Biofeedback is a set of techniques that allow you to exert conscious control over what are normally involuntary biological functions. For example, consciously slowing your breathing and heart rate are common forms of biofeedback. With more practice, you can learn to increase circulation in your hands and warm them up. You can become more conscious over what is triggering pain, telling you what to treat or even influencing the trigger.
Biofeedback can also be used to still an over-busy mind and change brain activities. For example, achieving a state of calm unfocused attention is done by putting brain in an ‘alpha state’ of activities. Habitually relaxing mind and body reduces anxiety. It also provides physiological cues to the amygdala that you are safe so stimuli are less likely to be interpreted as pain.
You don’t need fancy equipment to learn biofeedback. Prayer and meditation techniques achieve these same ends. Chanting, rituals such as praying the rosary, or focused breathing techniques like those taught in yoga and tai chi were developed to change biological and mental states and make it easier to drop into quickly.
Modern tech can speed learning however.
Tools like the Muse headband read brainwaves and link to an app that provide aural feedback on brain activities – tweeting birds or crashing waves. Clear feedback makes it easier to recognize when you are successfully moving into a more relaxed state. This is particularly important for people who aren’t as sensitive to monitoring their internal states.
My son learned to heat his hands – a sign of relaxation – by holding a strip thermometer between thumb and finger. Even though he didn’t know HOW he was going it, watching the thermometer change temperature told him when he was succeeding. Like riding a bicycle, you don’t have to know what you’re doing to have it work.
My mom taught me a biofeedback technique when I was just a kid that I taught my son when they were in kindergarten. She had me lie down and tense my whole body, imagining myself frozen like ice. I imagined myself lying in the sun. With every breath, the sun would melt me a little more. It would start at the toes. With each breath the melting relaxation would travel slowly up – arch, heel, ankle . . . .
I would do this exercise at bedtime to sleep, slowly relaxing with each breath. Sometimes I’d imagine lying on the beach and melting away like a sand castle with the waves. By the time I was just a minute or so in, I would slip into deep relaxation and sleep.
Importantly, as I did this more often, I could call up the visualization quickly. Learned associations would allow me to begin the exercise and instantly relax. Now I do it half a dozen times a day.
Biofeedback isn’t magic. It isn’t mystical. But it does require practice. Like learning the violin, it’s not something you try once or twice and say ‘nope, doesn’t help’. It’s a tool and a process. You get better with time.
It is also something best learned in SHORT sessions. When using the Muse or the Calm app, I do focused breathing for a minute or two. Three minutes seems a long time to really focus. It is more effective to do three one minute sessions every day than attempt one five minute session that leaves you bored and impatient.
Biofeedback can help with insomnia. It can help with anxiety and coping with pain. If practiced assiduously, it can reduce pain and spikes.
It’s a tool worth learning.
(c) 2021 Nancy Darling