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Biofeedback: Can you teach your body to lose stress?
October 19th, 2011
03:39 PM ET

Biofeedback: Can you teach your body to lose stress?

Editor's note: CNN contributor Amanda Enayati ponders the theme of seeking serenity: the quest for well-being and life balance in stressful times.

When it comes to stress relief methods for me, the devil is in the execution. More likely than not, I will stack whatever it is (or an article or book about it) on my bedside table and expect it to sink in through magic and osmosis. Alas …

I got a call early last week from my friend Parvathi, who works for a Washington clinical psychologist specializing in cognitive therapy for patients with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. “You need to check out some of these biofeedback devices for stress,” she said. “My doctor has a few of them in the office. He lends them out to patients who are having anxiety."

I was skeptical. When I actually saw a picture of one of them, the question was obvious: How do you reduce stress by sticking your finger into a socket thingy and breathing for a while?

“Biofeedback is remarkable,” said Erik Peper, a San Francisco State University professor who has been involved in self-regulation and stress management for decades as both a teacher and a clinician.

He proceeded to lead me through a 30-second breathing exercise on the phone that left me lightheaded. “You see? Even small changes in your breathing can make a significant difference in your physiology — in your body, mind and emotions.”

Very simply put, the science behind guided biofeedback has to do with heart rate variability, or the variation in the beat-to-beat interval of your heart rate. Researchers have found a significant link between reduced heart rate variability and a decreased quality of life, including greater stress, pain and worry, and a host of other conditions. Higher heart rate variability is associated with better overall physical and emotional health, as well as with a reduced risk for stress-related illnesses. Guided biofeedback devices may help increase heart rate variability — and possibly benefit a host of other physiological functions, like keeping the blood pressure constant and less reactive — by calculating and establishing optimal breathing patterns. According to Paul Lehrer, a psychologist and psychophysiologist from UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, “In biofeedback, heart rate variability is about five to 10 times higher than if you’re just sitting there breathing normally.”

“It’s a brand new technique that’s about 2,500 years old,” joked Richard Gevirtz, professor of psychology at the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University. “Yogis and swamis used these same methods when they wanted to be calm and stress-free. We started using biofeedback techniques about 20 years ago with clinical equipment that measures heart rate and respiration as a feedback modality. We had patients try to maximize the valleys and peaks of their heart rate using a slow breathing technique. We used biofeedback clinically with disorders that we thought were stress-related — like headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, insomnia and pain — and we have had some remarkable successes.”

There are several biofeedback devices on the market. StressEraser, emWave and MyCalmBeat were the three most mentioned by the psychologists I interviewed. “I like them all. They all do the same thing,” Lehrer said.

I personally tested the StressEraser and MyCalmBeat. I appreciated the StressEraser’s small size and portability; I used it as I lay in bed and also took it out with me on a few occasions to use when I had a free moment (including on the sideline at my 5-year-old’s soccer game. “Really?” groaned my husband).

I also liked MyCalmBeat, which connects to the computer and has a heart rate monitor clips to the ear instead of the index finger, because I found the visual of rhythmically expanding and deflating lungs helpful to follow along with. (MyCalmBeat also has apps for most smartphones.)

Two of the psychologists I spoke to mentioned liking emWave’s protocols and data displays.

The experts all seemed to agree on the benefit of using a biofeedback device, at least at first. And though clearly there’s some overlap, biofeedback is different from meditation in the sense that the biofeedback monitor allows you to know in the moment whether your body is having the desirable physiological reactions. “The advantage of the equipment is that it gives you the immediacy of feedback. It also provides the distraction of looking at the screen,” Peper said.

Lehrer, who has had compelling success in studies using biofeedback in the context of asthma, noted that when people are properly trained in the breathing technique and they practice it twice a day every day for 20 minutes for at least three months, it has a significant effect on their day-to-day stress reactions, even when they’re not doing biofeedback.

Lehrer told an amusing anecdote about whether biofeedback is considered a conventional or alternative medicine therapy.

“When I applied to the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine for funding to do biofeedback studies of asthma, they wrote me back and said it was not their bailiwick because biofeedback was too established and too scientific. Then when I wrote the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute for funding, they said it was too complementary. But ultimately I convinced NHLBI, because they’re now funding me. They consider it an experimental procedure worthy of further research.”


soundoff (35 Responses)
  1. Thortek

    That chick in the main header photograph is hot

    October 19, 2011 at 21:31 | Report abuse | Reply
    • ELISSA

      biofeed back doesn't work thortec, if you have your head up your ass!!

      October 19, 2011 at 21:44 | Report abuse |
  2. ELISSA

    I FIRMLY BELIEVE THE MIND CAN CHANNEL THE BODY IN THE DIRECTION YOU SO DESIRE. I'VE BEEN INTO BIOFEED BACK SINCE 1970. IT HAS ALLE VATED HOT/COLD FLASHES, MENSE PAIN AND LOTS OF OTHER PAINS INCLUDING MY INLAWS!!. I CAN CONTROL MY BLOOD PRESSURE ALMOST LIKE A SWITCH...UP DOWN. THE MORE YOU BELIEVE AND PRACTICE THE EASIER IT BECOMES.TRY IT YOU'LL LIKE IT!

    October 19, 2011 at 21:41 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Kate

      Biofeedback works to help some conditions yes, but it is not a panacea for all of life's hassles. You know what is, though? The placebo effect.

      October 19, 2011 at 22:53 | Report abuse |
    • memememe

      YOUR POST IS STRESSING ME OUT!!!

      October 20, 2011 at 00:12 | Report abuse |
    • memememe

      PERHAPS IF I BREATH REALLY DEEP I WILL STOP SHOUTING!!!!

      October 20, 2011 at 00:14 | Report abuse |
    • MsCommunication

      Thanks for making me laugh JackofAllTirades. I feel guilty now.

      October 20, 2011 at 07:48 | Report abuse |
    • Lrene malls

      i am suffering with over eating , with diabetes 2
      I have sold my life to trying all kind of supplements and has ran out of cash.
      I have stress related binging and spending , and heard about Bio-feed back,
      I need to know weather or not there is a recommendation here in my own town.
      please email me .

      December 16, 2012 at 16:07 | Report abuse |
    • Michael Townsend Williams

      Would love you to try Breathe Sync for iPhone – it's a simple biofeedback breathing app that measures heart rate variability.

      December 3, 2013 at 10:12 | Report abuse |
  3. will

    wow, the good doctor had the author breath in and out real fast, and voila – she hyperventilated! This is newsworthy!

    October 19, 2011 at 22:07 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Kate

      hahahahahhahahaha!!!!

      October 19, 2011 at 22:56 | Report abuse |
  4. Bobby

    We need to do more non-biased research into Alternative therapies and start moving away from drugs with all their side-effects

    October 19, 2011 at 22:16 | Report abuse | Reply
    • RL

      Therapies that have been proven to work aren't alternative, they're just medicine. The "alternative" treatments you speak of aren't proven to work... that's why they're "alternative" to begin with.

      October 20, 2011 at 00:25 | Report abuse |
  5. Kate

    NIMH has funded multiple biofeedback studies. Perhaps they just didn't fund HIS study.

    October 19, 2011 at 22:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Alex Povolotski

    It is amazing how those so called "doctors" claim the invention or discovery of so and so when this breathing techniques and other "biological feedback" mechanisms have been practiced for millennia by the Chinese in their Tai Chi practices and by Tantra technicians.

    October 19, 2011 at 22:58 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Aeryn

      “It’s a brand new technique that’s about 2,500 years old,” joked Richard Gevirtz, professor of psychology at the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University"

      You fail.

      October 20, 2011 at 15:16 | Report abuse |
  7. Joe

    Biofeedback definitely does help. it cured my IBS and panic attacks and made me look at life from a different angle.

    October 20, 2011 at 00:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. memememe

    I've found that if I whack my head against a pole I get really dizzy.....he he.

    October 20, 2011 at 00:16 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. RealGlaird

    Short of it; it does work. I've been using combo of focused meditation and biofeedback relaxation techniques for 30 years.

    You'd think that urologists would recognize gout and textbook symptoms of kidney stones. But then veterinarians knew ulcers were caused by bacteria, while high priests of medicines were butchering people by removing large sections of their stomachs; "due to stress". Well, for 22 years I was told I was crazy.(Look who is calling the kettle black.) I was able, in about 1 or 2 dozen sessions to identify the muscles, autonomic responses, and generally tight tissue surrounding the location of the stones, and relax them. That led to a noticeable relief in pain. That led to a sense of control over the seemingly erratic and unpredictable nature of my symptoms. That led to less stress, rest at night, and function during the day when I needed to concentrate.
    I now suffer from other chronic pains. I use the same techniques with varying levels of success.
    Current fashionable thinking among pain specialists is the belief that one can reprogram the network of neural paths in the pain center of the brain. I don't know if that is possible. I haven't any anecdotal or hard evidence of success. But, the physical relaxation was and is real and immediate.

    October 20, 2011 at 00:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. worked for me

    Biofeedback worked for me but I was receiving it for a specific problem with pelvic pain. Biofeedback helped me learn when I was tensing my pelvic floor muscles and how best to relax them. It's made a HUGE difference in my quality of life. I would recommend it to anyone who has the same problem I had.

    October 20, 2011 at 03:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. KlausVos

    GTFO with your Chiropractic pseudo-science.

    October 20, 2011 at 07:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. JS

    Excellent video, very enlightening!

    October 20, 2011 at 07:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Lisa Howell

    My son has ADD and we used biofeedback as a treatment to help "slow down" his brain activity and help hiim focus. It has really helped him and I would recommend it highly.

    October 20, 2011 at 10:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. NJ Hypnotist James Malone

    Great article! Biofeedback does undoubtedly help many, however I would point out that while the instruments can enable some to better harness the healing force/energy/intelligence/etc.of the patient, the real magic is already inside you! Have a healthy day everyone!

    October 20, 2011 at 12:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. farie710

    Wow...

    First off, the sacrum is PART OF the SPINE! "Spinal platform" my rear end. Ha! That's funny! Anyway, the sacrum is made of 5 vertebrae that are fused together. Also, that "triangular shaped bone" they talk about doesn't just include the sacrum but also the coccyx, which can be 3 or 4 vertebrae that are fused together. At birth these are not "fused" together but are one in adulthood with development.
    Secondly, good posture is important because it does lessen the tension on muscles, but lets not lie here; there are many more culprits in back pain that just poor posture. The human body is an amazing thing that must be at balance, equilibrium, or homeostasis. You can't just blame one thing on all of back pain or any pain for that matter.

    PS: Doctors do know the importance of posture... They just also know the importance of everything else that plays a role in your health, and, for example, when your cholesterol is 315, doctors deem it more important than how you sit since if you don't fix that cholesterol, you won't be sitting much longer.

    October 21, 2011 at 14:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Smooth

    Riding a bike is the best ! Riding 50miles is very relaxing. When your done, you'll feel great. So don't give up until you get the ability to do a few 50s.

    October 21, 2011 at 17:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. vijay

    Yogis and Swamis were not after relaxation by doing Meditation as stated in this article, they were after a much higher goal of merging with the absolute reality. We in western countries are trying to look at Meditation from a objective perspective by seeing the materialistic gains of practising it. Obviously we will be rewarded (as our intention) but we need to understand what the significance of this practice is for higher goals.

    October 22, 2011 at 13:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. tolerance3

    Thank you for doing this article. I first learned biofeedback techniques nearly 40 years ago at the Menninger Foundation. As technology has improved, the types of biofeedback have become more sophisticated. Yes, the breathing techniques date from ancient times, but our ability to identify exactly how and why they work is the contribution of Western science. BTW, (for Klaus) this has absolutely nothing to do with chiropractic.

    October 23, 2011 at 15:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Upton O'Goode

    Never underestimate the power of ignorance.. Robert Heinlein

    October 24, 2011 at 18:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Carol

    Clinicians worldwide are using biofeedback with great success to treat a variety of conditions, including stress. Thanks for your post!

    October 28, 2011 at 10:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Maxie Lahr

    Your use of such emphatic words in your article shows an intense excitement in what you are trying to convey. Keep up the good work!

    November 30, 2011 at 11:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Bjarte Bakke

    I enjoy your focus on bio-feedback and stress in particular. Keep your reserach going, I'm learning something new from every article. Do check out http://www.rethinkingtruth.com for a 2-week eating experiment that will not only reduce stress but provide lots of energy, postive emotions, and calm too.

    Regards from Norway!

    October 28, 2012 at 09:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Britt Carota

    It may seem that there’s nothing you can do about stress. The bills won’t stop coming, there will never be more hours in the day, and your career and family responsibilities will always be demanding. But you have more control than you might think. In fact, the simple realization that you’re in control of your life is the foundation of stress management. Managing stress is all about taking charge: of your thoughts, emotions, schedule, and the way you deal with problems.*

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    April 14, 2013 at 03:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Amelia

    My employer uses an internet based wellness program and it works really well to keep employee stress levels low while allowing employees access to flexible wellness coaching, but the biggest wellness hit around the office is the little chair massages we get once a month from this massage company, Incorporate Massage.

    September 6, 2013 at 17:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Michael Townsend Williams

    My new biofeedback breathing app for iPhone uses the camera to measure heart rate variability and get your breathing in sync. At less than $10 I think it offers an affordable way to reduce stress fast by breathing in sync with your heart. You also get an objective measure we call WQ do you can track your progress.

    December 3, 2013 at 10:10 | Report abuse | Reply

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