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Monitor physical signals to teach stress reduction
There are many reasons to use biofeedback. Arthritis sufferers often choose it to help ease their aches and pains. Through biofeedback, patients might learn deep-relaxation techniques so that they suffer less with the pain, or the clinician might help them increase blood flow to the area where there is arthritic pain, providing some relief.
Biofeedback would not replace prescribed medication; the therapy would complement a patient’s treatment. "We work with the physician’s treatment and add some skills that the patient can use to help themselves," explains Don Moss, PhD, president-elect of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback (AAPB) in Wheat Ridge, CO.
The skills are taught to an individual with the aid of a biofeedback machine that measures muscle tension, skin temperature, heart rate, sweat gland or brainwave activity, and feeds the body’s responses back either visually or audibly. For example, muscle tension might trigger a flashing light or beeper that would subside as the person hooked to the machine learns to relax.
Biofeedback teaches people to recognize the link between their bodies and minds, says Moss. The biofeedback machine monitors one bodily system at a time, such as muscle tension, and gives the individual immediate feedback as the body changes, which increases personal awareness of the bodily process and leads to control over the body.
"People start with the biofeedback signal telling them they are tense; then over time, they tune into their own body signals so they don’t need the equipment anymore," says Moss. For example, during the course of the day, they may begin to notice that they are tensing up due to a controversy at work and are able to use their learned relaxation techniques to ease their stress and better cope with the situation.
"Biofeedback is a useful self-help strategy that can help almost every living human being. It is a pathway to learning important voluntary control skills that are useful throughout life," says Moss. In addition to bodily awareness and relaxation skills, biofeedback teaches people control over a variety of organ systems in the body, such as blood pressure, brain activity, heart rate, breathing, and muscles. By measuring sweat gland activity, a person can be taught to quiet their mind and learn not to worry, think negative thoughts, or be self-critical, says Moss.
Anyone suffering from stress and anxiety can benefit from biofeedback strategies for physical and mental relaxation. With improved relaxation of the entire body, they can reverse the effects of stress and reduce everyday tensions and anxieties as well as improve medical problems caused or aggravated by stress. There are biofeedback treatments for anxiety disorders, depression, alcoholism and addiction, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, epilepsy, migraines, asthma, myofascial pain, neuromuscular disorders such as Bell palsy or stroke, and disorders of intestinal motility such as irritable bowel syndrome, chronic pain, and rheumatoid arthritis.
To help people appropriately take advantage of biofeedback as a complementary therapy, the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback has created a patient information brochure, Biofeedback: A Client Information Paper. (For information on how to obtain a copy of this brochure, see sources, at the end of this article.)
If creating an information sheet, a patient education manager should include a definition of biofeedback, a list of disorders it can treat, and a set of questions patients can use to check the qualifications of a therapist. Many people think biofeedback might harm them. They need to know that it is just a tool to help them gain control over their own body and mind. Another myth about biofeedback is that it can replace the need for medical treatment or medication. However, complex medical problems such as headaches and hypertension usually require a combination of traditional medicine and biofeedback, says Moss.
Biofeedback works best if the techniques learned during the sessions are practiced regularly. Practicing relaxation techniques seems to make them a habit. "I have had patients tell me their bodies start to relax before they realize they have been tuning into signs of tension in their bodies. It becomes second nature to some," says Moss. While some relaxation strategies are taught during the sessions, people develop many techniques on their own. For example, cold hands often are a result of a stressful situation, and during biofeedback, people learn to warm their hands by visualizing a picture of themselves in a warm place, such as on a beach or next to a fireplace.
There are three main relaxation strategies taught during biofeedback. One is progressive muscle relaxation, where people learn to tense and relax the muscles throughout their bodies, thereby becoming more aware of the difference in how their bodies feel when it is tense or when it is relaxed. This helps people keep their muscles in a relaxed state.
A second strategy is to tune into the limpness of the muscles, the warmth of the body, and heavy feelings in the body when in deep relaxation. A third strategy is diaphragmatic breathing where people learn to breathe fully and slowly while taking in and expiring a large volume of air.
A biofeedback practitioner looks at reduced muscle tension; slow, full breathing; a drop in blood pressure; and warmer hands due to the fact that the person is dilating his or her arteries and allowing more blood flow to the hands as signs that the stress response has been reversed.
"Some patients learn skills that continue to work for them for a lifetime. That’s the beauty of biofeedback. Medicines for psychiatric problems work only until you stop taking them, but biofeedback teaches self-control skills that one can use over and over for new problems that arise in life," says Moss.
For more information about biofeedback, contact:
• Don Moss, PhD, President-Elect, Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 10200 W. 44th Ave., Suite 304, Wheat Ridge, CO 80033-2840. Telephone: (303) 422-8436. Fax: (303) 422-8894. E-mail: AAPB@resourcenter.com. Web: www.aapb.org.
• Biofeedback: A Client Information Paper, is available from AAPB in English and Spanish. Multiple copy costs are: 25 copies-$25; 50 copies-$45; 100 copies-$85; 500 copies-$382.50. Contact: Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 10200 W. 44th Ave., Suite 304, Wheat Ridge, CO 80033-2840. Telephone: (303) 422-8436. Fax: (303) 422-8894. E-mail: AAPB@resourcenter.com. Web: www.aapb.org.