Biofeedback – Not Just Another Tool

How amazing would it be to have the tools and feel empowered to pause and not react the next time we are triggered?  When faced with a stressful stimuli, each of us has a different response.  For instance, some individuals fidget when they are anxious, some breathe faster and more shallow, and some are just unable to focus.  Understanding these patterns is crucial to be able to sustainably change our responses to the stressors.  Some of these patterns of behavior have been with us for a life-time.  Those that we are aware of can be overwhelmingly debilitating and the ones that we are unaware of become obstacles preventing us from freely living and expressing ourselves.

So, how can we first learn what these patterns are in each of us?  And, more importantly, how can we change them?

What Is Biofeedback?

Biofeedback is the process of becoming aware of your physiological responses such as muscle tension, temperature changes, sweat, respiratory rate and heart rate and rhythm.  This can be done using devices that measure these signals, so via instrumentation.  Although in some cases we can do biofeedback without the use of instruments.  The awareness along with the tools and techniques offered for your individualized case allow you to better modulate your responses in stressful situations.  These physiological responses also have a direct role in your psychology.  Consequently, by gaining the ability to self-regulate your physiology, you can impact your mood and state of being.

Note that I’m not using the word “control” in this context, as attempting to take control of, for example, our anxiety can be counterproductive and lead to an even more intense experience.  So, instead of just enabling us to take control, biofeedback facilitates change — a change in our state.

Biofeedback tools teach us to activate and strengthen our parasympathetic response and reduce our sympathetic response.  Parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for rest and digest, while sympathetic nervous system is responsible for fight or flight.

What Is Mindfulness?

To become aware, we need to explore.  And, to explore we need to be present.  Mindfulness approaches and practices invite us to explore and become aware by being present.  Mindfulness is noted by Guy Armstrong as “Knowing what you are experiencing while you are experiencing it.”  Jon Kabat-Zinn expressed that “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

Here, non-judgmental refers to self-judgment; that inner voice that constantly evaluates our internal experiences, thoughts and feelings as good or bad, and rewards or punishes us respectively.

Another factor that works closely with mindfulness is the concept of acceptance.  Acceptance of our thoughts, feelings and experiences as oppose to resisting or fighting them.  Acceptance can make the process of changing more fluid.  Acceptance is not the same as inaction, in fact it’s about accepting what is so you can act to change what will be.  As Dr. Inna Z. Khazan states that “Mindfulness allows people to become truly aware of the present moment, to tell the difference between what they can and cannot change, and then focus their attention on the things they can change.”

In the future articles we will be exploring practical examples of mindfulness practices, and ways to cultivate a state of non-judgment.

Conditions that Can be Helped with Biofeedback
What can biofeedback help us with?

  • Anxiety
  • Asthma
  • Migraine and tension-type headaches
  • Essential hypertension
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Raynaud’s phenomenon
  • Chronic pain disorders, including chronic low back pain

This is not an exhaustive list, and there are many other disorders where the application of biofeedback is being explored and researched such as major depressive disorder, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and insomnia.

I have repeatedly witnessed how beneficial the use of biofeedback techniques can be in helping my patients when used alone or in conjunction with other forms of treatments.  In all honestly, at times it has been essential.  Many patients report that their biofeedback practices have made the other treatments much more effective.  Their health concerns reduce in frequency and intensity, they are able to reduce their medications, they feel energized and less anxious about life, they engage in activities that they hadn’t in a long time or thought they never could, and they feel more connected to themselves and others.  One of the best outcomes I’ve seen is that my patients notice how they respond and react to life much differently.

Thank you for your readership, and stay tuned for more information on this topic.
I hope you find this information useful.  If you have any questions please connect with me and let me know what you would like to hear more of.

Khazan, Inna, Z.  The Clinical Handbook of Biofeedback: A Step-by-Step Guide for Training and Practice with Mindfulness.  West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.  Print.

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