This article is not meant to diagnose or provide medical advice—that responsibility lies with physicians. The author is not a licensed medical professional.
Have you ever heard stories about Yogis who can slow down or stop their own hearts? Elite athletes or special forces personnel who can control their blood pressure? Or Tibetan Buddhist monks who can increase their body temperature? That sounds like magic! Or the work of superpowers! Or at least exaggeration, right? Because those are involuntary bodily functions and we all learned in school that involuntary bodily functions are controlled by the autonomic nervous system, and we can’t control the autonomic nervous system. We can do things to help it function efficiently, but actually affecting them with our minds? Nonsense.
Nope. That’s real. People actually can change those involuntary things with their minds. And, no, it’s not magic. It’s biofeedback.
Photo by Sergey Kohl/Shutterstock
Basically, biofeedback means knowing how your body responds to certain stimuli and being able to use that information to control those responses. To begin a biofeedback session, a technician will hook you up to all sorts of sensors and monitors that provide, you guessed it, feedback, on what your body is doing. Electrodes attached to your skin send impulses to machines that show, through sounds, colors or lines on a grid, what your body is doing in that moment.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Your therapist might use several different biofeedback methods. Determining the method that’s right for you depends on your health problems and goals.” The Mayo Clinic notes that some different methods include:
•Brainwave: This uses sensors affixed to your scalp to measure brain activity via electroencephalograph (EEG).
•Breathing: Where bands are attached around your chest and abdomen to measure respirations.
•Heart Rate: Sensors placed on fingers or earlobes use a device called a photoplethysmograph. Electrocardiograph sensors placed on the torso and wrist are also common to measure heart rate and rhythm.
•Muscle: Electromyography (EMG) uses sensors placed over skeletal muscles that monitor muscular electrical activity.
•Sweat glands: They are measured by electrodermogragh (EDG) sensors placed on fingers, palms or wrists. This device measures sweat gland activity and volume of perspiration.
•Temperature: Dermal thermometers are attached to your skin to measure blood flow and temperature.
The biofeedback technician then guides you through a series of mental exercises. Guided meditation, deep breathing, body awareness and mindfulness are commonly used. As the session progresses, the technician will note which exercises and prompts elicit which responses, and patterns begin to emerge. Soon, with the help of your biofeedback tech, you will know which exercises cause what responses and with practice, you can do it at will, which really is kind of a superpower.
Research suggests that biofeedback is effective in treating issues that are improved by relaxation; high blood pressure, migraine, anxiety and chronic pain respond well to targeted muscle relaxation that is achieved with biofeedback. The benefits go beyond treating relaxation-related disorders. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, everything from ADHD, asthma and autism to spinal cord injuries, diabetes and eating disorders to epilepsy, IBS and head injuries to even bed wetting, motion sickness, constipation, sexual disorders and more have shown improvement when addressed with biofeedback.
Each session usually lasts an hour or so, and depending on the condition or conditions you’re aiming to treat, you may need to go weekly for several months. Some conditions, like migraine or back pain, respond faster than others, like high blood pressure. Plan on seeing results in anywhere from eight to 20 weeks.
That’s the $20000 question. Researchers aren’t sure how it works; studies just show that it does work. If you have a condition you believe would benefit from biofeedback, consult your physician for a referral or recommendation to a reputable clinic.
Kristi is a freelance writer and mother who spends most of her time caring for people other than herself.