What Is Biofeedback Therapy And How Does It Work?

Updated February 11, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

Stress can have a terrible effect on the body and mind. You might notice it in bodily sensations and tight muscles, clenched jaw, rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing and other involuntary reactions. Have you ever thought it would be nice to control your reactions to stress? If so, biofeedback therapy might be a solution worth considering.

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Effects of Stress

Before getting into the question of what biofeedback therapy is, it's a good idea to take a moment to think about stress. A little bit of stress can keep you on your toes and boost your motivation. If there's a true emergency, a large amount of stress can prepare you for dealing with it either by running away or fighting harder to overcome it.

The only problem is that stress can happen when you aren't in an emergency. When it does, your body kicks into gear, but there's nothing you can or need to do. Then, instead of helping you, it can cause you momentary distress. Right away, you might notice physical reactions like:

  • Muscle tension
  • Pain
  • Tension headache
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Fatigue
  • Higher blood pressure
  • Upset stomach
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Appetite changes
  • Dry mouth
  • Chest pain

If stress goes on too long or keeps coming back, it can wreak havoc on your mind and body, causing or exacerbating chronic conditions like:

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Chronic headaches
  • Chronic pain
  • Sleep problems
  • Heart disease
  • Weight problems
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Memory problems
  • PTSD

Obviously, it's important to deal with stress somehow, especially if it continues to be a problem. There are many solutions that can help. For many people, the best option is biofeedback therapy.

What Is Biofeedback Therapy?

Biofeedback therapy is a technique used to prevent or treat a variety of conditions. Its goal is to teach you to control involuntary bodily functions like heart rate and muscle tension. It involves using electrical sensors to track your responses and showing you how your body is responding in real time.

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As you watch the display, you naturally make subtle changes. Your therapist will also teach you additional ways to control those responses. After you practice this technique long enough with the sensors, you can learn to do it on your own, without the sensors and the biofeedback therapist.

What Conditions Does It Help?

Some of the conditions treated with biofeedback therapy are stress related. Others are conditions that involve involuntary muscles in another way. Conditions it can help prevent or improve include:

  • Anxiety
  • Asthma
  • ADHD
  • Chronic pain
  • Chemotherapy side effects
  • Constipation
  • Incontinence
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Headaches and migraines
  • High blood pressure
  • IBS
  • Raynaud's disease
  • Tinnitus
  • Stroke
  • TMJ
  • Depression
  • Epilepsy
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Injury
  • COPD

How Does Biofeedback Therapy Work?

The basics of biofeedback therapy are always the same. You are connected to a device with small sensors. Your reactions are shown on a monitor through signals from the sensors. You can see the target response as it's happening to you. You get immediate feedback. Then, you try to make changes, and you get real-time feedback about how successful you are. The biofeedback therapist teaches you exercises for making those changes.

Types of Biofeedback

There are several different types of biofeedback as well as several types of devices used for it. The choice depends primarily on your condition. Your biofeedback therapist will recommend the type of biofeedback method and device that's right for you.

Heart Rate

You're connected with sensors on your fingers or earlobes that monitor your blood volume. Or, you can be connected with sensors on your chest or wrists and an ECG measures your heart rate variability.

Breathing

Your therapist places bands around your chest and abdomen. This keeps track of your respiration rate and breathing patterns.

Muscle Contraction

Sensors are placed over your skeletal muscles. Then, an EMG records the electrical activity of your muscle contractions.

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Sweat Gland

Sensors on your fingers, palm or wrist, connect to an EDG to measure your sweat gland activity and how much perspiration is on your skin.

Brain waves

Scalp sensors are placed to monitor your brain waves using an EEG.

Temperature

The sensors are placed on your feet or fingers and record the amount of blood flow to your skin. Stress can cause your temperature to go down. When that happens, you can practice relaxation exercises to make it go back up.

Devices

The sensors that are attached to your body are also connected to a device, either by Bluetooth or directly. Many different devices can be used for biofeedback. They fall into three main categories:

Computer

A computer can be used along with an interactive computer program. The program takes the input from the sensors and creates an image that you can see and respond to by pacing your breathing, relaxing your muscles, and even thinking calming thoughts. Flashing lights, beeps, or other sensory information alert you to the changes going on in your body.

Mobile Devices

Mobile devices are also used, and they work just like a computer.

Wearable Devices

Numerous wearable devices are coming out to help with biofeedback therapy as well. One is a headband that keeps track of your brain waves as you meditate. Another has a sensor that attaches to your waist to record and display your breathing on an app.

Caution

It's important to be sure that the device or type of biofeedback you use is helping you. While there are many beneficial modes of biofeedback, some don't provide biofeedback at all, but rather are marketed this way solely to produce a profit. The best thing you can do is talk to your doctor or therapist about which device is best to use.

Biofeedback Exercises

Biofeedback is simply the monitoring and displaying of the involuntary responses. So, what is biofeedback therapy? The therapy consists of instructions, tips, and exercises that your therapist teaches you for changing those voluntary responses. Here are some of the exercises they may use:

  • Progressive muscle relaxation exercises
  • Guided imagery
  • Deep breathing
  • Mindfulness meditation

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Benefits Of Biofeedback Therapy

Biofeedback therapy can be very beneficial for many people. It's noninvasive. It might reduce your need for medications with harmful side effects. If you still need to take medications, it can boost their effectiveness. If you can't take medications at all; for instance, if you're pregnant, biofeedback therapy offers a safe alternative. Best of all, it gives you a sense of power and control over your condition.

Mental Health Therapy for Stress

A doctor can perform biofeedback therapy, as can a psychologist or therapist with proper training. These mental health professionals can also help you in other ways, through talk therapy or other methods. Some of the types of therapy that can help with stress include:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a technique used by many therapists to help people replace unwanted thoughts with more helpful thoughts. You examine the thoughts behind your emotions and behavior, identifying them, challenging them, and deciding whether to keep or replace them. As you adopt more helpful thoughts, your feelings and behavior change in a positive way.

Interpersonal Therapy (IPT)

Interpersonal therapy might be right for you if your stress is related to social relationships and roles. This is a short-term therapy, usually lasting about two to four months. IPT can help you deal with grief, interpersonal disputes, role transitions, and interpersonal sensitivity. The therapist interviews you to discover the problem and then help you resolve it.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

EMDR is a technique aimed at helping people recover from psychological trauma. It's a way of healing old wounds. The therapist uses eye movements during the sessions as they talk to you about the traumatic event or situation. They may also teach you stress reduction techniques and help you develop imagery to use between sessions.

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)

MBCT combines cognitive therapy with mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is a way of tuning in to the here and now. As you focus on the sensations, thoughts, and feelings of the present moment, you let regrets about the past and apprehensions about the future fade away.

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Desensitization Techniques

Systematic desensitization offers a way to reduce your distress when you encounter a situation that usually makes you anxious. For example, if you have a stress reaction every time you get on an airplane, the systematic desensitization might be to first talk about it, then look at pictures of airplanes and imagine yourself in them, then step onboard an airplane for a few moments, and eventually take a short flight. It can also be done using augmented or virtual reality. Your therapist is with you through each step.

Where Can I Get Biofeedback Therapy?

Whether you choose a therapist who uses biofeedback, different therapies, or both, the most important thing is to get the help you need. There's no need to live with uncontrolled stress and its often-devastating results. Instead, you can work with a therapist so that you can eventually manage it on your own.

Your next question might be: Where can I get biofeedback therapy near me? Start by asking your doctor or therapist if they offer biofeedback therapy. If not, you can ask them for a recommendation. If you don't already have a therapist, you can find one online at BetterHelp. Getting help is the best possible solution to overwhelming stress. Once you learn to manage it, you can feel better, avoid or reduce medical and mental health problems, and live a better life.


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