Automatic Control
Biofeedback puts your body at your command

By Amy Ward Brimmer

June 2006

When we think of healing methods that are “holistic,” “alternative” and “natural,” we don’t picture the use of machines. In fact, most holistic practitioners rely less on technology and put more trust in a patient’s own inner resources to restore health. But there is a method of healing that incorporates human and machine working together—biofeedback.

You have probably used some form of biofeedback, but just don’t know it. If you’ve ever taken your temperature or stepped on a scale, you have used a mechanism to get information about what’s happening within your body. This data—whether you have a fever or need to lose five pounds—is “fed back” to you. Armed with this information, you make a choice to change the situation.

Although biofeedback clinicians rely on more complex devices to measure complicated functions, the principle is the same. Basically, we have the innate ability to influence the automatic functions of our bodies. Using a special machine and sensors, a person can learn to control normally involuntary processes like heart rate, skin temperature, blood pressure and brain waves.

Scientists have been studying this phenomenon for decades, but the term “biofeedback” was first popularized in the 1960s, when psychiatrists and other clinicians successfully trained laboratory research subjects—and eventually patients during office hours—to treat conditions such as migraines, high blood pressure, cardiac arrhythmias, epilepsy and even paralysis.

Therapeutic Choices

Two of the most common types of biofeedback are the electromyogram (EMG), which measures muscle tension, and electrodermal response (EDR), which measures electrical conductivity in the skin. Depending on the problem, one or both of these approaches can be a suggested treatment. For example, EMG is an ideal approach for dealing with carpal tunnel syndrome (wrist inflammation). Robert Clasby, an expert in musculo-skeletal conditions, has had great success using biofeedback to help patients avoid surgery. Clasby, a practitioner with the QuietMind Foundation in Lafayette Hill, Pennsylvania, taught patients to stop overusing one set of muscles in their forearm and wrist and begin using the correct muscle group, which healed the condition. By attaching electrodes which measure muscle function and feeding back a signal to the patient, his clients were able to understand how to properly use their anatomy and avoid pain and dysfunction.

Biofeedback is also used to teach clients how to recognize the increase of excess tension and how to circumvent it. EDR works similarly to EMG. A very slight, unnoticeable electrical current is run through the skin, and the machine measures the salt and water in the sweat gland ducts. The more emotionally aroused one is, the more active the sweat glands are and the higher the electrical conductivity of the skin. EDR is effective in treating anxiety-based conditions such as phobias and stuttering. Athletes use this method to cure pre-competition jitters.

Possibly the most exciting use of biofeedback is its current application to behavioral challenges such as attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which are being successfully treated at places like the QuietMind Foundation. QuietMind’s president, Marvin Berman, PhD, is a psychologist who finds neurofeedback to be a dynamic way of “making the nervous system accept and tolerate change at the most fundamental level.” By measuring and amplifying the brain’s functions, he says, “we’re not just treating a discrete problem, but the overall efficiency of the central nervous system.”

That’s what appeals to Victor H., whose 7-year-old son, Mario, is afflicted with ADHD. “I didn’t want to rely only on drugs,” he explains. So he looked for alternatives and eventually his search led him to Berman and QuietMind. In addition to talk therapy, bioenergetic exercises and some medication, the biofeedback process has proved extremely valuable. Using a headband with electrodes on his forehead, Mario watches a video or plays a computer game. When he is able to maintain proper focus on what he is watching, the screen remains bright and clear. Should his attention wander, his brain waves will change, the electrodes measure this, and the screen turns black and is accompanied by a loud humming sound. By repeating this experience, along with other similar focusing games, the biofeedback trains Mario’s brain to focus effectively.

Victor has seen a change in his son: “Our goal is to get him off the drug. I see him focusing more, being calmer.” Victor attributes these positive changes to the biofeedback and to the combination of approaches Berman uses—including teaching Victor and his wife some stress reduction techniques. Still, Victor feels that significant progress would have been elusive without the biofeedback. “Mario often asks when we will be going back to see Dr. Berman,” says his dad. “He likes the games.”

It isn’t necessary to have a severe problem like Mario’s. Everyday overall tension is probably the most common reason people try biofeedback. Constant stress and our reaction to it have made it virtually impossible for many people to consciously relax, or even to recognize a relaxed state. Getting a feedback signal is both information and reward, and it puts the responsibility on the individual. “It’s a type of training,” Victor explains. “You can’t expect overnight results.” Like a pitcher learning to throw a strike, the biofeedback trainee monitors the performance. When the pitch is off the mark, the machine beeps or flashes a light and the “pitcher” makes adjustments—moving with less effort, breathing more slowly or thinking differently—to alter the signals. The therapist acts as a coach on the sidelines, giving hints as to how to improve the performance.

There’s a certain instant gratification with biofeedback; one sees immediate, tangible results. You are literally lowering your blood pressure or easing muscle pain or feeling emotionally more centered. “Biofeedback training has long-range implications that go beyond the notion of ‘fixing what ails you’,” explains Dr. Stephen Wall of the Bio Research Institute in Cotati, California. “While the training is beneficial, gentle and completely non-invasive, it inevitably provides more than that. It awakens the realization that we have the power to make lasting changes in our bodies and minds, and the accompanying opportunity to direct these changes for life-enhancing benefits.”
—Amy Ward Brimmer

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