What is Biofeedback?

Biofeedback is a treatment technique or modality in which a person learns to notice, assess, monitor, address and use internal physiological signals from their own bodies, about their own bodies.  The Biofeedback Practitioner uses non-invasive instrumentation (sensors) to identify and monitor various physiological information, which is displayed to the patient in real time on any easy to read display screen. 

Chances are you have used Biofeedback yourself, although perhaps in a way you were not previously aware.  Some examples are: taking your temperature, checking your blood pressure, weighing yourself, taking your pulse, noticing that you are sweating ( with or without exercising,) or that your hands and feet are cold (in an environment that is not cold.)  All of these signals are examples of biofeedback, some with and others without a specific measure.  But each example provides information, or “feedback” about what your body’s physiological response system is doing. 

Psychologists recommend biofeedback for numerous conditions such as anxiety, panic attacks, depression, PTSS (post-traumatic stress,) and stress management– to name several examples.  Physicians recommend Biofeedback for a wide array of medical conditions including: pain and chronic pain disorder, diabetes, high blood pressure, weight management, addictive behavior disorders (smoking, eating, drug abuse, etc.,) headaches (all kinds, excluding cluster,) and multiple heart conditions; bone, joint and muscle conditions, gastro-intestinal and digestive disorders, ADD/ADHD, and many others. 

A person might also use Biofeedback to learn the skills needed to better manage their stressful life situations, and maintain a more consistent level of equanimity, or to respond to the stresses of life more deliberately and less reactively.  Teachers and students use biofeedback to manage test taking anxiety and improve academic performance.

Coaches and sports psychologists use biofeedback to enhance athletic performance and strengthen the teamwork so essential to elite and successful teams.

The Biofeedback clinician applies and interprets the feedback reported by instrumentation applied to a patient, with a great deal of expertise using evidence-based skills and techniques.  The feedback screens and audio options are designed to display the information to a patient in a quick and clear manner.  Feedback, together with the guidance of the practitioner assists each person to learn to understand what the feedback signals mean and how to use them to improve their physical and/or psychological health.  It is kind of like having a tangible “sixth sense.”

The instrumentation is highly sensitive, accurate and extremely fast, so the reliability of the information is valuable and applicable.  The electronic signals from the patient are “translated” by the sensors and computer into screen displays and numbers.  The Biofeedback practitioner then interprets and explains the feedback, and presents appropriate new skills for self-management that will affect and improve the patient’s mastery and well-being in a positive, permanent, and healthy way. With training and practice, the improvement is evidenced through repeat Biofeedback monitoring and the patient’s own subjective reports of improved health, cognitive function and/or other factors.

In some ways, the practitioner is like a coach helping the patient to monitor and improve the skills that will aid them in recovering or to feel better.  Like a pitcher training to perfect a certain pitch; when the pitch is off the mark, the coach helps guide the pitcher in how to do the next one better.  So biofeedback is also a form of performance enhancement, and can also be applied in many non-medical venues to improve productivity, memory, focus, and concentration, and even camaraderie. Recent research reveals that certain forms of biofeedback improve test-taking in children and young adults, and has been shown to improve classroom attentiveness and behavior, and even to reduce bullying.

Overall, biofeedback also substantiates what we already know: that behavior, thought, and feelings profoundly influence physical and mental health.  And it confirms to both patients and health care practitioners the understanding that they can team up to improve health by tapping into the body’s built-in regulatory functions. 

Patient Participation and Training

The success of Biofeedback treatment is highly dependent upon each patient’s commitment to practice and train.  Research and experience have shown that daily training is essential to the success of the program, and the effort provides huge dividends for the trainee.  While we are often unable to actually control our stressors; we can [and must] manage ourselves in the face of the extraordinary stress in our lives.  In the same way that we are truly not able to “manage time;” what we can do is manage ourselves with the time that we have!  This awareness is one of the most powerful keys to success in the use of Biofeedback.

As a Biofeedback patient/trainee, you will be asked to make a commitment to practicing, or training, with the techniques twice a day for ten minutes.  You will also be asked to keep a training log to track your training experience and response.  This training is essential to your becoming more keenly aware of your internal physiological signals, and the log is essential to identifying which techniques are efficacious for you in the improvement of your symptoms.  While you have had these signals all along, now you will raise your awareness of them and how they are affecting you – the essential “Mind-Body” connection– often lost in the face of stressful and busy lifestyles.

The log serves initially as a daily journal while we progress together through the Biofeedback treatment program.  We will review your log together at the start of each Biofeedback session.  Just as importantly, the log will later serve as  a blueprint for you in identifying and selecting techniques that work best for you in de-programming/re-programming yourself during specific situations and for improved health and well-being.  Each week of training, your log will journal a minimum of 14 entry records.  Using this information, we can assess your progress and trouble-shoot any issues that are obstacles to your progress, as well as making decisions about how to proceed in treatment.

The log is designed for easy and quick use.  Each entry can be done in 60 seconds or so, a small investment in exchange for a significant benefit.  If your log entries are taking more than 60-90 seconds…you’re probably thinking too much.

How does Biofeedback work?

The foundation of Biofeedback is learning to identify our [dis]stress responses and shift them to a balanced or recovered response– more accurately termed  “autonomic self-regulation” [ASR]. The most pervasive obstacle to resolution of dangerous stress symptoms, is that many people have become so used to the symptoms; that they have long since stopped noticing them. Thus the protracted accumulation of their stress has a lot of time to begin and sustain its damaging effects—including the compromise of the immune system.

Not all stress is bad stress.  We do need a certain optimal/functional level of stress in order to succeed in life, and to engage the creative and productive potential in ourselves.  However, when the stress level becomes inordinate, continual, or unnecessarily and harmfully self-induced; we become vulnerable to the damage it can do to our health and higher brain function.

Fortunately, Biofeedback is an evidence-based and powerful way that we can take interventional action to return our physiological stress level to healthy and normal.  In traditional medicine, the intervention can be medication, diet, lifestyle changes, etc.  In Biofeedback, the intervention is learning the skills of “Stress Recovery,” or, the restoration of AUTONOMIC SELF-REGULATION, monitored/verified by the feedback instrumentation. This process is the focal point of Biofeedback training.  Often paired with lifestyle changes and other medical interventions, the skills of Autonomic Self-regulation [ASR] or “Stress Recovery” return us to a normal and healthy physiological internal state, and reap abundant physical and psychological benefits.