Biofeedback is a technique that allows people to be aware of certain biological and physiological changes in their bodies as well as allow them to properly “respond” to such changes, and thus improve their health.
People use biofeedback devices everyday without even knowing it, such as thermometers, blood pressure machines and scales. These devices help give a person an “inner look” at their bodies and take the necessary steps to cure a problem. For instance, if a thermometer tells you that you have a fever, you will take an acetaminophen and get plenty of rest, if you have high blood pressure a doctor will prescribe pills to help bring it down.
The use of biofeedback, however, can also delve into more complex areas of the human body. Doctors are able to use the technique to help diagnose issues such as:
- mental disorders
- heart problems
- digestive disorders
- drug addictions
Origins of Biofeedback
Though the term biofeedback was not introduced to our vocabulary until the late 1960’s, the practices of biofeedback, self-regulation and bodily control, have been around for thousands of years. Yogis used meditation as a way to control their heart rate and autonomic nervous system, thus taking control of their bodies and allowing for the reduction of stress and other physical ailments.
However, the first modern day research of biofeedback can be traced to the work of Edmund Jacobson and Johann Schultz, who both helped to develop self-regulatory relaxation techniques on a scientific level. Jacobson developed progressive relaxation technique, which is a technique where by a person will tense and relax the muscles in their body in an effort to create whole body relaxation, while Schultz worked to develop the idea of autogenic relaxation or self-generation.
By the 1960’s, many researchers were experimenting with the effects of biofeedback. Three such researchers, known as “The Father’s of Biofeedback”, were Neal Miller, John Basmajian and Joe Kamiya.
Miller performed extensive behavioral research with animals and discovered, under certain conditions, they could be trained to control their body functions. Basmanjian is best known for his work in electromyography (EMG) and rehabilitation science, while Joe Kamiya is the originator of neurofeedback technology.
Their work helped formulate the emergence of a variety of biofeedback techniques, such as thermal biofeedback, EMG, EEG and galvanic skin response (GSR).
How It Works
Biofeedback machines can work in a number of different ways. One of the more well known examples of biofeedback is GSR. A GSR machine measures the activity of the mind through physical responses from the body, such as sweat secretion and heart rate, thus giving an indication of the stress level or anxiety of a person. A lie detector is an example of a GSR machine. The device reads a person’s stress level by using two electrodes to measure changes in the electrical resistance of the skin. The device then detects these changes and records the information either digitally or through an auditory signal.
GSR is also helpful in monitoring and controlling the effects of stress in a person, as well as hypertension, anxiety, and some speech impediments such as stuttering. By measuring the physical effects of how stress manifests itself in the human body, doctors and medical researchers are better able to address the problem and come up with a diagnosis.
Other types of biofeedback devices that measure stress levels in the body are a thermal device, which monitors the temperature of the skin where in a person can be trained to control it. An EMG device uses electrodes placed in certain spots on a person’s body to measure muscle activity and tenseness. Finally, an EEG biofeedback machine monitors brainwaves. Through time and training, a person can learn to turn those brain waves into alpha waves and achieve a state of mental relaxation. This can be used to help alleviate problems caused by depression, stress and insomnia.
Though biofeedback is best known to help alleviate stress and muscle tension, scientists today have been developing new purposes for it. One such purpose is the alleviation of motion sickness. This was originally developed by NASA as a way for astronauts to contend the effects of motion sickness in space. The use of biofeedback for this purpose is now being tried on people who often suffer from motion sickness in a car or on a plane.
Another application that is being studied in combination with biofeedback is hypnosis, or hypnotherapy. A benefit of using this method is a person can quickly respond to imagery and verbal suggestions to enter a relaxed mental state and shift focus away from pain or even change the nature of the pain they are experiencing. It also works well in patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or complications involving trauma from accidents.
What makes biofeedback such a rising and popular method of therapy is that it puts the individual in control of his or her own body. Treatment for a particular ailment comes directly from learning what your body is telling you and then consequently working to make the appropriate changes.
As with all treatments, practice and repetition make perfect, but it is important to remember that biofeedback is not medicine and should not replace traditional medical care. It should rather be used as a supplement and, like with all supplements, used under the direction of a medical professional.