How does biofeedback work?
Scientists cannot yet explain how biofeedback works. Most patients who benefit from biofeedback are trained to relax and modify their behavior. Most scientists believe that relaxation is a key component in biofeedback treatment of many disorders, particularly those brought on or made worse by stress. Their reasoning is based on what is known about the effects of stress on the body. In brief, the argument goes like this: Stressful events produce strong emotions, which arouse certain physical responses. Many of these responses are controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, the network of nerve tissues that helps prepare the body to meet emergencies by “flight or fight.”
The typical pattern of response to emergencies probably emerged during the time when all humans faced mostly physical threats. Although the “threats” we now live with are seldom physical, the body reacts as if they were: The pupils dilate to let in more light. Sweat pours out, reducing the chance of skin cuts. Blood vessels near the skin contract to reduce bleeding, while those in the brain and muscles dilate to increase the oxygen supply. The gastrointestinal tract, including the stomach and intestines, slows down to reduce the energy expensed in digestion. The heart beats faster, and blood pressure rises. Normally, people calm down when a stressful event is over especially if they have done something to cope with it. For instance, imagine your own reactions if you’re walking down a dark street and hear someone running toward you. You get scared. Your body prepared you to ward off an attacker or run fast enough to get away. When you do escape, you gradually relax.
If you get angry at your boss, it’s a different matter. Your body may prepare to fight. But since you want to keep your job, you try to ignore the angry feelings. Similarly, if on the way home you get stalled in traffic, there’s nothing you can do to get away. These situations can literally may you sick. Your body has prepared for action, but you cannot act. Individuals differ in the way they respond to stress. In some, one function, such as blood pressure, becomes more active while others remain normal. Many experts believe that these individual physical responses to stress can become habitual. When the body is repeatedly aroused, one or more functions may become permanently overactive. Actual damage to bodily tissues may eventually result.
Biofeedback is often aimed at changing habitual reactions to stress that can cause pain or disease. Many clinicians believe that some of their patients and clients have forgotten how to relax. Feedback of physical responses such as skin temperature and muscle tension provides information to help patients recognize a relaxed state. The feedback signal may also act as a kind of reward for reducing tension. It’s like a piano teacher whose frown turns to a smile when a young musician finally plays a tune properly.
The value of a feedback signal as information and reward may be even greater in the treatment of patients with paralyzed or spastic muscles. With these patients, biofeedback seems to be primarily a form of skill training like learning to pitch a ball. Instead of watching the ball, the patient watches the machine, which monitors activity in the affected muscle. Stroke victims with paralyzed arms and legs, for example, see that some part of their affected limbs remains active. The signal from the biofeedback machine proves it. This signal can guide the exercises that help patients regain use of their limbs. Perhaps just as important, the feedback convinces patients that the limbs are still alive. This reassurance often encourages them to continue their efforts.
Should You Try Biofeedback?
If you think you might benefit from biofeedback training, you should discuss it with your physician or other health care professional, who may wish to conduct tests to make certain that your condition does not require conventional medical treatment first. Responsible biofeedback therapists will not treat you for headaches, hypertension, or most disorders until you have had a thorough physical examination. Some require neurological tests as well.
How do you find a biofeedback therapist? First, ask your doctor or dentist, or contact the nearest community health center, medical society, or State biofeedback society for a referral. The psychology or psychiatry departments at nearby universities may also be able to help you. Most experts recommend that you consult only a health care professional a physician, psychologist, psychiatrist, nurse, social worker, dentist, physical therapist, for example who has been trained to use biofeedback.
This Material was provided through:
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Division of Communications and Education, National Institute of Mental Health
Public Health Service – Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration
5600 Fishers Lane
Rockville, MD 20857 USA
DHHS Publication No (ADM) 83-1273
This Material was written by Bette Runck, staff writer, Division of Communication and Education, National Institute of Mental Health.
NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF MENTAL HEALTH- Division of Scientific and Public Information-Plain Talk Series- Ruth Kay, Editor