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How Biofeedback can be helpful

A few years ago, I was in grad school beginning my career as a counselor. I was excited about making a difference in people’s lives. I was learning exciting new words and techniques to help people with their problems. And as a fellow human being, I had some too. My professors knew their students were bright-eyed, bushytailed humans with problems of their own. With this knowledge, they required us to go through at least part of our healing journey in order to graduate. I got on the phone and looked for counselors.

After a lengthy process, I finally landed on a guy who utilized Biofeedback as a part of how he helped guys make good choices in life and control their emotions better. I was excited and eager to get some sense of control over my emotions.

Anyone that deals with anger issues, anxiety, or PTSD knows how difficult it is to mange these things when they rise up inside. As a therapist in training, I had heard about Biofeedback being a very practical measurable way to regulate emotions. I was hooked.

Biofeedback equipment measures how your body responds

Biofeedback uses computer equipment to measure the body’s responses to emotions and other biological functions. There are different types out there that measure a combination of these responses for specific purposes. The equipment measures the biological responses and then tells you how your inner state is doing in real time. Through these real time measurements, you can learn how to adjust your body’s responses and know exactly when you’re able to do this.

So, what does the equipment measure?

  • Blood oxygen levels
  • Heart Beats per minute
  • Heart rate variability
  • Skin temperature
  • Muscle tension
  • Perspiration
  • Brainwaves
  • Types of breaths

Through measuring one, or a combination of these bodily responses, Biofeedback targets a specific area of your body’s functioning. You may have seen runners wearing chest bands along with wristwatches. Through these devices, they are measuring their breathing, heart rate variability, and their heart beats per minute. All of these factors are important for runners to know what type of training to do that day, if they are pushing themselves hard enough, and how much progress they have made in their training program.

So, what does that mean practically?

If a runner wakes up in the morning, measures their HRV, and their HRV is outside of normal ranges, they know that they will need to do a light workout that day in order to maximize their work from the previous days and not over train. If they wake up, go through the same process, and find that their HRV is within normal ranges, they know their body is ready for an intense workout and needs the intensity in order to achieve their goals. They also use these devices to make sure they are running within the intensity set for the workout of the day: if they are running too fast, they run the risk of overtraining; whereas, if they are running too slow, they aren’t doing the intensity needed to increase their speed and endurance.

Similarly, we can focus on measuring the body’s responses to stress, anxiety, and emotional activation through a device like HeartMath, (which I use frequently in session). In utilizing HeartMath, a person wears a sensor on their finger or ear lobe, and the computer program measures their HRV and heart beats per minute. The computer program then gives real time feedback on how ‘calm’ or ‘poised’ the person is vs. how dysregulated or stressed they may be due to unpleasant emotions.

Biofeedback can help measure internal state

We then focus on changing the physical/emotional state of the person through following a breathing coach combined with mental exercises. Think of it as a workout for your emotions. We use the breath coach to regulate breathing, which then regulates your body’s stress response, which tells your mind that all is well and we should calm down. You get information, in real time, on how your internal state is responding to your HRV training. The program tells you if you are able to regulate your internal state or if you need more help with breathing or mental exercises.

Through this process, people learn how to shift their internal state from panic, worry, anger, stressed out, or anxious, to what football players call ‘poised.’ It allows you to build the confidence and skill to be able to shift internal states. This is important because we now know that the more dysregulated a person is, the less likely they are to make sound choices, respond well to a lover, or keep from saying something dumb in the heat of the moment. Now, through this training, people can get out of the chaos their internal world may be putting them through, or find that sweet spot in peak performance training that allows you to operate at your best on the field or in the sport you’re training for.

Many professionals see the importance of Biofeedback in helping people with: anxiety, depression, PTSD, addictions, anger, peak performance training, performance anxiety, and poor heart health. Biofeedback has been well researched and been proven highly effective with these issues. Over the years it has been incorporated into health care, sports science, and mental health. It has become more readily available to everyday people and a source of reprieve for those who have had little success with traditional forms of care.

So you’re hooked, like I was, or at least interested. Now, how do you find Biofeedback devices to practice on?

You can go to a counselor, like myself, for specialized coaching and professional Biofeedback equipment. Typically, this is like going to a physical therapist that has the special equipment to rehabilitate your specific injury. You could go to a regular gym, but they will likely not have the same equipment your physical therapist has and you could still get in a good rehab workout on your own. Home consumer products are available through HeartMath Inner Balance, Spire, various smart watches, Biofeedback bracelets, and the more traditional running chest straps. These have their pros and cons when utilizing them for emotional regulation but are effective in their measurements. Most notably, if you are using them for emotional regulation purposes you’ll need to know how to train for this specifically when using a sports specific tracker.