Stress Relief from Biofeedback

Stressed out? Most people are these days. An effective way to relieve stress is through clinical biofeedback. In the late 1960s, the term biofeedback was coined at the first meeting of the Biofeedback Research Society. The concepts of biofeedback date back to the classical conditioning theory of Pavlov, every stimulus produces a response through association, and operant conditioning theory of Thorndike, behaviors can be changed by redirected thought processes. Until 1960 it was believed that the autonomic nervous system was reflexive in nature, influenced only by classical conditioning, not conscious thought. Biofeedback is now considered an operant conditioning, wherein an individual can learn to control specific physiological functions by changing the thoughts and perceptions that produced them.

Clinical biofeedback is the use of monitoring techniques to amplify the electrochemical energy produced by body organs, and requires the assistance of a qualified instructor or therapist. Two organizations that certify therapists in clinical biofeedback training are the Biofeedback Certificate Institute of America (BCIA) and the American Board of Clinical Biofeedback. All therapists practicing biofeedback should have required certification by one of these organizations.

Through biofeedback you can recondition the thought processes associated with increased nervous activity in order to relax and reduce stress. What distinguishes biofeedback from other techniques is that it allows you to increase awareness of your own physiological responses such as breathing, and muscle tension. Biofeedback to relieve stress involves one or more relaxation techniques, including meditation, diaphragmatic breathing, mental imagery, autogenic training, and progressive muscular relaxation. When these relaxation techniques are performed, the nervous system gains a stronger feel for how to relax. Biofeedback emphasizes a strong mind-body-spirit connection. Basically, biofeedback can help you shift the focus of control from an external source, a stressor, to an internal source, your thoughts.

Four types of biofeedback devices are (1) electromyographic (EMG), which measures the contraction of a muscle; (2) electrothermal/skin temperature measurements, which measures changes in blood flow; (3) electrodermal (EDR), which measures changes in perspiration related to anxiety; and (4) electroencephalographic (EEG) which measures brain wave activity. During biofeedback sessions, instruments are attached to parts of the body to observe an involuntary body function or muscles that you may need to control. These instruments feed the information back to the therapist. A tone, whose pitch rises and falls as tension rises and falls, indicates if you are either raising or lowering the tension in your muscles. This is an effective way to learn muscle relaxation. Because there is a strong relationship between stress and coronary heart disease, cardiovascular biofeedback is often used to help control heart rate and blood pressure Portable equipment is available for cardiac patients so that they may monitor their heart rate on a regular basis. The therapist teaches relaxation skills when the biofeedback machine indicates that cardiovascular parameters are above normal levels.

When you meet with a biofeedback therapist, he or she will determine how this treatment can alleviate your stress-related symptoms and which type of biofeedback is best for you. Treatment requires a look at your self-image, your family, your symptoms history, how you cope, how you live, what you like and dislike, what you eat, if you exercise, and many other factors. The number of sessions depends on the severity of the symptoms. Once you are familiar with the technique, you will be given homework assignments to practice the biofeedback therapy on your own.

To find trained biofeedback therapists where you live, contact:

The Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback
10200 W. 44th Avenue
Suite 304
Wheat Ridge, CO 80033-2840
Phone: 1-800-477-8892 / 303-422-8436
Fax: 303-422-8894


Astin, J.A., et al. Mind-Body Medicine: State of the Science, Implications for Practice. The Journal of the American Board of Family Practice 2003; 16:131-147.

Ernst, E. (ed) The Desktop Guide to Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Mosby 2001.

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. “Mind-Body Medicine: An Overview.” Available at:

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