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Putting Stress to the Test
By Matthew Solan
Wouldn’t it be great if someone followed you around all day and tapped you on the shoulder whenever you were about to become stressed—a gentle reminder to take a moment to breathe and relax? You may find that reminder in biofeedback.
An effective, high-tech approach to stress management, biofeedback uses sensors, computers, and visual images to record your reaction to different stressors. Biofeedback teaches you how to recognize the signs of stress in your body—such as changes in breathing pattern, heart rate and rhythm, and perspiration—and how to control those responses.
“Biofeedback is about knowing how to properly react and ‘feed back’ better information to your body,” says Beth Golden, PhD, a board-certified biofeedback practitioner at The Therapeutic Body Center in St. Petersburg, Florida. Once you identify your unique “stress triggers,” you can use relaxation exercises to calm yourself. “This teaches your body what a relaxed state should feel like,” says Golden. Over time your body learns to shift to a relaxed state automatically whenever it senses stress.
Since ongoing stress can trigger an assortment of ailments, experts have used biofeedback to fight many illnesses and disorders in which stress plays a vital role, such as chronic pain, diabetes, migraines, and anxiety. It can even help treat health issues like compulsive eating and insomnia, which often worsen with stress.
Yet biofeedback offers more than stress management: It can also help increase your energy when you feel sluggish and unfocused. Celeste De Bease, PhD, program director of the Biofeedback Clinic and Certification Center at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania, compares it to the way you might tune a car engine. “When your car is revved too hot, you need to cool it down, and when it’s too low you need to speed it up,” she explains. “It’s the same with your nervous system. Sometimes it needs to be calmed down; other times it needs to be stimulated—biofeedback can teach you how to do both.”
There are four common types of biofeedback: surface electromyogram, thermal, galvanic skin response, and electroencephalogram. Here’s a look at each, how they work, and what science has found they can accomplish.
Surface Electromyogram (SEMG). An SEMG uses electrodes to measure muscle tension and alerts you either by a visual image or a sound when your muscles tense. SEMG has been used to treat muscle injuries and chronic pain like headaches, backache, neck pain, and TMJ (jaw) pain, as well as conditions such as asthma and diabetes, in which stress reduction helps to alleviate symptoms. For example, a recent study published in Diabetes Care discovered that type-2 diabetics were able to decrease average blood sugar levels and muscle tension when they used SEMG biofeedback and relaxation exercises for three months.
Thermal Biofeedback. Stress hormones cause the temperature in your hands and feet to drop. With thermal biofeedbac...
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