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What is biofeedback?
Biofeedback is a treatment technique in which people are trained to improve their health by using signals from their own bodies. Physical therapists use biofeedback to help stroke victims regain movement in paralyzed muscles. Psychologists use it to help tense and anxious clients learn to relax. Specialists in many different fields use biofeedback to help their patients cope with and dissolve pain. Chances are you have used biofeedback yourself. You’ve used it if you have ever taken your temperature or stepped on a scale. The thermometer tells you whether you’re running a fever, the scale whether you’ve gained weight. Both devices “feed back” information about your body’s condition. Armed with this information, you can take steps you’ve learned to improve your condition. When you’re running a fever, you go to bed and drink plenty of fluids. When you’ve gained weight, you resolve to diet and sometimes you do. Clinicians rely on complicated biofeedback instruments in somewhat the same way that you rely on your scale or thermometer. These instruments can detect a person’s internal bodily functions with far greater sensitivity and precision than a person can alone. This information may be valuable. Both patients and therapists use it to gage and direct the progress of treatment. For patients, the biofeedback machine acts as a kind of sixth sense which allows them to “see”, “hear” or “feel” activity inside their bodies. One commonly used type of instrument, for example, picks up electrical signals from the brain and converts them into a form that patients can detect: It triggers a flash grow more tense. If patients want to relax tense muscles, they learn to slow down the flashing or beeping. Like a pitcher learning to throw a ball across home plate, the biofeedback trainee, in an attempt to improve a skill, monitors his/her performance. When a pitch is off the mark, the ballplayer adjusts delivery so that he performs better the next time he tries. When the light flashes or the beeper beeps too often, the biofeedback trainee makes internal adjustments which alter the signals. The biofeedback therapist acts as a coach, standing at the sidelines setting goals and limits on what to expect and giving hints on how to improve performance light or, perhaps activates a beeper every time muscles.
How does biofeedback work?
Scientists explain how biofeedback works. Most patients who benefit from biofeedback are trained to relax and thus modify their behaviors. Most scientists believe that relaxation is a key component in biofeedback treatment of many disorders, particularly those brought on or made worse by stress. Their reasoning is based on what is known about the effects of stress on the body. In brief, the argument goes like this: Stressful events produce strong emotions, which arouse certain physical responses. Many of these responses are controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, the network of nerves which prepare the body to meet emergencies by “fight or flight”. The typical pattern of response to emergencies probably emerged during the time when humans faced mostly physical threats. Although the “threats” we now live with are seldom physical, the body reacts as if they were: The pupils dilate to let in more light. Sweat pours out, reducing the chance of skin cuts. Blood vessels near the skin contract to reduce bleeding, while those in the brain and muscles dilate to increase oxygen supply. The gastrointestinal tract, including the stomach and intestines, slows down to reduce the energy expended in digestion. The heart beats faster, and the blood pressure rises. Normally, people calm down when a stressful event is over—especially if they have done something to cope with it. For instance, imagine your own reactions if you’re walking down a dark street and hear someone running toward you. You get scared. Your body prepares you to ward off an attacker or run fast enough to get away. When you escape, you gradually relax. If you get angry at your boss, it’s a different matter. Your body may prepare to fight. But since you want to keep your job, you try to ignore the angry feelings. Similarly, if on the way home you get stalled in traffic, there’s nothing you can do to get away. These situations can literally make you sick. Your body has prepared for action, but you cannot act. Individuals differ in the way they respond to stress. In some, one function, such as blood pressure, becomes more active while others remain normal. Many experts believe that these individual physical responses to stress can become habitual. When the body is repeatedly aroused, one or more functions may become permanently overactive. Actual damage to bodily tissues may eventually result. Biofeedback is often aimed at changing habitual reactions to stress that can cause pain or disease. Many clinicians believe that some of their patients and clients have forgotten how to relax. Feedback of physical responses such as skin temperature and muscle tension provides information to help patients recognize a relaxed state. The feedback signal may also act as a kind of reward for reducing tension. It’s like a piano teacher whose frown turns to a smile when a young musician finally plays a piece properly. The value of a feedback signal as information and reward may even be greater in the treatment of patients with paralyzed or spastic muscles. With these patients, biofeedback seems to be primarily a form of skill training—like learning to pitch a ball. Instead of watching the ball, the patient watched the machine, which monitors activity in the affected muscle. Stroke victims with paralyzed arms and legs, for example, see that some of their affected limbs remains active. The signal from the biofeedback machine proves it. This signal can guide the exercises that help patients regain use of their limbs. Perhaps, just as important, the feedback convinces patients that the limbs are still alive. This reassurance often encourages them to continue their efforts.
How is biofeedback used today?
Specialists who provide biofeedback training range from psychiatrists and psychologists to dentists, internists, nurses, and physical therapists. Most rely on many other techniques in addition to biofeedback. Patients usually are taught some form of relaxation exercise. Some learn to identify the circumstances that trigger their symptoms. They may also be taught how to avoid or cope with these stressful events. Most are encouraged to change their habits, and some are trained in special techniques for gaining such self-control. Biofeedback is not magic. It is a tool, one of many available to health care professional. It reminds physicians that behavior, thoughts and feelings profoundly influence physical health. And it helps both patients and doctors understand that they must work together as a team.
What is stress?
Stress is our body’s response to ever present stimulation (stressors) in the internal and external environment. The reduction of stress requires normalization of our body’s response to stressors.
What causes stress?
Stressors are everywhere. Some stressors facilitate human growth by preparing our physiology for situations that require action. However, excessive or prolonged stress or poor ability to cope with stressors can negatively affect health and performance.
What can you do to reduce stress?
Stress is cumulative. As the number and intensity of stressors increase, the impact of stress on our health also increases, typically without our awareness. We are first made aware of stress through our physical and emotional symptoms. We then have option to use these symptoms as feedback to teach us which techniques are effective in reducing stress.