Biofeedback, a technique adapted from ancient Indian methods by modern scientists with the use of mechanical apparatus, uses the conscious mind to control various bodily functions. Included among these are migraine headaches, attention deficit disorder (ADD), incontinence, heart disease, and seizures, as well as various types of anxiety disorders.
This article will discuss how biofeedback originated, how it works, the types of biofeedback devices used to treat anxiety and the advantages and disadvantages of this treatment technique.
Alternatives to Biofeedback?
Biofeedback is an intriguing idea, but it's only one potential option – and it can be an expensive one. There are other techniques available that may be right for you. Find out what they are by completing my free 7-minute anxiety test now.
Origin of the Biofeedback Technique
Biofeedback is designed to help you get in touch with your own feelings and emotions by allowing you to see them directly. Even if you do decide to use biofeedback, take my anxiety test to see complementary and alternative options that may be of better use.
In India, only highly trained monks and hermits who practice largely in isolation for the entirety of their lives were believed to be able to achieve feats of highly controlled bodily transformation using the powers of the mind. Some monks were said to be able to mentally raise their body temperature enough to melt snow surrounding them, while others can lower their heart rates to levels that render them nearly comatose.
Modern science has been forced to recognize the value of mind “magic” such as the placebo effect, in which no treatment is applied, and yet the power of the mind’s belief that it will be cured alone has curative effects. Recognizing this previously unrecognized power of the mind, scientists undertook the challenge of enabling the average person to practice mind control.
To do this, they created a wide variety of mechanical implements with the ability to sense biological functions such as breathing rate, heart rate, muscle tension and muscular spasms. When these mechanical implements are worn by people suffering from physical and mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders, they alert the person by way of a signal (usually a flashing light or a beeping noise) that the sensors have picked up the symptom they are meant to scan for. The person can then consciously address the symptom, until the lights stop flashing or the beeping stops.
Over time, the repetition of the preventative response to the physical symptom that causes the lights or beeping ideally becomes subconscious.
Anti-Anxiety Biofeedback Devices
There are many types of biofeedback devices used by therapists to treat anxiety. The biofeedback devices listed below scan for bodily anxiety symptoms, but can also be used to treat problems such as asthma and heart disease - and may help to simultaneously reduce these issues while also limiting your anxiety.
- Electromyograph This device senses deep-muscle movements that precede muscular contractions by way of electrodes placed over the target muscle. Your muscles will contract and tense when you are feeling anxious, usually as a part of the fight or flight response triggered by your fear. Realizing that it is happening forces you to consciously think about relaxing your muscles.
- Feedback Thermometer When this device is attached to a finger or thumb, it can sense skin temperature by measuring the expansion and contraction of tiny blood vessels in the extremities of the body. Expansion signals the warming of the body, while contraction signals cooling. An increased heart rate from stress can result in a raised body temperature and sweating, which will trigger this device.
- Electrodermograph This device is specifically used to detect sweating and is used to treat both anxiety disorders and hyperhidrosis (a disorder characterized by excessive sweating).
- Electroencephalograph This monitors the electrical activity of the brain. When monitoring for anxiety, it will react to what is known as a “high beta rhythm,” which is an electrical current pattern that indicates extreme attentiveness, panic, and worry. It is often used specifically to treat obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Photoplethysmograph Used for measuring dramatic changes in heart rate, it is attached to a finger or toe, and can be used to supplement biofeedback devices that monitor temperature.
- Pneumograph Not actually used to scan for pneumonia, the pneumograph is responsible for measuring the rate of your breathing (specifically the number of breaths per minute), and helping the wearer to breathe at a healthy pace (the raised heart rate caused by anxiety attacks also results in rapid breathing).
- Capnometer This device scans the CO2 (carbon dioxide) content of the wearer’s breath by way of a latex tube placed by the nostril. The lungs naturally convert oxygen into CO2. If too little or too much CO2 is present, however, the device alerts the wearer that they are either breathing too lightly or too fast.
Advantages vs. Disadvantages of Biofeedback Devices
Biofeedback devices are generally used exclusively in therapeutic settings. This can be a disadvantage, as they are not available for patients for more than a few hours a day. However, it can also encourage the brain to practice the reactions it has learned when hooked up to the devices when no devices are present.
Also, the use of biofeedback devices in a therapeutic setting costs money. Many other anti-anxiety exercises can be done for free at home. But, in comparison to other treatments that may be offered by a therapist (usually involving prescription drugs), biofeedback devices do not cause any unexpected side effects or involve ingesting unfamiliar chemicals.
Ultimately, it is really about what kind of treatment is right for you. Biofeedback therapy may be right for you if:
- You can afford a therapist to supervise their operation
- You do not mind a treatment that can only be used periodically
- You are concerned about the side effects of drug-based treatments
- You are taking enough other medications that you do not want to add any more to the mixture
However, if this is not the case for you, it may be advisable to look into other types of treatment. If you are worried about taking more medication, there are other natural options that may be right for you.
The traditions of India that inspired biofeedback – namely, those that teach you how to control your body - are a healthy and safe option that you can perform at home. Look into joining a yoga class, or learning the tradition of pranayama or breathing techniques. These foster control over your body’s muscles and reflexes, helping you to discipline the reactions you have to stress so that you can remain calm and relaxed instead of panicking when you encounter stressful stimuli.
Biofeedback is an interesting idea. And the premise – the idea that the mind can control the body – is a very real one. But at best it is still only one piece of the puzzle.
If you want to learn how to stop your anxiety at home without biofeedback, make sure you take my free 7 minute anxiety test now. This test will teach you more about your own anxiety and show you what you can do to stop it.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Mar 27, 2018.