Definition and background
Biofeedback means using a device or instrument to detect and display moment-to-moment information produced by the body. The “feedback” part means that the information is fed back to the person whose body is being monitored. This creates a continuous loop, where the person being monitored can do something and immediately see the effects in the information. The principle is really no different from a mirror –or on a different time scale, a bathroom scale.
The major types of biofeedback are EEG, muscle, breathing, skin temperature, skin sweating, and heartbeat. Information from all these can be displayed visually on a computer screen, as a sound, or both. The rapid, precise feedback between output (doing or thinking something different) and input (the biofeedback signal) allows the person “in the body” to influence the signal, which is really self-regulation. The signal, or trace, is amplified and sharpened so that it stands out more than what you can sense from your own body awareness.
Example If you have a shoulder-tensing habit that sometimes aches, you can observe with biofeedback how precisely how tight your shoulder muscles are from moment to moment (in millionths of a volt). Guided by the biofeedback signal, you can experiment with releasing the muscles, and also get to know the differences in sensation between tension and relaxation. That information is always available to you from internal channels, but the biofeedback enhances your sensitivity.
below is an illustration of the effect of poor posture on muscle tension. The trace shows muscle tension in the neck muscles with the head held too far forward, versus when it’s more upright and balanced. (trace from Clinical Applications in Surface Electromyography).
Pain can result from prolonged muscle tension; the muscle fibers become fatigued and stimulate pain receptors in the muscle. Muscle biofeedback can help you learn to optimize habitual posture by showing you what a muscle is doing — like a mirror that displays microvolts instead of visual reflection.
Pain can result from prolonged muscle tension; the muscle fibers become fatigued and activate pain receptors in the muscle. Muscle biofeedback helps optimize habitual posture by showing you what the muscles are doing — like a mirror that displays microvolts instead of a visual reflection.
Relaxing more deeply than you’re used to may feel strange at first, but there are many benefits to changing postural habits, and biofeedback offers a temporary learning aid. People learn at different rates; sometimes it takes an hour; sometimes many hours.
STRESS This is a very common and important application for biofeedback. Many body systems are affected because the general fight-or-flight response is easily activated by thoughts and feelings that could possibly lead to threat or danger. “Better safe than sorry” seems to be the nervous system’s motto, so it sets off many false alarms.
With biofeedback you can monitor several systems at once and learn which ones have strong responses to stress. As you gain some control of that system (heart, muscles, breathing, etc.) you’re effectively turning down your overall stress response, resulting in more comfort and better ability to benefit from resting.
Self-regulation, self-calming, self-soothing — these are all ways of describing the process of minimizing instinctive flares of urgency and anxiety. Below are a few applications of the biofeedback principle. See also see the separate tab on panic, anxiety, and phobias.
IMPULSE CONTROL Emotion-based impulses can get us into trouble. Angry outbursts, regrettable physical actions, abusing substances, and social withdrawal all come with physiological warning signs that can be detected with biofeedback sensors. Stopping an emotional surge before it takes over can be learned with practice, using the biofeedback as a guide and indicator of progress.
LEARNING AND ENHANCING MEDITATION Several physiological indicators of this state can be measured with biofeedback, especially heart rate variability and skin conductance. Biofeedback provides tangible evidence of control and progress. The mind certainly affects the body, but focusing attention toward the body for control of the mind works also, since the mind is still in in the loop.
PERFORMANCE IMPROVEMENT Sports, music, and public speaking work best with a minimum of anxiety, which is often based on fear of negative outcomes and being evaluated. Heart rate, breathing, and muscle relaxation are all disrupted by negative emotions associated with performance, so learning to control them with biofeedback — cancelling out the fight/flight response — provides an extra edge. This frees up more attention for focusing on the performance. Many sports teams use biofeedback for this purpose, and musicians have benefited from monitoring muscles that tense up from anxiety.
Below are links to major organizations representing biofeedback, for both practitioners and consumers, and one site that lists clinical practitioners certified in biofeedback. All offer information for those curious about the subject:
Association for the Advancement of Psychophysiology and Biofeedback: AAPB.ORG (see especially the information in “Consumers”)
Biofeedback Foundation of Europe: BFE.ORG (see especially the information in “Topics”)
Biofeedback Certification International Alliance: BCIA.ORG