Biofeedback as a Way to Deal with Stress

Biofeedback emerged in the 1970s as a mind-body approach for regulating central and autonomic function (Woolfolk & Lehrer, 1984). Electrical instruments feed back unconscious information related to physiological functions (e.g., body temperature, heart rate, blood flow, and galvanic skin response). The individual can then learn to consciously control these normally involuntary functions. A substantial amount of research has been done to examine the effectiveness of this technique (Lehrer, Woolfolk, & Sime, 2007). The hormonal, metabolic, and molecular changes experienced under stress also have been examined using techniques such as biochemical assays (Dusek & Benson, 2009).

While primitive humans relied on rapid adrenal function and fight-or-flight responses to survive (e.g., escape a tiger), the value of the stress response as used in primitive fight or flight may be injurious in today’s world (Seyle, 1956). Today’s stressors tend to be emotional rather than related physical or survival challenges. Importantly, the body produces the same primitive response, regardless of the cause. When stress is triggered, it is essential to positively, appropriately, and consciously deal with the stress response. And though there are real physical threats in our world that would require the ability to fight or run, the most common threats are emotional, and social protocol makes it inappropriate for people to fight or run away from worrisome circumstances. The conflict of charging stress hormones and strong physiological response contrasted against the social needs to stay calm can be devastating—even lethal—for the body. Anecdotal evidence from physicians indicates that patients often trace the start of serious illnesses to major stressful events in their lives, such as financial trouble, bereavement, trauma, or divorce (Ornish, 1982). While these events may be beyond the individual’s control, stresses also can be self-imposed.

When we experience such emotions as embarrassment, shame, rejection, or fear in social settings, we might want to defend ourselves—a modern version of fight—but we do not consume the adrenaline by fighting. We might want to slip away and become invisible to the source of our discomfort—a modern version of flight—but use only a portion of the activated biological stimulus that was intended to give us the energy to run. However, in our current social setting, we contain rather than consume the stimulus, and we do not escape. As our more complex thinking systems become reflective and self-reflective, we can create our own threat within as we attack ourselves, and we can feel as if we cannot defend ourselves from the attacking part of ourselves. We have assimilated external threat into ourselves and have become our own enemy. The more evolved, logical brain suppresses the fight/flight stimulus of the lower brain and is left with unresolved and unreleased biological responses intended to support fleeing or fighting. These remain in the body and produce a secondary threat to the body, but now, that threat is from the inside, something we cannot fight and win or escape in any traditional way. We are left with escalated blood pressure and a speeding heart rate (The 6 Healthy Habits, 2010).