Theta Brainwave Benefits: How and Why to Cultivate This Mindful Practice
Edited on August 21, 2021 by Rebecca Acabchuk, PhD and David Vago, PhD
Did you know you experience several electrical impulses in your brain throughout the day that occur in different wave forms and reflect various mental states?
There are five main brainwaves common to all human beings. They can be broken down into component frequency bands, each reflecting a range of states from high arousal to dreamless sleep. These different wave forms are indicated below with typical frequency bands measured in Hertz (Hz) and their approximate spectral boundaries from slowest to fastest:
1. Delta (1-3 Hertz): The slowest brainwave that occurs during deep sleep.
2. Theta Band (4-7 Hertz): The brainwave associated with creativity, daydreaming, and reduced anxiety.
3. Alpha Band (8-12 Hertz): The brainwave present most often during quiet wakefulness and meditation.
4. Beta Band (13-30 Hertz): The brainwave responsible for active concentration and conversation.
5. Gamma Band (30-100 Hertz): The brainwave linked to conscious visual perception, peak mental performance. It also has the fastest frequency.
States associated with the theta rhythm cradle the intriguing border between the conscious and subconscious worlds. Research involving how brain waves reflect particular states and functions is still unfolding. However, theta activity may reflect a useful "repair mode," as it has been observed in specific patterns across the brain during meditative states and expression of creativity. The science suggests theta activity in the frontal and midline parts of the brain enables us to turn our attention to the subtleties we otherwise would miss in our day.
Theta Wave Benefits
Theta rhythms may usually appear during relaxed wakefulness. Theta patterns also arise during states of creativity and focused concentration but in specific brain areas located in the middle frontal lobe.
These unique patterns may be understood as a bridge between the conscious and subconscious. We're barely aware of our thoughts, which could open doors for a new perspective and inspire ideas that may come more readily than when we're actively brainstorming.
If you've ever gotten a brilliant idea while taking a shower, going on a run, or drifting off to sleep, you've experienced the power of theta.
A theta pattern of activity may also facilitate relaxation on a deeper level than typically accessed. Stress, anxiety and fear of uncertainty may decrease, while intuitive capacity may increase¹⁻². Mental blocks you've been wrestling with for a long time can disappear. This brainwave frequency can also allow you to connect with emotions you might be suppressing.
Theta activity is also increased during states of focused meditation³ and flow⁴. The more a person meditates, the more likely the power of theta is to expand.
Theta activity may also help manage cravings and addiction. New research shows increased mid-frontal theta helps explain how mindfulness training can combat drug addiction and aid recovery⁵.
Like everything in life, balance is critical. Your brain cannot always be in a theta state. But for those trying to keep up with the fast pace of modern life, taking time to pause and slow down the brain is essential.
Transitioning to a relaxed state that generates theta activity often naturally happens, but what if you want to go there on purpose? It's a great practice, especially for athletes and people constantly using their sympathetic nervous system (the "fight or flight" response).
Taking time to slow your brainwaves may increase feelings of balance.
Here are two methods I use to drop into what I like to call the "theta state of mind:"
1. Yoga Nidra
Yoga Nidra is a state in which the body is completely relaxed. The practitioner becomes systematically and increasingly aware of the inner world by following a set of verbal instructions (typically induced by a guided meditation).
The individual lies down comfortably face up on a floor or supportive surface, bolstered with a cushion. The goal is to move through progressively deeper layers of relaxation while still maintaining full consciousness (hence, it is also called yogic sleep).
This state of consciousness is different from most meditations, in which concentration on a single point of focus is required. In Yoga Nidra, the practitioner remains with four internalized senses — only hearing is still connected to listen to instructions given. They become in tune with a deeply restorative and rejuvenating state of wholeness.
2. White Noise
Listening to the constant humming sound of white noise — like the whir of a fan — can help you quiet your mind and slip into theta. Also, consider other types of noise, such as brown/red noise. The colors of noise in these power spectrums are deeper than white noise and could be the sound of a roar or waves forcefully crashing.
Try experimenting with various colors of noise to see what feels soothing for you. Over time, you may even train your brain to associate certain sounds with relaxed states.
How Often Should You Get Into The Theta State?
If you feel like your mind is constantly active, you might benefit from cultivating a theta-like state for about 10 to 20 minutes each day. In life, we forget to attune to the subtleties of our mind and body, which may push us to ignore many aspects of our health or reactivity.
Cultivating theta is the perfect way to provide ample time and space to work with, discover, and acknowledge those subtleties so that we can feel or think more clearly for the rest of the day.
Increase the strength and stability of higher-order attention networks in your brain with this class, Daily Focus and Concentration, by cognitive neuroscientist David Vago
Header photo: Pheelings Media/istock/Getty Images Plus
1. Suetsugi, M., Mizuki, Y., Ushijima, I., Kobayashi, T., Tsuchiya, K., Aoki, T., & Watanabe, Y. (2000). Appearance of frontal midline theta activity in patients with generalized anxiety disorder. Neuropsychobiology, 41(2), 108-112.
2. Cavanagh, J. F., & Shackman, A. J. (2015). Frontal midline theta reflects anxiety and cognitive control: meta-analytic evidence. Journal of physiology-Paris, 109(1-3), 3-15.
3. Cahn, B.R. & Polich, J. Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies. Psychol Bull 132, 180-211 (2006).
4. Katahira, K., Yamazaki, Y., Yamaoka, C., Ozaki, H., Nakagawa, S., & Nagata, N. (2018). EEG correlates of the flow state: A combination of increased frontal theta and moderate frontocentral alpha rhythm in the mental arithmetic task. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 300.
5. Hudak, J., et al. Endogenous theta stimulation during meditation predicts reduced opioid dosing following treatment with Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement. Neuropsychopharmacology 46, 836-843 (2021).