All about Biofeedback

Biofeedback is a healing practice that provides us direct information and control of our internal processes, including disorders

All about BiofeedbackA general technique by which individuals can monitor and learn to control involuntary activity of certain organs and bodily functions, biofeedback, in simple terms, is based on the premise that individuals can repeat or recall behaviour, or bodily, states that they find congenial and pleasurable. For example, people with tension headaches learn to induce certain conditions that reduce muscle tension, and consequently their pain. In other words, biofeedback is a healing technique where people are taught to improve their health by using signals from their own bodies.

The technique is used in a number of ways. While psychologists, for instance, use biofeedback to help anxious and high-strung individuals, or patients, learn to relax, physiotherapists use biofeedback to help stroke victims regain movement in paralysed muscles. Likewise, physicians and therapists, in several specialities and/or systems of medicine, use biofeedback to help their patients to cope with pain.

The origins of biofeedback as a healing system, however, are difficult to explain, thanks to the dynamic relationship that exists between our mind and the body. To draw a simile: Narcissus, a character from Greek mythology, was, perhaps, the first real “proponent” of biofeedback. His fatal attraction for his own image may have epitomised the concept of “reflection” – the central part, or the fundamental mechanics, of biofeedback.

To make it more understandable, we could all think of biofeedback quite like a steam valve. When steam causes a conventional rotor to turn, the centrifugal force of its rotation causes the lever to rise, or strings to fly out. In much the same manner, you’d rapidly turn yourself through biofeedback training. For instance, you’d instruct yourself that your arms will fly outwards!

To highlight another analogy – the faster the rotation, the smaller the steam vent. Likewise, the smaller the vent the slower the rotation. This very same principle, again, holds good for biofeedback within the human body. When you eat food, your mouth and stomach fill up. This done, your internal sensors send a “satisfied” signal, and you stop eating – unless you wish to eat more than what you need!

Easy and effective

There are a number of simple biofeedback mechanisms. For instance, you can press a piece of plastic against your palm which turns the colour of your skin, depending on your body temperature. Likewise, if you are prone to headaches, you can prevent, inhibit or relieve, the pain by warming your hand. Sooner than later, with biofeedback training, you will be able to measure the way your skin conducts electricity, and learn to make the skin less conductive.

Blood pressure, although less readily accomplished than temperature feedback, is no less an important feedback technique. Here’s why: as temperature and blood pressure are strongly correlated to each other, it is possible to learn to manage one’s physiological — or, blood pressure – dynamics directly, while indirectly influencing the other.

The concept of biofeedback comes from electronics – it also refers to a method of controlling systems by feeding back to them the results of previous output. To think of a classical example: the thermostat as a feedback device. A thermostat responds to external temperature by turning a heat source, on and off. You gotcha it right! Biofeedback applies this very same principle to biological systems – in particular, the human body.

Monitoring advantage

In general terms, biofeedback is a method of monitoring our physiological functions that need to be controlled. Both simple and sophisticated instruments are used for the purpose. Example: if an EEG [electroencephalogram] is used to measure brain activity, an EMG [electromyograph] is used to measure muscular tension. Likewise, an ECG [electrocardiogram] is used to measure heart beat. Needless to say, there are monitors available to record electrical skin resistance [ESR] and perspiration, skin temperature, and so on — with the subject, or patient, attached to them through a biofeedback device.

Information about changes in the body is, thereafter, displayed to the subject – in an easy-to-understand form – essentially by way of images on a visual display unit [VDU]. The subject is, thereafter, trained to achieve the desired result – by an act of will. Most subjects/patients find that they are able to learn a particular state of mind that works best for them in the space of a few sittings with a biofeedback practitioner. Thereafter, they are most often able to enter it without a prompt.

Scientific breakthrough Biofeedback is a major scientific breakthrough. It not only enables us to monitor our body’s inner and, thus, hidden, responses to relaxation therapy, but also other bodily functions on which we have direct control.

Scientists who pioneered biofeedback rightly connoted that it might be possible for us to learn and control, not just the voluntary, but also the autonomic, or involuntary, nervous system, or functions – if only we could actually “see” or hear them. In so proposing, they developed electronic instruments to which a person could be connected, without fuss or pain, via electrodes that would literally “feedback” information about an array of internal biological functions.

Yes, functions that can be monitored, in this manner, include heart rate, blood pressure, electrical resistance of the skin and, thus, sweat gland activity, muscle tension, skin temperature, as already mentioned, and brain-wave pattern – all of which are demonstrated on a special EEG, or any other machine.

Mirrored response

In simple terms, biofeedback encourages you to exert useful control over your body’s internal function – by making you conscious of what’s happening inside your body, as it responds to various subjective, or behavioural, stages. If you succeed in bringing about any change, biofeedback would give you information you need on it.

Safe, non-chemical and, therefore, non-allergic, biofeedback encourages individuals to recognise one signal fact of life: that each of us has the wherewithal to influence what happens in our physical body and, therefore, heal oneself of a particular malady.

Biofeedback is, however, not a cure-all. It cannot, for instance, be applied on patients who have major psychosomatic illnesses, or are taking certain medications, such as insulin. However this may be, when biofeedback is used in conjunction with other more traditional treatments, it could enhance their scope and effectiveness, and also provide for better prognosis, or outcome, for the patient.

Biofeedback techniques can also quite easily be presented to the subject visually via an oscilloscope or PC/TV monitor, mouse, or earphones. It is only to be expected that the proper usage of the methodology would not only facilitate a sort of fine-tuning to ascertaining the early signs of physical illnesses, but also help us take precautions before manifestations of fear, anxiety, depression and suffering, blossom into full-blown symptoms.

Frequency of treatment

The frequency of biofeedback training may alter – from six sessions of half-an-hour duration each to begin with, to reduced or modified sessions – all right. But, age is no criterion for its use, or success. Yet, the most ideal subjects, who’d get the quickest results, are children.

What’s more, biofeedback is a down-to-earth method. Its learning does not require great, or extra, intelligence. Motivation is everything that one would require for its success. This is all; nothing else.

Though there are a host of uses of biofeedback, its primary role has been keyed to bridging the gap between mind and the body – at the forefront of what is now related to as the ever-expanding stream of mind/body medicine.

In its present form, biofeedback makes it possible for us to use the therapy with state-of-the-art gadgets: to control stress, realise true relaxation, and achieve important goals.

It also offers a range of possibilities: stress and breath control for relaxation/visualisation/fitness appraisal, and improved athletic performance, treatment of sleep disorders, managing pain, or controlling weight, bowel movement/constipation, high blood pressure, cigarette smoking, and also urinary incontinence, besides improved public speaking skills, and so on.

Most important: once the “given” biofeedback effect is achieved, the subject is better able to control processes, such as this and others, through training and regular practice.

Conscious Control

Biofeedback is more than just a useful adjuvant for general stress management.

Not merely an alternative treatment for several mental health concerns, the technique is more than handy when it concerns to improving the lives of people diagnosed with concentration, attention, memory, sleeping, anxiety, depression, pain, and a host of functional problems.

The technique, which is safe and non-invasive, aids individuals become more aware of body states and gain increased ability to modify such states. A high-strung person, for example, will have rigid muscles, cold hands and feet, sweaty hands, fast heartbeat, distinct pattern of breathing, quicker brain-wave patterns, and increased activity in the front part of the brain These physiological variables can be modified when biofeedback is given to subjects with the help of electronic sensors and computer displays. Put simply, biofeedback helps us –

  • Learn to be in charge of our psychological stress, and overcome anxiety
  • Perk up focus and concentration
  • Expand control of our emotional states
  • Improve our meditative experience
  • Ease and/or eliminate nervousness before exams, meetings, presentations, or public speaking.

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Rajgopal Nidamboor
Dr Rajgopal Nidamboor, a trained physician, is a writer, commentator, and author. In a career spanning 25 years, Nidamboor has published over 2,000 articles, on a variety of subjects, two coffee table books, an E-book, and a primer on therapeutics, aside from an encyclopaedic treatise on Indian philosophy.


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