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Biofeedback For Anxiety and Stress Relief

Biofeedback is a technique that has been utilized by the psychological as well as the medical fields for many years. It is a medium of treatment that has been well researched and determined to have many positive effects.

In Biofeedback, you are basically trained to improve your own health and well being by learning to read signals from your own body. It teaches you to become aware of various physiological processes that occur under conditions such as stress using instruments that are attached to your body in a non invasive manner and that provide information on the activities going on in the bodily systems.

You then learn to manipulate these activities for the purpose of increased well being and better health. For instance, you can be trained to raise the temperature in your hands. What you are really learning is to relax the vessels to allow blood back through. It can be likened to any body measurement such as taking a temperature or reading blood work in that it provides useful information about how you are doing. You can then use that information to improve your condition.

The following definition of biofeedback is the one approved by and adopted by the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback (AAPB and the International Society for Neurofeedback and Research (ISNR) :

“Biofeedback is a process that enables an individual to learn how to change physiological activity for the purposes of improving heath and performance. Precise instruments measure physiological activity such as brainwaves, heart function, breathing, muscle activity, and skin temperature. These instruments rapidly and accurately “feedback” information to the user. The presentation of this information-often in conjunction with changes in thinking, emotions and behavior- supports desired physiological changes. Over time, these changes can endure without continued use of an instrument. “’

You can go to a practitioner’s office for biofeedback or purchase one of several devices designed for home use. If you choose a practitioner in your area make sure they are trained and have certification. Practitioners may utilize one or more types of biofeedback and their equipment may range from a simple computer program that measures one of the following to having a complex system that can provide you with feedback in all of the following areas at once.

Temperature Biofeedback– When you are anxious, your skin temperature is lowered as blood is moving toward muscles and internal organs for “protection” purposes. Learning to control skin temperature like this has been shown to help with the cessation of migraine headaches as it directs blood flow back to extremities. This is one measurement that is typically included in the home devices.

Electromyogram (EMG) – The EMG measures muscle tension by reading signals from sensors placed over the muscles to be monitored. For example, neck and shoulder as well as facial muscles are typically contracted in an anxious individual and the person learns to relax using the “feedback”.

Galvanic Skin Response (GSH) – This type is also known as Electrodermal Response (EDR) This measures electrical conductance in the skin, which is actually associated with the processes of the sweat glands. The more stressed or anxious you are the more sweat gland activity is going on and the device gives you a measurement that you are then taught to manipulate by will.

Electroencephalogram (EEG) – The EEG measures and provides feedback regarding brain wave activity. This is the least precise and most complicated form of Biofeedback and chances are you will not experience it unless you visit a practitioner with all the bells and whistles.

Heart Rate Variability (HRV)-This measurement is based on the idea that our emotional state affects our heart rate. What is measured is the subtle beat to beat shifts in heart rate. HRV is thought to be affected by emotions, thoughts and environmental stressors. This heart rhythm pattern indicates how your nervous system is being affected by stress. Sympathetic nervous system arousal is indicated in the distressed individual with a visual display of a jagged heart rhythm. As the individual shifts to a more positive state the parasympathetic system kicks in and produces pattern changes to a smooth rhythmic pattern. Both Sympathetic and Parasympathetic are regulated by the Autonomic Nervous System.

This type of measurement can be done at home with the EmWave device. It is believed that positive emotions induce better thinking, which is why we are more creative or find insight into problems when we are not stressed. This technique is utilized in peak performance training. The benefits of HRV coherence are improved cardiovascular and cognitive performance, better decision making, reduced pain sensitivity and improved reaction times among others.

Biofeedback is particularly good for those with panic and anxiety who suffer dizziness, lightheadedness and fear of passing out. It is utilized for treating anxiety and stress, high blood pressure, attention problems, a variety of physical ailments that are either believed to be caused by or exacerbated by stress. It is also widely used by trainers and coaches to improve performance in executives, performers and professional athletes.

Let’s say you experience anxiety to a very unpleasant level. When the body is anxious, breathing, temperature and other bodily responses are off normal or off what is ideal. Stressful events and thoughts produce strong feelings or emotions that bring with them many physical responses. These responses are generally controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, which is the system in charge of emergencies.

The typical response of the body is for the gastrointestinal system to slow down, you begin to sweat or feel hot, your pupils dilate, and blood vessels contract while those in the muscles and brain dilate to increase oxygen. Your heart may beat faster, and your blood pressure rises. If the event is specific and situational you will return to normal functioning when the danger has passed. If the event is ongoing, such as fears or ongoing abuse, your body may live in that state and it may feel normal to you even though you know at some level you are uncomfortable.

I have mentioned in previous posts how your thoughts dictate your physiological responses. Biofeedback is the tool that gives you the visual on this phenomenon. I find that some clients are better visual learners and they like the “proof” that this is working. Learning theory also indicates that the more modalities in which you are taught something the more it sinks in.

Here is an example of how this works. You are hooked up to the machine and thinking your normal scary thoughts. You see the colors or lights or sounds the machine is registering and they indicate a high level of distress. You then use cognitive techniques and self-talk to tone this down a bit and take control. So if your thought is “I will never be happy or feel normal”, chances are the machine is telling you your body isn’t happy with this thought. You then replace that thought with something like “I am working toward happiness and am a good person”. Your body and the device will show you the difference.

Breathing itself is an important concept, although as long as we are doing it we take it for granted that we are doing it OK. One reason we get lightheaded is not because we are going crazy but because we aren’t getting the right amount of oxygen, same concept as if you had taken the train or hiked to Pike’s Peak, there is not sufficient oxygen in the air for some people and they become woozy. No imminent danger or catastrophe, simply woozy. Get some air, and you are all set. The Biofeedback devices help teach you the proper breathing and visually demonstrate what is the ideal breathing rhythm for you. Until you pay attention to it you don’t realize you are even breathing improperly. You will feel better immediately when you take control of your breathing and physical responses.

The companies who have designed the biofeedback programs have made them into fun games also. The Freeze Framer program sold by HeartMath includes a “game” where you watch a hot air balloon floating in the sky and based on your ability to calm yourself and reach “coherence” the balloon soars over the sky or gets “stuck” on an obstacle. Based on your temperature and breathing there is a game in the Wild Divine package that builds a rock wall or takes your rocks away. I find that clients like the games and therefore it takes the emphasis off dysfunction and places it on learning optimal functioning. They are teaching you control and how to relax and be more effective.

The portable devices such as Stress Eraser by Helicor and EmWave by HeartMath allow you to carry them with you and utilize the techniques on the go. Many clients have difficulties with anxiety in public, driving, traveling or at work and these allow usage while in the midst of the real life stressor. This is very effective and both devices are easily learned.

What this really teaches you is that you can be in control of things you probably thought you could not control. You see it happening in real time, right in front of you. A calm mind is a calm body.

You will enjoy better focus and productivity, better relationships and better health. I have had success with many clients over time with this process and the common denominator with their feedback was the relief they reported feeling knowing that they could control the panic, anxiety and terror that was keeping them from ever fully enjoying themselves.

The Professional Association for Biofeedback is called –The Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback

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Biofeedback For Anxiety and Stress Relief

Audrey Sherman, Ph.D.

Dr. Audrey Sherman is a licensed psychologist, coach and the author of the book Dysfunction Interrupted-How to Quickly Overcome Depression, Anxiety and Anger Starting Now. Her expertise is in defining, describing and transforming dysfunctional behavior and thought patterns learned in childhood or beyond that keep you anxious, depressed, angry, stuck in unhappy and unproductive relationships, jobs and more. Dr. Sherman developed the Dysfunctional Patterns Quiz and other free resources to help you determine the effects of these on your life. She works with individuals, conducts live and online workshops and trains others in her programs. To learn more about Dr. Sherman, you can visit her website.

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APA Reference
Sherman, A. (2016). Biofeedback For Anxiety and Stress Relief. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 8 Sep 2016
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