Biofeedback is a technique that trains people to improve their health by controlling certain bodily processes that normally happen involuntarily, such as heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and skin temperature. Electrodes attached to your skin measure these processes and display them on a monitor. With help from a biofeedback therapist, you can learn to change your heart rate or blood pressure, for example. At first you use the monitor to see your progress, but eventually you will be able to achieve success without the monitor or electrodes. Biofeedback is an effective therapy for many conditions, but it is primarily used to treat high blood pressure, tension headache, migraine headache, chronic pain, and urinary incontinence.
There is a variety of biofeedback devices on the market today. At the Center, we use HeartMath technology. Browse nearly 4,000 PubMed articles on HRV clinical significance, or find well organized research documents at www.heartmath.org.
Picture this scenario. A quickly beating heart, sweaty palms, shallow breath and focusing on one thing—staying alive. Driving downhill in Pittsburgh on black ice petrified him. His mentor, however, entered the office with a smile and calmly shook the snow off her boots. Notice that the stressor was the same. One chose a sympathetic nervous system mediated response, while the other chose a more coherent response.
When one chronically chooses to respond with depleting emotions, such as anxiety or fear, these emotions create a sympathetic nervous system cascade and a stress hormone cascade. The sympathetic pathway regulates the ‘fight or flight’ response, which was historically used to intermittently run away from tigers and bears.
Today, one experiences chronic triggers such as work, travel, family and health issues. The parasympathetic system is used for ‘rest and digest.’ Both pathways are essential for our survival and comprise the autonomic nervous system. However most people tend to overuse the sympathetic pathway, leading to sequela, including constricted heart vessels and increased blood pressure. Fear and anxiety also induce cortisol production, a stress hormone. Chronically elevated cortisol levels may lead to obesity, diabetes, immune suppression and activation of the sympathetic pathway.
HeartMath is a heart rhythm feedback method that teaches how to balance one’s system. Heart rate variability (heart rate changes over time) changes when combining heart-focused breathing with renewing emotions such as love and appreciation. The ensuing autonomic nervous system and hormonal cascade benefits the entire body, creates more order and induces what is called coherence. This coherence indicates a balance of the autonomic nervous system.
Chronically feeling depleting emotions such as anger, frustration, anxiety and worry leads to disorder in the heart rate variability and what is termed an incoherent state. Notice the difference between the two graphs.
How does one use the HeartMath method mentioned? A sensor clipped to the earlobe transfers information from the body onto a screen. The graph produced indicates whether a person is more or less coherent. Using colorful graphics, heart-focused breathing, simple techniques and games included in the HeartMath computer program, patients are guided toward a state of coherence. An individualized plan is created with a practitioner to maintain coherence.
Doctors are using HeartMath with patients coping with a number of symptoms including hypertension, POTTS, performance anxiety, ADHD, PTSD and metabolic syndrome. One local patient with performance anxiety shares her story:
“I felt that before HeartMath, I had a very difficult time performing interviews under pressure. I would often lose my train of thought, thus leading to lack of clarity in my speech and a lack of flow throughout the course of the interview. During HeartMath, I admittedly found myself frustrated at several points due to staying in the ‘red’ more often than not. However, while working with my doctor, we found that the phrase “feet on the ground” resonated with me to the point where it would place me in coherence. I utilized this phrase while taking my next performance-based exam and felt that it helped immensely. I did not find myself flustered or terrified at any point throughout the interviews. I am sincerely thankful for this opportunity and will continue to use this throughout my career.”