Biofeedback is a mind-body therapy that can help you learn to control some of your body’s natural functions. The basic idea behind biofeedback is that your mind and body are connected through your central nervous system. Your autonomic nervous system controls your body’s unconscious functions, many of which are triggered or altered by stress. Some automatic functions can be controlled voluntarily, like breathing or tensing certain muscles.
If you use equipment that senses and displays biological functions, you can intentionally take control of things like your heart rate, muscle tension, blood pressure, and other functions.
Why do this?
Biofeedback is intended to increase your awareness and control of bodily functions to treat various mental and physical health problems related to stress.
Learn more about biofeedback and how it can help you take control of your stress levels, anxiety, or trauma.
What Is Biofeedback?
Biofeedback therapy helps you gain greater control over your body’s function. The therapy typically uses medical monitoring devices to show you how your thoughts and behaviors influence your body’s vitals. The goal is to learn to exercise more control over your body’s systems. Biofeedback has been used in several medical applications, including physical and mental health.
However, it is often used to address stress, anxiety, and other mental and behavioral health problems. Biofeedback helps you recognize states affecting your mind and body. With training, you may control a stressful state by learning to control some of the otherwise unconscious bodily functions that naturally come with stress.
Biofeedback therapy involves heart rate, blood flow, blood oxygenation, and other basic bodily functions the central nervous system unconsciously controls. However, consciously controlling breathing and relaxing muscles can affect these vitals.
Biofeedback is a therapeutic method that has been around for decades. The origins of biofeedback in modern medicine can be traced back to 1865, when Claude Bernard discovered homeostasis. Homeostasis is your body’s state of equilibrium when physical and chemical symptoms of the body are stable. Later in the 1880s and early 1900s, researchers found that direct, conscious control over your body’s systems, like heart rate, was possible.
Over the 20th century, researchers found that these people could be trained to control all kinds of autonomic nervous system functions like flexing small muscles in the ear or even sweating voluntarily. Biofeedback developed as a modern medical discipline in the 1970s and 1980s. By the 1990s, biofeedback had accumulated evidence-based research to make it a viable option for various medical applications.
Rooted in Mindfulness
The modern medical origins of biofeedback can be traced back to the late 1800s, but the concept of bodily awareness as having medicinal, spiritual, or emotional benefits is ancient. Biofeedback is rooted in mindfulness, which is the practice of intentionally increasing your awareness of your body objectively. Mindfulness is often achieved through meditation, and the concept has been found in Hinduism and other spiritual disciplines for thousands of years. Today, mindfulness forms the foundation of several therapeutic options emphasizing acceptance, including dialectical behavior therapy, which is also used to treat stress, anxiety, substance use problems, and other mental health issues.
Mindfulness is the practice of fully focusing your mind on your body, what you are doing, and the space you are in. It’s also done in a way that is impartial and non-judgemental about yourself or others. The idea is to reduce stress, stop anxious thoughts, and create a restful state of mind. Biofeedback is a similar concept with the added use of technological feedback that helps you focus your attention on specific biological processes.
What Is Biofeedback’s Goal?
Biofeedback aims to sense and display biological changes according to changes in stress levels. The idea is to give you a picture of how your mind and body are connected. When you can see the effects of stress on a meter or as a numerical value, you can work to try to control stress as you get feedback in real-time. Stress can contribute to biological and psychological problems, including anxiety, depression, and chronic pain. Learning to control the biological mechanisms of stress may improve conditions affected by stress.
Through biofeedback therapy, you can learn to exercise control over the physiological components of stress. As instruments tell you that your temperature is changing and your sweat levels are rising, you gain an increased awareness of tension in your body. You can also learn techniques to control these responses. Since your mind and body are connected, controlling the body’s stress signals can also mean gaining better control over mental and emotional stress responses.
Gaining control over stress and tension is the primary goal of biofeedback therapy, but it comes with a secondary benefit as well. A sense of control over the way your body and mind respond to stress can give you added confidence in dealing with challenges in your daily life. In that way, biofeedback therapy can improve your self-efficacy or your belief in yourself to overcome stress, challenges, and triggers that come your way.
Self-efficacy is an essential tool in addressing all kinds of biological and psychological health problems.
What Sensors Does Biofeedback Use?
Biofeedback therapy sessions use various sensors. With increasing technology and attention paid to this form of therapy, new devices and data collecting methods have been introduced over the years. Sensors are usually used to monitor heart rate, blood pressure, and blood oxygen levels. However, more complex sensors may be used to enhance therapeutic outcomes.
Biofeedback sessions are not painful or invasive. The sensors typically sit gently on the skin or are worn around your limbs or torso. The overall experience may be similar to when a nurse takes your vitals at the beginning of a doctor’s visit, though it will be more in-depth and may take longer.
- BVP. A blood volume pulse sensor involves an infrared light directed at your skin. The sensor measures the amount of light reflected, revealing how much blood is in the skin. This sensor is technically called a photoplethysmography (PPG) sensor. In biofeedback, the sensor is placed on your finger to measure changes in blood volume in the arteries and capillaries, corresponding to heart rate and blood flow.
- Respiration rate sensor. A respiration rate sensor is used to measure the rate of your breathing. The device usually involves chest sensors and a belt worn around the torso. A common brand for this sensor is Resperate.
- GSR sensor. A galvanic skin response (GSR) sensor measures the electrical conductivity of your skin. It does so by measuring your sweat glands, which are connected to stress levels.
- Thermometer. Thermal sensors measure the temperature of your skin, hands, or wherever the sensor is placed using a thermistor. A sensor pinched between your fingers or held in your hand shows that you are tense when the temperature goes down, and you are relaxed when your temperature goes up.
- Surface electromyography. Also shortened to sEMG, this sensor measures electrical activity in certain muscles based on where the sensors are placed. This type of sensor is often used in biofeedback therapy related to neuropathy and nervous system damage.
Not all of these biofeedback instruments may be used by your therapist during a session. You may use just one and still have an effective session. In some cases, therapists use multiple types of sophisticated machinery to achieve more complete results. However, they may not be necessary to achieve your goals.
What Is Coherence?
Coherence is a term often used to refer to homeostasis or equilibrium in the context of biofeedback therapy. It specifically has to do with a physiological state of synchronization between your heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. Heart rate coherence training involves the use of heart rate sensors to measure heart rate variability. In this context, heart rate coherence refers to a specific pattern of your heart rate.
Coherence has to do with heart rate variability (HRV), which is the change in the space between your heartbeats. HRV has to do with the relationship between your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is associated with the fight-or-flight response and reacts to fear, stress, and anxiety. It’s responsible for increasing your heart rate in response to these stimuli.
The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for your rest-and-digest response. It slows your heart rate down when it’s time to relax. High HRV is used to indicate health, especially cardiovascular health. People with low HRV tend to deal with chronic stress, pain, and other negative health effects.
HRV training is a biofeedback technique that uses your breathing to control your heart rate and improve your heart rate variability. Improving your HRV can help you reach a start of coherence, which is when your heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure rise and fall together.
What Does Biofeedback Treat?
Biofeedback can be used to treat a broad range of both psychological and physiological problems. Biofeedback can directly affect certain medical issues that have to do with autonomic functions like hypertension. In some cases, biofeedback therapy can help you learn to lower your blood pressure. This may be especially used for people who have hypertension related to mental and emotional stress.
Similarly, biofeedback therapy can be used to treat chronic headaches, muscle tension, and chronic pain symptoms. Chronic pain is a difficult problem to treat. There are few pain medications that are safe to take for the long term and effective in stopping moderate to severe pain symptoms. Opioids, the most effective pain relief medication, can cause tolerance, dependence, and addiction with long-term use. Biofeedback represents an option with little to no side effects.
Chronic pain related to muscle tension and muscle spasm may benefit from biofeedback. Learning to identify tight muscles to find the sight of pain and then training to release the tension can improve pain symptoms.
Neuropathic pain, which is pain related to nerve damage, is often harder to treat than musculoskeletal pain. In fact, neuropathic pain may even be resistant to common pain medications. However, biofeedback has even shown to be useful in treating nerve pain.
Mental Impacts of Physical Problems
Biofeedback can also help address some of the mental impacts of physical injuries. A serious injury can be difficult to deal with mentally and emotionally. Severe injuries can leave you with trauma, but temporary or permanent loss of function can also cause depression or anxiety. You may go through physical or occupational therapy as a part of your injury recovery, but biofeedback can help address the mind-body component you are dealing with.
Anxiety and Depression
Anxiety and depression are the two most common categories of mental health issues in the United States. Biofeedback has clear applications for treating these mental health issues. Mental health symptoms are often caused by triggers and poor coping responses. Biofeedback trains you to recognize the physical signs of stress like sweaty hands or an increase in your heart rate. When you learn to control the physical stress responses, you may learn to better control your emotions and your response to triggers, alleviating many mental health-related issues.
Insomnia is another problem with clear applications for biofeedback. Sleep is a physiological response that starts in the central nervous system when it’s time to rest and relax. Good sleep hygiene includes several options to help you wind down before bed to help you fall asleep faster, but biofeedback can help you learn better control over this natural process. Biofeedback may be used alongside relaxation techniques and other sleep hygiene tips.
Biofeedback has even been shown to be useful in treating urinary incontinence. Incontinence often affects women with weak pelvic floor muscles, which can be caused by nerve damage, childbirth, and genetic factors. It’s possible to learn to control and strengthen your pelvic floor through biofeedback.
Is Biofeedback Evidence-Based?
Yes and no. Biofeedback techniques have been researched and proven effective to an evidence-based standard. Urinary incontinence is an example of evidence-based biofeedback therapy. There is also a breadth of evidence showing that biofeedback techniques are effective in treating people with stress and anxiety.
However, the popularity of biofeedback has caused it to be used in the treatment of all kinds of different disorders and diseases. While it may be useful for many people in various applications, it hasn’t been proven effective in every application used.
For instance, biofeedback techniques are used to treat insomnia, and they may be effective for many of the people who use them. However, there is conflicting evidence for the effectiveness of biofeedback when treating chronic insomnia cases.
Can I Do Biofeedback by Myself?
Biofeedback can be done in a clinic with a variety of technological devices. In a clinic, a biofeedback therapist can help coach you through the process of learning to recognize and control certain biological functions. But is it possible to use biofeedback techniques at home?
While clinical biofeedback therapy with a therapist is the most comprehensive way to go through biofeedback techniques, you can use biofeedback techniques at home. Since biofeedback is a non-invasive, non-chemical therapeutic option, there is very little risk involved with at-home biofeedback options. Still, if you choose to purchase biofeedback devices, make sure to get them from a reputable source, or they may not work as intended or present readings accurately.
The biggest danger of doing biofeedback techniques on your own is becoming discouraged or disillusioned if you don’t see results. Treatment is a complex and highly individualized process; if you don’t see results right away, it doesn’t mean you can’t relieve your symptoms. In fact, it doesn’t necessarily mean that biofeedback won’t work for you.
Doing biofeedback therapy at home is similar to working out at home. It’s possible, and you may see results. But if you don’t know where to start or if you don’t see results, you might want to try joining a gym or speaking to a personal trainer. Likewise, you may have more success with biofeedback if you have a therapist’s help.
Do I Need Equipment?
There are several options when it comes to biofeedback equipment, and many can be expensive. Do you need equipment to go through biofeedback techniques at home? It’s possible to do a biofeedback session with just a quiet, comfortable place, your pulse, and a stopwatch.
Start by choosing a quiet place with minimum distractions or interruptions. Sit in a comfortable position and locate your pulse. Then use your stopwatch to count your heartbeat for 30 seconds. You can calculate your beats per minute by multiplying it by two, but you don’t need to as long as you take note of the rhythm of your heartbeat. Slow down your breathing rate and make your breaths longer and take notice of how breathing in and out affects your heart rate.