Biofeedback: Definition & Techniques

Instructor: Patricia Johnson

Patricia is a Clinical Health Psychologist with a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. She has taught Life Span Development and worked with clients of all ages.

In this lesson you will learn the definition of biofeedback, instruments used to measure biofeedback data such as involuntary biological functions, techniques used to regulate those functions, and the potential of these techniques to provide helpful treatment for a number of medical problems.

Heart rate is an autonomic nervous system function

Introduction: The Mind-Body Connection

Have you ever met someone who you thought was so attractive that you began to blush, and maybe even felt a little warmer? Nearly every psychological reaction has a physical one to match. The feelings triggered by meeting that attractive person caused in you a release of adrenaline, an increase in heart rate, the production of sweat, and a change in your breathing, even if some of these reactions were only slightly noticeable. The mind and body are closely related, a fact which is the key to treating emotional and physical stress through biofeedback, a treatment tool that makes us aware of what is occurring within our autonomic system. The autonomic nervous system regulates functions that automatically occur without us doing anything to make them happen. These functions include heart rate, breathing, muscle tension and brain wave activity.

What is Biofeedback?

Biofeedback provides feedback, or information about our biological reaction to the environment. For instance, when a sudden stressor occurs, the body attempts to compensate for the change in emotional functioning. Most of us have taken a leisurely stroll on a nice day, lost in our thoughts and enjoying the sights around us, when all of a sudden a dog's threatening bark may snap us out of our relaxed state, causing us to experience a sudden sense of fear. In that moment, heart rate shoots up and blood rushes to vital organs that are necessary for us to run, such as our heart and lungs. Blood flow and heart rate are just two of the many factors monitored during biofeedback. Think back to when you may have had an overwhelming job or a very difficult class. Even ongoing everyday demands can sometimes cause changes in physiological functioning. Further, if this stress is prolonged, there may be an increase in muscle tension, an increased heart rate and other biological changes. Over time, muscle tension can turn into headaches and back pain, along with other symptoms. Biofeedback treatment can be applied for numerous problems including migraine headaches, high or low blood pressure, diabetes, stress, anxiety, urinary incontinence, gastrointestinal problems and epilepsy.

Biofeedback Methods

There are various types of biofeedback methods that provide feedback on biological processes through the connection of electrical sensors or electrodes applied to a particular place on the body. For instance, a sensor can be placed around a finger to gauge heart rate. Sensors can also be placed on the skin to monitor other aspects of autonomic functioning such as muscle activity, skin temperature, brain wave activity and sweat production. An electromyogram (EMG) measures muscle activity and tension, which is helpful to the treatment of anxiety. Thermal feedback provides information about skin temperature and can be useful for headaches, for instance. Neurofeedback provides details about brain wave activity, which can be useful for treatment of epilepsy. Electrodermal activity may be evaluated in order to measure the amount of sweat that is produced by the body, which can be helpful in treating pain. These methods can be used for the treatment of many other problems as well.

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