By Steven T. Padgitt, Ph.D.
This is the first in a series of articles that will explore Biofeedback as an effective approach in healthcare. Biofeedback is the utilization of technology to "feed-back" an individual's physiologic functioning for the purpose of providing an opportunity to monitor and control that function. The primary aim of this form of treatment is voluntary self regulation. A strong and clear implication is the connection between mind and body. There are many specific medical and emotional dysfunctions, disorders, and diseases that have proven treatable through Biofeedback. Examples of such self regulation will be discussed in this and future issues of the Pal Report.
As the first example, we will consider the generalized stress response experienced by many people functioning in our fast paced culture. This psychophysiological response set includes symptoms such as increased heart rate and blood pressure, hyperventilation, excessive sweating, cold extremities, anxiety, headaches, as well as the more psychological experiences of tension and agitation.
Lets consider Tim, who recently entered my office with the complaint that he was feeling as if he was going to explode with tension. In addition to his agitation, he noted that he was becoming verbally abusive to his family and that he seemed to be losing control over his behavior and emotions. We briefly explored his recent and long term history, as well as the current life events, and found a strong connection between his feelings of stress and his experience of a strong pressure to perform. This pressure had been mounting physically for months and was being experienced and expressed through his anxiety and angry outbursts.
Once these understandings were accomplished we began exploring the associations between his current life events and his powerful stress symptoms. We began by developing a generalized calming response using Biofeedback to signal him, as he became increasingly physiologically relaxed. To do this we employed both skin temperature training and muscle relaxation training.
While at first thought temperature training may appear unrelated to relaxation, a closer look reveals that the ability to alter skin temperature is directly related to relaxing and expanding the capillary walls which increases blood flow and volume within the vessels. Increased blood flow through the tissue warms the tissue. This vascular relaxation response directly opposes the blood vessel constriction that occurs with stress. In learning voluntary vascular relaxation Tim replaced his stress response with a physical relaxation response.
The connection between the experience of tension and muscular constriction is more obvious and easily understood. We found that Tim carried considerable tension in his shoulders. Apparently in response to stress and without any conscious awareness, he reflexively and chronically contracted his shoulder muscles. This continued to unconsciously signal him that something was wrong, and served only to increase his frustration and agitation. Using an EMG Biofeedback sensor placement helped Tim learned to gain conscious control over what had previously been unconscious tension in his shoulders. Learning to change blood vessel and muscle tension provided Tim with a rapid change in his experience of his job, his family, and himself.