The form of therapy that uses biofeedback for relaxation is a fusion of ideas from medicine and the psychology of behavior modification. Instead of dwelling on a recount of painful memories that contribute to stress, the patient observes the body’s reactions to such thoughts and experiences, directly working on techniques for altering behavior. Most biofeedback techniques involve some sort of feedback loop in which a device measures a physiologic response and feeds the information back to the patient so that he or she can learn to control body processes.
Biofeedback for relaxation might have evolved from the side effects of some prescription medications and the failure of these drugs to control stress and pain. The biofeedback can be as simple as a therapist describing a patient’s unconscious body language to help eliminate a bad habit. Usually, biofeedback is understood to be a system by which some type of electrical device that measures physiological functions alerts the patient to his or her level of stress. For example, the patient’s finger can be attached to an electrode that, through a sensitive meter, reads the patient’s skin response as he or she perspires. The patient can concentrate on learning how to relax, reducing the amount of perspiration and, as a result, lowering the current than is shown on the meter.
Other devices used in biofeedback for relaxation measure responses such as brain waves, heart rate and body temperature. Most feedback is observed directly from output of electric or electronic measuring devices, in which electrodes are attached to the critical locations on the body. Often, sounds changing in pitch are produced by the feedback system to indicate the patient’s progress and to make it easier for the patient to control his or her response with eyes closed and in a relaxed state. Common medical feedback techniques, also used in biofeedback for relaxation, are the electrocardiograph, which measures contractions in the heart muscle; the electroencephalograph, which measures brain wave patterns; and the electromyograph, which measures muscle response.
Many physiologic responses that indicate a person’s reaction to stress are unconscious, such as the dilation of the pupils of the eye, the increase of perspiration and the contraction of muscles in capillary walls accompanied with a drop in body temperature in the extremities. Tension can slow the movement of food through the intestinal tract and increase heart rate and blood pressure. Developing relaxation skills through biofeedback, sufferers might raise their tolerance to pain. Though biofeedback for relaxation has been found to be more beneficial to the patient than a placebo and, in special cases, more beneficial than a prescribed drug, the results can vary with the type of stress and the patient’s expectations.