When we are anxious our heart tends to beat faster, our breathing is more rapid, our hands may become sweaty, and our muscles are more likely to become tense. When we are calm and relaxed however, we are more likely to breathe slower and more freely, our heartbeat tends to slow down, and our muscles relax. Our mental and emotional processes can have a significant impact on our bodies, especially the nervous system. Many people feel the direct effect of emotions (such as anxiety, anger, and depression) on their basic physiology. For example, it is well known that people who are consistently stressed, uptight, or angry are more likely to suffer a heart attack. However, most people are not aware that it is possible to change their usual “automatic” physiological responses and bring them under conscious control.
What is biofeedback?
Biofeedback is a training technique which involves bringing unconscious or involuntary bodily processes (such as heartbeat or brainwaves) under conscious control by using scientific instruments to measure and feed this information back to the client. Biofeedback training can help people to regulate aspects of their physiology (especially the nervous system) so as to optimize their emotional health and well-being.
What typically happens in a biofeedback session?
Sensors are placed on your skin (often the hands, but placements elsewhere may also be used) and are connected to a computer which can measure a variety of bodily functions including, heart rate, breath rate, muscle tension and so on. The information recorded by these sensors appears on a computer screen, which tells you when you are (and when you are not) achieving the desired result(s). For example, you may hear a tone if your temperature goes up or you may see the height of a bar graph increase when your breathing and heart beat start to synchronize (a pattern that is consistent with optimal nervous system function). Alternatively, we may select a computerized game for you to play where you win the game only by keeping your heart rate, breathing, skin temperature etc. at an optimal level. With practice, you will learn how to regulate these aspects of your physiology and thus learn how to control part of your nervous system so that you can feel calmer and more relaxed. Over time, you will also learn how to regulate these bodily functions and keep them at optimal levels without using the biofeedback equipment.
What happens at the first session?
The biofeedback practitioner/clinician will talk to you about the difficulties you are having and about what outcomes can be expected. The clinician will develop a protocol specifically designed to help with the issue you have come for. Generally, this will tend to start by teaching you diaphragmatic breathing. An optimal breathing rhythm can be used to regulate the heart to good effect, as well as having many other beneficial effects on the nervous system. The effectiveness of the breathing is measured and displayed on the computer so you can learn how to modify your breathing to produce optimal results.
Other techniques and methods may also be used in later sessions, depending on the problem you have come for help with.
Is biofeedback the same as relaxation therapy?
No. While relaxation is often one of the benefits of biofeedback, the primary purpose of biofeedback is to help you gain control over aspects of physiological function and thereby help you to learn how to regulate your emotional state. For example, if someone is having a panic attack, their heart rate will become very rapid and they will often breathe shallowly or will hyperventilate. When they start breathing diaphragmatically, however, this will tend to have the effect of lowering heart rate, normalizing breathing, and helping the person to feel significantly calmer and more in control.
What is biofeedback used for?
While there are many possible applications, biofeedback is commonly used to help with:
- Stress management
- Migraines and physical tension headaches
- Raynaud’s disease (coldness in the extremities, usually the hands and feet)
- Muscle spasms, tension, and muscle pain
- The training of muscle groups following an injury to increase muscle strength or to help chronically tense muscles to relax.
- Stress incontinence
How many sessions do I need?
This will vary depending on the problem you want help with. Your biofeedback practitioner will discuss this with you at your assessment (first) appointment.
How often do I go for biofeedback?
Usually once or twice a week.
How long are the sessions?
Each session is about 40-50 minutes long.
How much does a session cost?
This can vary, depending on the overall number of sessions required. Your biofeedback practitioner will discuss the cost with you at the assessment appointment. Discount packages are also available.