Biofeedback, Stress, and the Autonomic Nervous System
Biofeedback works to counteract the effects of stress and bring the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) back into a healthy balance. While some stress is a normal part of life, chronic stress can send the ANS into imbalance and wreak havoc on the mind and body. Some effects of stress as stated by the Mayo Clinic include: headache, muscle tension or pain, chest pain, fatigue, change in sex drive, stomach upset, sleep problems, anxiety, restlessness, lack of motivation or focus, irritability or anger, depression, overeating or under eating, angry outbursts, drug or alcohol abuse, and social withdrawal. We employee biofeedback in our practice to teach our clients how to consciously induce a state of calm and relaxation that when practiced over time, can re-balance the ANS and be a very useful tool in managing stress. These practices can also be integrated used to deepen and enhance spiritual practices.
An important part of understanding how biofeedback works is understanding some basic concepts around the ANS. The ANS's function is to regulate the functions in the body that we do not usually control consciously including breathing, digestion, and heart rate. The ANS has two main parts: the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS). The SNS is responsible for the "fight or flight" response while the PSNS is responsible for the "rest and digest" response. The SNS is activated when we are faced with a stressful situation that requires alertnes and readiness for action while the PSNS activates to return the body to it's normal functions as well as produce a calm resting state. In someone who has experienced chronic stress, the SNS can be conditioned to stay active even when it's functioning would otherwise be inappropriate, keeping one from being able to feel calm and relaxed.
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) training
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) training is a breathing practice that uses the Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) to monitor and feed back information about the variability in heart rate and state of the autonomic nervous system. HRV training helps to bring your autonomic nervous system in to balance, increase vagus nerve tone, lower blood pressure, regulate and decrease overall heart rate, improve mental clarity and focus. We use it to alleviate stress, anxiety, depression, and to help with obsessive rumination. Some variability in heart rate is normal as we breathe; increased variability, within normal limits, is indicative of a healthy autonomic nervous system and healthy arteries. Decreased variability can signify a hyperactive sympathetic nervous system and possibly arteriosclerosis.
Thermal biofeedback is a form of learned self regulation that involves using a thermometer attached to your finger as feedback to learn how to warm your hands. The idea being that when there is an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system, the blood flow to our hands and feet is decreased. By consciously learning to warm the hands, we can help bring the autonomic nervous system back into balance and effectively combat the effects that stress has on the mind and body. Thermal Biofeedback is beneficial for those who suffer from anxiety, digestive disorders, edema, high blood pressure, insomnia, migraines, chronic pain, and Raynaud's disease among many other ailments.
Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) Biofeedback
Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) biofeedback measures the electrical resistance of the skin via sensors placed on the fingers or hand. Excessive sweating from the hands or feet, even when we are not currently experiencing a stressful stimulus, can be an indication of an imbalance in the ANS. When we feel stressed, anxious, or experience pain, our hands and feet naturally begin to perspire. This is a normal function in all mammals and is believed to happen to increase friction on running surfaces to prevent slipping and aid in fleeing from danger. More sweat means more electrolyte rich material to aid in the traveling of electricity therefore there is less resistance. Inversely less sweat means more resistance. By measuring GSR and giving feedback about when resistance increases and decreases, we can learn to decrease how much our hands are perspiring and in doing so, calm and balance the ANS. GSR biofeedback is effective in treating anxiety, psychogenic non-epileptic seizures, pain, symptoms of stress, and it aids in peak performance training.