What is Biofeedback?

Biofeedback is an individualised treatment that has been shown to increase relaxation and relieve conditions that are related to stress. I have been using several different programs including HeartMath and Thought Technology. We also provide several wearables to help alert you when stressed in the real world and then train you on the spot to have increased levels of relaxation.

Apart from regulating mood and emotion, biofeedback, usually incorporated into wearable devices, is used in many ways. It is often used by athletes to help improve their performance and avoid injuries. Individuals with visual impairments have been able to biofeedback tools to provide them with audio cues to navigate their environments more effectively. Biofeedback has also been used for rehabilitation purposes for individuals who suffer from brain injuries and neurological disorders to help with regaining movement capabilities.

Biofeedback works by tracking physiological measures, particularly those associated with elevated stress and tension. The technology (whether it be a watch, app or other device) then interprets the physiological data and often translates the interpretations back to a ‘label’ that can easily be understood by the user, such as ‘calm’ or ‘stressed’. When users look back at periods of stress during the day, they are often able to trace it back to a certain activity or event, thereby allowing for increased awareness of what makes them stressed. Most devices will also have a component that offers real-time interventions to deescalate stress moods, such as engaging in a few minutes of guided breathing or meditation. Usually done through an app or a website, the user is also able to track their data over time and observe improvements in mood regulation and decrease in stress levels.

Types of Biofeedback

Heart-rate variability (HRV)

Heart-rate variability (HRV) is the measure of beat-to-beat changes in heart rate. It reflects the activation of the autonomic nervous system, with the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system working in synergy to create homoeostasis (balance) within the body. However, when life gets stressful or we experience strong negative emotions, this is reflected in the autonomic nervous system, with noticeable changes in heart-rate variability. Biofeedback aims to train the body to produce more normal heart-rate patterns and associate it with more positive and relaxed states of wellbeing, even at times of heightened stress. HRV is a popular measure of biofeedback that is commonly used in smart watches and fitness trackers.

Breathing rate

Breathing rate is a common physiological measure that is measured, often alongside with heart-rate variability (HRV). It is an especially popular measure in biofeedback as it is one aspect of our body we can rather easily control – if we are made aware of our breathing patterns, we can easily speed up or slow our breathing down, and change how deeply we are breathing. When we are calm, we average about 15 breaths per minute, breathing deeply mostly with our diaphragm, resulting in the movements we see in our abdomen every time we inhale and exhale. When are stressed, our breathing rate increases, and each breath becomes more shallow, causing more movements in our shoulders than in our abdomen. This is because our ‘fight or flight’ response to the stressful situation sends a signal for us to breathe more rapidly, so as to send more oxygen to our heart, which then pumps more rapidly to transport blood to all parts of our body. Most wearable devices (such as smart watches and fitness trackers) available on the market offer some capability of breath tracking, and other devices alert us when our breathing is more rapid than usual. In the absence of physical activity, we can then try and bring this rate down by engaging in simple deep breathing exercises.

Electrodermal activity (EDA)

Electrodermal activity (EDA) measures the changes in electrical conductance on skin, caused by sweat secretion. Experiencing stress typically leads to increased sweat secretion and, as a result, electrical conductance. It is measured from electrodes, usually placed on the user’s fingertips. Devices incorporating EDA will typically require the user to place their fingertips on the electrode sensors.

Electromyography (EMG)

Electromyography (EMG) measures electric signals associated with the twitching or movement of your muscles, and is usually measured by sensors placed onto the user’s skin. Presently its applications lie mostly in exercise, where it may be helpful for users to see which muscle groups they are using when engaging in a certain physical activity. It has also been used to help patients with speech loss communicate.

Facial electromyography (fEMG)

Facial electromyography (fEMG) is a sub-measure of EMG that looks at electric signals from our facial muscles only. Since specific combinations of muscle groups in our face correspond to certain facial expressions and emotions, by examining these small muscle movements the user is able to know what kind of facial expressions they may be inadvertently making. However, the currently techniques for fEMG require electrodes to be placed directly on the facial muscles and are not appropriate to be incorporated into wearable devices.

Benefits of Biofeedback

Biofeedback can be used regardless of whether you’d like to improve your work performance; your health; your creative efforts; home or social relationships; or peace of mind.

  • Become aware of your moods and emotions.
  • Understand events and triggers that may lead to increased stress and tension for you.
  • Engage in mindful activities to reduce stress, when you need it most.
  • Re-balance mind, body and emotions as you reduce stress.
  • Build resilience through improved health, stamina and well-being.
  • Prevent burnout in chaotic and stressful environments.
  • Maximize creativity and innovation.
  • Boost productivity and increase mental clarity and memory.
  • Be less reactive, think more clearly, make better decisions- especially under pressure.
  • Improve focus and, in turn, performance in your work and other daily activities.
  • Track your improvements in mood and emotions over time.
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