analysis of what we are experiencing. We are at our most creative when we are producing Alpha waves, as we are able to achieve what is known as ‘right brain’ thinking without the interference of reason. We are able to keep good control over our emotions and take a step back to consider the bigger picture of problems we face. There are physical effects too: the lower the dominant brainwave frequency is, the more slowly and deeply we breathe. Our body language is more relaxed and open, and we smile and laugh more naturally.
We produce Beta brainwaves when we are in a state of alertness, concentration, focus, logical and rational thought. We are in constant internal dialogue with ourselves. Beta can be further split down into three groupings as follows:
Lo-Beta is the state of musing or brooding; being reasonably alert and able to think cognitively but not concentrating particularly hard. You might be in this state if you are watching TV, scrolling through internet pages or performing simple mental tasks.
Mid-Beta is concentrating and thinking rationally, in a more engaged way than Lo-Beta. You might be at work, studying or in conversation other than small-talk.
Hi-Beta is the state of being highly focused on a task, to the exclusion of other things. You might be processing a new experience, or in a state of excitement or anxiety.
Just like with Alpha, there are noticeable physical effects of us being in a Beta state. Our breathing becomes faster and more shallow, our blood pressure may increase, and we involuntarily tense our muscles more. We may find ourselves grinding our jaw, or making a fist if we have been in this state (particularly the higher levels) for a long time.
The Need for Energy Regulation
The higher the frequency our predominant brainwaves are at, the more energy we are using. To regularly access states of high focus and concentration, we must have periods of relaxation in between to allow ourselves to recharge. We simply cannot operate in Beta state for long periods of time without training, though it would seem that busy modern lives demand it. It is not uncommon to take a coffee first thing in the morning to kick start the Beta brainwave state before a commute and sitting at a computer screen for 8 hours straight, keeping the caffeine topped up throughout the day to avoid concentration lapsing. Then a return commute followed by more screen time in the form of TV or smart device to ‘relax’.
The problem is, the internal dialogue is running throughout all of these tasks and we are never actually stepping down a gear to Alpha state. Alpha helps us to see the bigger picture of problems whereby they don’t seem so unsolvable or utterly relevant as Beta would have us think. And as Alpha leads naturally into Theta as we relax more, it makes for restful and restorative sleep. People who spend almost all of their waking day in Beta at least partially bypass the important unconscious processing time that makes us feel fully refreshed, and skip straight to Delta. The little processing time we do have is anxiety ridden and unrestful. We wake up uptight, irritable and frustrated, and the cycle begins again.
This is the need we have for cycling between energised motivation and deep relaxation as prescribed by Christopher Hyatt in the introduction. Many people are able to successfully maintain this healthy cycle naturally without noticing, but some of us need to consciously intervene if we are to keep ourselves in an optimum mental state and away from that destructive second cycle. Not everyone on the second cycle is mentally ill of course, but is certainly at more risk of becoming so.
Beating the Stress Reaction
Feelings of not being able to cope, excessive worry that cannot easily be shut off, and anxiety about tasks and interactions are signs of overstimulation (stress) and are akin to being stuck in a Beta state for prolonged periods without also getting the quality relaxation characterised by Alpha.
It might sound like a difficult thing to do, switching your brainwaves from one frequency to another, but there are some surprisingly simple ways to do it without the use of drugs.
Some basic yoga practices can be helpful, I have found. Hatha (movement) yoga puts our focus into the body and away from buzzing thoughts. Pranayama yoga, which in its simplest form is concentrating on the breath and making it slow and rhythmic, has a fast working, calming effect. Pratyahara yoga is a meditative practice of quieting the internal dialogue with the aim of complete stillness and no-thought. Although yoga is often thought of as a fad health-kick, these exercises are very straight forward to do and only require around 20 minutes in a session to make a marked difference to energy regulation, and in particular to helping your mind move out of the stressful Beta state and into the restorative Alpha.
Because Alpha is the state of creativity, Art therapy can be very helpful in accessing this mode too. It is irrelevant how ‘good’ you feel you are at art, and in fact people who spend a lot of time in the Beta state are more likely to consider themselves to be unartistic. All you need to do is take some time to create something – anything – and allow yourself to be immersed in the process. This is another of my favoured methods, and was key to my own recovery.
Mindfulness is a bit of a buzz-word at the moment, but the intention behind it is worth taking on board. It is simply the returning of the awareness to the present. It is easy to become detached from our surroundings when we live in our head too much, surrounded by thoughts that are quite abstract to the senses. The basic technique of mindfulness is to consciously pay attention to the signals being received by our senses, and allow those to take precedence over our busy rational thoughts. Along with pranayama, this is a method that can be used anywhere at any time, without anyone else being aware of what you are doing.
By purposefully doing one or more of these exercises on a daily basis, we can train ourselves to get back onto that healthy cycle. By allowing ourselves deep relaxation while awake, we will get more restorative sleep, take a more positive stance on our worries, and get better results from ourselves once we do re-focus, having quieted down the background noise in our minds.
It isn’t only excess production of Beta brainwaves that can cause problems with our mental health. Too much time spent at Alpha frequency can also be destructive, in that it inhibits our ability to focus when needed. It can make us feel sluggish, drowsy and unmotivated. These, of course, are symptoms of melancholic depression. A common description of how it feels to be depressed in this way is ‘like everything is in slow motion’ or ‘I am wading through thick mud’; sometimes like being in a dream or disconnected from the world. That is because we are quite literally operating at a different frequency to those around us. We do need a bit of stress and focused activity in our lives to give us meaning and a sense of purpose and achievement. In this case it is important to raise the frequency of our brainwaves back into the Beta range, which can be difficult considering depressed people often feel daunted and overwhelmed by trying something new.
To move from Alpha to Beta frequency, we need to do activities that are typically associated with the ‘left-brain’. Simple and gentle ways to do this include taking up a hobby even if it doesn’t seem enjoyable at first, reading, doing puzzles, writing down thoughts or journaling to encourage internal dialogue, as well as getting plenty of air and natural light. A good way to improve focus and attention is to make ourselves conscious of the tasks and movements we undertake. This takes very little effort, as it is an act of observation rather than interaction, and can help us to re-engage with our actions and the world around us. This is, in part, what cognitive behaviour therapy is about: bringing back the attention and therefore control over the thoughts that are having a negative effect on us.
A Note on Brainwave Entrainment
Music has a powerful effect on changing our mood and attitude, and is a great way to switch between Alpha and Beta brainwave states. The music you choose is quite personal: experiment with different genres you don’t normally listen to as well as your favourites to find out what works best for you. For obvious reasons fast beats are associated with Beta and slow ones with Alpha. Many people find the sound of water or whale song to be particularly effective in lowering the internal wave frequency.
It is useful to remember that, as far as we know at present, different states of mind affect the frequency of brainwaves we produce, not the other way round. Websites offering binaural beats for ‘brainwave entrainment’ would have us believe we can effortlessly switch our state of mind (and cure all kinds of specific physical ailments) by listening to a half hour soundtrack.There is as yet no strong scientific evidence to suggest that this is the case, and in my experience those tracks are anything but enjoyable or relaxing to listen to.
I’m not going to pretend that stress and depression will stay away for good using the methods described here. Nor will I profess that it is easy to make that first move in the right direction. Even while preparing this article I started to get swamped, pressured and couldn’t shut off the inner dialogue. I had to remind myself of the irony of what I was writing about and take a break for a day to meditate and reset. It felt almost painful to tear myself away from my writing and Beta activities, like withdrawing from a powerful drug! But the issues I was worrying about seemed far less daunting after some restorative time in Alpha state.
However I do hope I have given some food for thought, and offered some coping mechanisms to help identify what you need in order to improve the quality of your mental state at different times. Christopher Hyatt’s two cycles give a convenient and easy to remember point of reference: if you feel tense, guilt-ridden without cause, anxious and upset, you have more than likely switched to the unhealthy second cycle. Knowledge of our inner workings helps us to listen to our own biology and take back some control so that we don’t feel so helpless and swamped. It helps us to remember that our state of mind is part of a cycle: our discomfort is temporary.