NASA uses it to train pilots how to stay calm and focused during combat missions. Corporations use it to help stressed-out executives deal with confrontational clients and take fewer sick days. It’s even being used at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego to help returning troops deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. So just what is biofeedback? In the simplest of terms, biofeedback treatment is a tool. Much like a thermometer provides you with feedback concerning your body temperature, EEG biofeedback equipment allows us to gather valuable information about how your brain is working by monitoring its electrical activity.
Typically, sensors are applied to the scalp to measure activity in different areas of the brain. This information is recorded and displayed in a form that can be displayed on a monitor. The therapist can coach the client toward more desirable electrical patterns. In Neurotherapy brain wave activity is monitored, displayed, and fed back to the client to help reregulate irregular brain activity. Armed with this data and guided imagery, the therapist can help direct the patient toward more desirable brainwave patterns. In many cases, the therapist and client work together to decrease activity in the slow-moving Theta wave range (4-7hz) and increase activity in the faster-moving Beta wave range (15-18hz).
The primary focus of biofeedback has shifted and we are learning that the electrical performance of the brain plays an important role in how we respond to stress-producing situations. This form of biofeedback and stress therapy is called neurofeedback. Doctors estimate that over 50% of office visits are stress-related, and stress management has become a hot-button issue. Often, the goal is to change habitual responses to stress by learning how to identify triggers that set off unpleasant or painful episodes. Although the sympathetic nervous system still governs the body’s actions in “fight or flight” situations, research has shown that we have greater control over involuntary responses such as heart rate and breathing than was once thought. If only we could relax.
Biofeedback relaxation is a key component of the biofeedback philosophy and is central to most effective recoveries. One of the problems many people face is that they have trouble recognizing what a relaxed state feels like, at least one that is not induced by drugs or alcohol. Since they don’t know or can’t identify genuine relaxation, they have no model on which to build. For these people, a heavy dose of Alpha wave training may be the route to a more peaceful daily existence. Alpha wave production is associated with feelings of openness and calmness. Perhaps that’s why biofeedback therapy works so well for people with anxiety and panic attacks.
Since breathing and relaxation go hand in hand, better control of respiration is one way biofeedback helps bring down elevated heart rates and high blood pressure. Individuals learn techniques they can use on their own to avoid reacting to situations in harmful preprogrammed ways. In a sense, a person is reprogramming his/her brain to respond in ways that don’t make their system go haywire. Often, yoga and other centering techniques like meditation are used in conjunction with biofeedback to enhance results.
Video games may just turn out to be a blessing after all. As a parent, you may question the wisdom of letting your child play video games to treat hyperactivity, but a closer look reveals solid reasons for this approach. Think about it for a moment: What better way is there to get a kid to go to the doctor than by using a video game as the treatment delivery system of choice? After all, there’s an entire generation of gamers out there just waiting to get to the next level.
Here’s a brief example of how this simple reward system works. A child has electrodes attached to the scalp or wears a helmet that monitors brainwave activity. On screen, a boat sits by the edge of the lake. The child’s goal is to move the boat from one side of the lake to the other, let’s say from the boathouse to a pier. The joystick has been removed and, in effect, the child’s brainwave activity becomes the controller. So if we want to get a fidgety and highly excitable kid to learn to sit more calmly and focus, the only way for the child to get the boat across is to learn how to be totally relaxed. Without this, the boat simply won’t move. The more relaxed and focused the child is, the greater control he/she has over the boat.
For adults and non-gamers, other audiovisual stimuli are used to steer patients in the right direction. If the object is to slow one’s heart rate, a flashing light pulses accordingly until the targeted heart rate is achieved, then the light stops flashing. Similar approaches are used with beeps and tones to let patients know when they have reached proper brainwave function.
When visiting a biofeedback therapist, it might be useful to think of it in terms of a golfer seeking the help of a golf pro. The pro asks the golfer what areas of his “game” he feels are weak and what areas he would like to work on. The pro then observes the client’s swing, stance, approach and other mechanics important to a good game. He may even record movements on videotape or monitor performance with more advanced equipment. Then, along with suggestions from the pro, the client can see exactly what needs work and where things are going wrong. If a severe slice is being caused by poor stance, the stance is worked on until the slice is gone or minimized. Likewise, if a person’s psychological stance is affecting his/her game, the feedback practitioner can help the client adjust their stance to yield more favorable results and, eventually, better scores. In the same way the golf pro offers tips, the biofeedback professional offers support, advice and understanding of the client’s problems and is never critical or judgmental.
Dr. Joseph N. O’Donnell & Associates serves patients in the Cook County, IL communities of NorthWest Suburban and Chicago Northshore, including Des Plaines, IL and surrounding cities of Des Plaines, Mount Prospect, IL, Glenview, IL, Northbrook, IL, Schaumburg, IL and surrounding cities of Schaumburg, Arlington Heights, IL and Hoffman Estates, IL.
To schedule an appointment with one of our doctors, please call our office at 847.298.6446 or use our online Request an Appointment form. For additional information on any condition, treatment or procedure, please visit our Health Education Library.