Using Biofeedback for Treatment of Health Conditions

biofeedback through touch

What is biofeedback and how can it be used to treat mental and physical health conditions? To understand why biofeedback is so effective, it is important to assess the relationship between the mind and the body.

Everyone has experienced the mind body connection. A certain smell can bring back a long-forgotten memory. A particular song can bring up old feelings. A favorite food can comfort the body. A beautiful view can calm the mind. A loved one’s touch can make us feel relaxed and at ease.

Similarly, a depressed mood can make food less flavorful. An anxious mind can make muscles tense and skin more sensitive to pain. When feeling frustrated or tired, irritating noises become intolerable. A memory can evoke a smell out of thin air.

 

The Ancient Brain at Work Today

The ancient parts of the brain use the senses to constantly ask the question, “Am I safe, am I safe, am I safe?” Some sensations reassure us that everything is good. But after a physically, emotionally, or mentally traumatic event, the brain can flag certain sensations as threats. The next time those sensations are experienced, the stress response may be triggered. The body changes in a matter of seconds. The heart rate increases, breathing increases, skin begins to sweat, blood sugar rises, muscle tension increases, and more. This can lead to feelings of anxiety, panic, anger, restlessness, and/or depression. This stress response can contribute to PTSD, ADHD, anxiety, panic attacks, chronic pain conditions, and even GI conditions such as IBS.

 

How Does Biofeedback Work?

Biofeedback uses simple monitors to measure how our body responds to certain stressors and stimuli. It is possible to see in real-time how mental triggers lead to significant reactions in the body. After becoming aware of these responses, it is possible to learn practices which change how the body and mind react. Using these tools helps individuals to cope with the stress of living in an unpredictable world.

Some of the techniques used during biofeedback session include:

  1. Paced functional breathing – The pace, ratio of inhale to exhale, nasal vs mouth breathing, and muscles are engaged when breathing have a significant impact on Heart Rate Variability, the state of the nervous system, and stress levels.
  2. Meditation – When an individual learns to focus and calm the mind, the effects ‘trickle down’ to the rest of the body. Those changes can be seen in real time using biofeedback monitors. This helps individuals who meditate find the practices which produce results.
  3. Guided imagery – The human imagination is incredibly powerful. When a veteran experiencing PTSD ‘relives’ a traumatic event, their body behaves as if it is under attack. On the contrary, focused calming visualizations help the body to relax, reduce blood pressure, reduce heart rate, and muscle tension.
  4. Progressive muscle relaxation – Stress often results in tight muscles, especially in the neck and shoulder. Progressive muscle relaxation teaches people to systematically tense and relax muscles resulting in less tension and pain. This practice reeducates our nervous system so that it can “let go” once a stressor is over.
  5. Autogenics – A system which teaches individuals to use repeated phrases, focused meditations, and/or visualizations to create change in the mind and body. This has been shown to be effective in conditions ranging from chronic stomach pain to Reynaud’s Syndrome. The changes are measurable and backed by research.
  6. Increasing somatic (body) awareness – Those raised in ‘western’ cultures often have a difficult time paying attention to the sensations of the body. The brain is constantly asking the body, “Am I safe?”, but many have learned to tune out the answers. Exercises which reintegrate the mind and body lead to balanced mental and physical states.
  7. Biofeedback also uses computer-based programs which include activities and games that teach patients to remain balanced and self-regulated when challenged. Children and adolescents who experience academic stress and triggers respond incredibly well to the computer-based challenges. This is especially evident in children experiencing ADD/AHD who feel anxiety around school related expectations and find that just when they need to focus, their “brain goes offline”.

 

Retraining the Mind and Body with Biofeedback

It is possible to retrain the mind and the body to let go of triggers and respond to new stressors with resiliency. Continuing these practices leads to the development of new neural pathways and the ability to self-regulate. When practiced for long enough, these new approaches become the default approach that the brain picks automatically. Biofeedback enhances the efficacy of natural therapies and conventional pharmacotherapy. This therapy helps patients find the tools which work for their unique mind and body.

Biofeedback is appropriate for children over eight, adolescents, and adults of all ages. It often involves eight to twelve sessions to see the full benefit. The benefits, once achieved, can last a lifetime if individuals continue to practice their self-regulating and stress reduction exercises. This therapy should be provided by a BCIA board certified practitioner with the proper equipment, training, and experience.

 

Learn more about Dr. Ryan Phillips, ND, MPH, BCB, CHES, or make an appointment by calling
(303) 884-7557.

 

 

Weerdmeester, Joanneke, et al. “An integrative model for the effectiveness of biofeedback interventions for anxiety regulation.” Journal of medical Internet research 22.7 (2020): e14958.

Sarris, Jerome, et al. “Integrative mental healthcare White Paper: Establishing a new paradigm through research, education, and clinical guidelines.” Advances in Integrative Medicine 1.1 (2014): 9-16.