Can Alpha Waves Reduce Depression?

Tracy Smith, LPC, NCC, ACS
September 17, 2019

Neurons are brain cells that communicate with each other through electrical signals and are what prompts a person’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. The electrical signals from the neurons produce various brain waves, which can be measured by their speeds. The combination of electrical signals produces a type of activity that is cyclical and wave-like in nature. 

Alpha Waves

Brain waves continually change throughout the day depending on a person’s feelings and behaviors and create a range of consciousness along with a feedback loop. Slower brain waves signify calm and relaxation, while faster brain waves depict alertness and vigilance. The first type of brain wave to be identified was the alpha wave, which was discovered in 1924 by Hans Berger, a psychiatrist who recorded the first human EEG. Some studies have recently suggested that alpha waves may be linked to a decrease in depression, stress, anxiety, and distress.

Alpha waves are produced by the brain when a person is awake, calm, and not being stimulated with a lot of information. Sensory information is at a minimum and the mind is fairly clear of specific thoughts when alpha waves are present. Alpha waves mostly originate in the occipital lobe of the brain and are dominant during relaxation (when one is awake and not sleeping) with closed eyes. 

Alpha waves are the most powerful brain signal to appear on an EEG when a person’s eyes are closed. Alpha waves may be generated when a person first awakens in the morning, when an individual is meditating or daydreaming, when a person is mindlessly watching television, or when a person is about to fall asleep. Alpha waves are measured in hertz, which captures the speed of brain waves. Alpha waves specifically measure between 8 to 12 Hz. 

Biofeedback is a technique that is used to specifically change brain wave activity using feedback information from an EEG. Practitioners utilize this feedback to learn how to crate alpha brain waves. Since alpha waves are associated with relaxation and calmer mental states, some studies have attempted to explore whether increasing alpha wave activity through biofeedback could reduce stress and prompt even further relaxation. Furthermore, research has also attempted to study if there is a link between individuals who are depressed and those who have reduced or impaired alpha brainwave activity.

Recent research has shown that stimulating alpha brainwaves, either through direct electrical stimulation, through biofeedback techniques, through medication, or through other calm inducing activities, may help to alleviate a person’s depression and negative moods. Biofeedback techniques attempt to enhance alpha wave activity and use continuous feedback to study the increase or decrease in waves. 

A person can also engage in several tranquil strategies and interventions to increase alpha brain wave activity, such as meditation, yoga, visualization, and closing the eyes. Deep breathing techniques, whether done individually or in conjunction with meditation or visualization techniques can also help to boost alpha waves. Other relaxing activities such as yoga, taking a relaxing bubble bath, or listening to calming music can instigate increased alpha waves. Drawing, coloring, or getting a massage can also serve to elevate alpha activity.

Increased alpha brain wave activity can promote an increased release of serotonin from the neurons in the brain, which is another reason for decreased depression and stress. Serotonin helps alleviate mood states and helps to induce sleep. Findings from this research are promising and exciting in that it may provide another avenue to help individuals to alleviate depression and sad affect. People have the ability to enhance alpha wave activity in the privacy of their homes or offices in a few short moments. Perhaps this in conjunction with other types of depression treatment, such as medication and psychotherapy, can help a person to manage and alleviate depressive symptoms at an even faster rate.

Tracy Smith, LPC, NCC, ACS

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy  facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.

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