Americans are more stressed than ever.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic took center stage in our lives in 2020, many people were already struggling with anxiety, chronic stress, and feelings of disconnect and loneliness.
But the American Psychological Association’s October 2022 Stress Survey found that 27% of adults say that stress impacted their day-to-day functioning so severely they struggled to function, and 34% reported their stress as completely overwhelming most days. Of the adults that reported stress, 76% reported negative impacts on their health.
When it comes to stress management methods, no method is foolproof. Everyone’s body reacts to and carries stress differently. But learning biofeedback for stress management is a helpful tool for improving your mental and bodily well-being.
Biofeedback therapy is a series of non-invasive tests and procedures that analyze the source of stress and anxiety.
It’s still essential to understand the sources of our stress and the messages our bodies send us when feeling anxious. This way, we don’t continue to perpetuate negative feelings through avoidance and can instead address the root causes of these issues.
But body and mind awareness is the central pillar of biofeedback therapy, measuring physiological signals from our bodies to help us learn relaxation techniques we should use for regulating stress and anxiety.
What is stress, and what does it do to your body?
Many of us talk with our friends and family about how stressed we are. Some people even humblebrag about all the stress in their lives: how little sleep they get, how much work they have, how many coffees they need to get through the day.
Despite all this talk, do we really know what stress is?
Stress is our body’s natural reaction to potentially harmful events, triggered by situations that make us feel frustrated, scared, angry, or nervous. We all have different stress triggers. Everyone perceives stressful events differently, meaning what affects one person doesn’t necessarily affect another.
In these situations, our nervous systems send out a fight-or-flight stress response.
Our body may respond in the following ways:
- Increased heart rate and muscle tension
- A rise in body temperature
- Rapid, shallow breathing
- Heightened emotions
- Cold hands and feet
Stress can also be a positive motivator — known as eustress — that helps us overcome deadlines, slam the car brakes to avoid an accident, or adjust to major transitions like promotions or cross-country moves.
In small doses, stress can motivate us, sharpen our focus, or let us know that something is wrong. But when stress accumulates, our body begins to channel that into physical and emotional stress that affects our mind, body, and behavior. Possible physical and emotional ailments may include:
- Muscle tension
- Upset stomach
- Sleep deprivation
- Weight loss and fatigue
- High blood pressure
- Depression and anxiety
- Mood swings
- Feelings of detachment
Sustained stress increases in our heart rate and blood pressure and can have detrimental effects on our physical wellness and mental well-being. Possible health problems related to chronic stress may include:
- Heart disease
- Chronic pain
- Heart attack
- Long-term mental health problems
What is biofeedback?
Biofeedback is a non-invasive psychophysiology procedure that gives us a better understanding of how our bodies respond to stress. This allows patients to learn techniques to recognize their stress responses and focus their attention on stress management.
Who developed biofeedback as a technique to treat combat stress?
Many researchers have contributed to developing biofeedback techniques based on the understanding of our natural stress responses. With this in mind, they have developed procedures to measure our bodies’ natural response mechanisms to treat patients of all backgrounds.
What biofeedback procedures are available?
Biofeedback therapy is most often performed by licensed medical practitioners, such as doctors, registered nurses, physical therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists who have completed a board-certified biofeedback program. There are programs at accredited universities throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, and Australia.
During a biofeedback procedure, a specialized biofeedback therapist connects electrical sensors to the patient’s skin. These electrodes send information to a monitoring box and are analyzed to understand the way that the body involuntarily responds to stressors.
Which type of biofeedback you use will depend on your mental and physical health goals and conversations with your biofeedback therapist. Some biofeedback examples include:
- Body and skin temperature. Sensors clipped onto your fingers or feet measure blood flow to your skin. Your body and skin temperature often lower during stress. A patient with low skin temperature will be instructed to use relaxation techniques to keep their temperature up.
- Brain waves. Scalp sensors are used to analyze your brain waves with an electroencephalograph (EEG). The brain wave procedure measures neurofeedback, focusing on the central nervous system. Brain wave procedures are used to help patients better control ADHD, addiction, anxiety, depression, and other brain-related conditions.
- Breathing patterns. Wearable bands are placed around your chest and abdomen to analyze your breathing rate. Accelerated breathing is associated with stress that can be controlled with breathing techniques and relaxation exercises.
- Muscle tension. Sensors placed over your skeletal muscles detect electrical activity that creates muscle contraction with an electromyograph (EMG). Muscle tension is measured for patients with chronic pain by understanding which muscles involuntarily stress and how to relax them with various exercises.
- Heart rate. Earlobe or finger sensors are connected to a biofeedback device that monitors changes in your blood volume. Alternatively, sensors attached to your chest, lower abdomen, or wrists measure your heart rhythm variation with an electrocardiograph (ECG). An accelerated heart rate is a sign of stress and anxiety that can be relieved with breathing techniques.
- Sweat. Sensors attached around your fingers, wrist, or palms monitor the volume of sweat produced using an electrodermograph (EDG). High perspiration levels are associated with stress and can be relieved with relaxation exercises.
What can you learn from biofeedback?
Our nervous system constantly sends us signals related to our stress levels and emotional state. These signals are difficult to detect if we don’t know what we’re looking for. Often, we don’t realize that we’re stressed until the problem becomes too big to ignore, like chronic depression, anxiety, or physical pain.
Biofeedback treatments are designed to build awareness of your body’s reactions in real-time and, with practice, improve your ability to detect and regulate your emotions.
Using biofeedback to lead a healthier life
Depending on their mental or physical health goals, patients need anywhere from 10–20 sessions to see positive results. During each session, the biofeedback therapist guides patients through stress management exercises.
Sessions typically last an hour and teach a variety of relaxation techniques to practice at home. Eventually, patients will have the proper tools and knowledge to apply these techniques on their own.
Some new biofeedback techniques may include:
With practice, biofeedback constructs an awareness of your body and, with continued use, will make you more effective at self-regulating negative emotions and taking healthy steps toward bettering your mental and physical well-being.
Biofeedback: Success stories of stress management
Research has found a number of success stories associated with biofeedback treatments.
Patients in the Polish study represented a broad spectrum of conditions, and the study demonstrated that biofeedback and neurofeedback treatments were suitable for the following mental disorders:
- ADD and ADHD
- Substance abuse
- Alzheimer’s disease
All of the studies confirmed biofeedback is a valuable method for treating people with diagnosed mental disorders. Additionally, it’s an effective stress management tool for people experiencing both normal and elevated levels of stress.
The benefits of using biofeedback
The world is a stressful place. Our lives move quickly, and it’s often difficult to understand the stress our minds and bodies are experiencing until the symptoms become overwhelming.
Biofeedback is a proven and safe method for stress management. Here are a few reasons to begin biofeedback training:
- It’s non-invasive. Biofeedback devices are non-invasive and don’t come with the risk of side effects or complications.
- It grants you a better understanding of your body. With a little bit of practice and guidance from your biofeedback therapist, you’ll become more in touch with your body. This will empower you to make the necessary adjustments for stress relief, relaxation, and better bodily function.
- It can lead to more effective use of medications. Biofeedback and neurofeedback techniques go straight to the source of your stress. Understanding where the stress comes from can help one’s need for treatment with medication.
- It gives you control over your emotions. Learning to be more aware of your emotions will help you detect stressors before they become too overwhelming or grow to become a chronic issue.
Finding new ways to relax
Stress is a natural part of life — none of us can escape it completely. But we all deserve to have the tools to better manage stress so when it does rear its head, we don’t suffer.
Biofeedback offers a safe and gentle approach to stress management that teaches you how to relieve anxiety. As an added bonus, you’ll walk away with a better understanding of your mind and body and better equipped to combat stress in the future.