Biofeedback is a technique that involves monitoring a person’s physiological state and sending information about it back to that individual. The accumulated data allow individuals to consciously control aspects of their physiology—using relaxation techniques to slow down heart rate, for example—and this learning is used to help manage symptoms of a variety of medical and psychological conditions.
Neurofeedback is a form of biofeedback that involves information about brain activity detected through a method such as electroencephalogram (EEG). Other common forms of biofeedback include electromyography biofeedback (which measures muscle tension), thermal biofeedback (which measures body temperature), galvanic skin response training (which measures sweat), and heart rate variability (which measures heart rate and pulse).
When It’s Used
Biofeedback may be helpful in addressing a range of challenges and disorders. These include:
- Tension and migraine headaches
- IBS and constipation
- Urinary incontinence
- Some pain conditions
Some studies find that biofeedback can effectively address a range of symptoms. However, research also highlights the need for further standardized, controlled research on its efficacy in treating psychiatric disorders, as well as evidence that the technique outperforms placebo procedures.
What to Expect
A therapist may use electronic sensors that attach to a patient’s skin or fingers or a belt that wraps around the waist to provide feedback on the patient’s physiological state, which is presented in the form of visuals or sounds.
In a typical session, which may last up to an hour, the therapist will explain what the sensors are tracking—heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, muscle tension, electrical activity in the brain, or one or more other physiological markers. The therapist will show the patient how the signals relate to different physical or mental states, such as feeling more or less stressed. Ultimately, a patient can be taught to employ certain techniques, such as mindfulness or breathing exercises, to modulate these states, using the feedback as a guide along the way.
Biofeedback may be used in combination with other forms of psychotherapeutic intervention.
How It Works
By harnessing real-time information on one’s bodily state and demonstrating how it connects to conscious behaviors—such as thinking about certain images, breathing in a certain way, or relaxing muscles—biofeedback therapy is designed to help patients take more control over the functioning of their bodies. In the course of therapy, they may learn to better manage symptoms linked to the observed physiological activity.
Operant conditioning is one explanation for how biofeedback works. Operant conditioning was popularized by psychologist B. F. Skinner, who discovered through his research on animals that rewards or punishments could reinforce desired behaviors. In the biofeedback context, behaviors are physiological responses such as skin temperature, skin conductance, muscle tension, and brain waves, while reinforcers are auditory and visual displays of physiological responses. Light, color, or sounds can be used for this. For example, a redder hue may represent a warmer hand, indicating greater blood flow due to increased relaxation. A bluer hue may represent a cooler hand, indicating less blood flow due to decreased relaxation. Biofeedback may ultimately teach people, through practice, to better control their physiological responses.
What to Look for in a Biofeedback Therapist
Patients should consult a doctor or health care professional for a referral to someone who can offer biofeedback therapy. The person offering biofeedback should be a licensed clinician and may have a certification for the use of biofeedback, in addition to other degrees and qualifications.
Additionally, it's important to find a therapist with whom you feel comfortable. You may want to ask the therapist a few questions before committing to work with them. Questions may include:
- How would they help with your particular concerns?
- Have they dealt with this type of problem before?
- What is their process?
- What is their timeline for treatment?