We are not aware of our heart rate, blood pressure, or skin temperature. By attaching several small electrodes to parts of the surface and connecting these wires to machinery, it is possible to hear your heartbeat and see your blood pressure and temperature.
How does biofeedback work?
Biofeedback was developed in the 1960s and its most widely used application has been the lie detector’. By using instruments sensitive enough to pick up changes in skin temperature and muscle tension.
It is often possible to discern whether or not someone is lying. It is because the stress associated with telling a lie typically causes increases in both skin surface temperature and muscle tension.
The clinical application of biofeedback began when it was discovered that by giving patients clear information about their level of muscle tension and then teaching them relaxation techniques they could start consciously to reduce their stress levels.
Normally, we only have voluntary control over those muscles that are attached to our bones.
The automatic processes, such as breathing, digestion and blood circulation are maintained by a system of involuntary muscles which surround organs like blood vessels, intestines, and the bronchial tubes.
These muscles are controlled by the autonomic nervous system.
A biofeedback instrument can inform us about the state of these muscles, and so enable us to gain conscious control over bodily processes that are usually automatic.
For example, in the case of the muscles around the blood vessels, it is possible BIOFEEDBACK to reduce or increase blood pressure at will. The three most common biofeedback techniques used are galvanic skin resistance (measuring skin surface tension), muscle tone feedback and temperature feedback.
Skin and muscle tension readings combined with muscle relaxation exercises or relaxation audiotapes are probably the most common applications of biofeedback.
How can I find a therapist?
Some hospital psychotherapy departments use biofeedback machines. Many complementary medicine therapists who practice privately also use biofeedback techniques.
Conditions for which biofeedback has been found useful include high blood pressure, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, and migraine headache.
A migraine, for example, is associated with a drop in temperature in the palms and fingers. By attaching a thermometer to a finger and connecting it to a dial, patients can watch their temperature change as they go through a series of breathing and relaxation exercises.
Patients learn how to raise their temperature with these activities to a level which will abort or even prevent a migraine.
Anxiety, insomnia, and general mental distress can be helped with another, very specialized; biofeedback machine called the mind mirror.
This allows patients to ‘see’ their brainwave patterns on a television screen. Meditation exercises produce a precise form of beneficial brainwave known as alpha rhythm which patients can learn to create with the aid of the machine.
What happens during a biofeedback therapy session?
Depending on the form of biofeedback used and the part of the body being recorded, the patient is asked to undo any tight clothing and sit or lie down, as appropriate.
If the instrument used provides audible signals, the patient usually listens to the regular ‘tick’ of the machine with eyes closed while the therapist tells the patient how to alter the message. For example, reducing the tone and frequency indicates that the muscles are relaxing.
Usually, each session is between half an hour to one hour long, and it may take at least six meetings before the individual can consciously control the signal. Many biofeedback instruments are small and portable, and after a few sessions, the patient is often given the tool to practice the techniques with at home.
The most commonly used biofeedback devices are the GSR (for skin), the EMG (for muscles) and the thermometer (for temperature). They are inexpensive to buy.
Who can provide biofeedback help?
Not everyone can benefit from biofeedback as it requires a willingness to learn and practice a new skill. The individual needs to be motivated and to recognize that, unlike drugs, the biofeedback machine itself does not treat the condition.
It is not advisable to teach yourself biofeedback. Make sure that any therapist you consult has a recognized qualification.