Definition: “The use of electronic monitoring of an automatic bodily function to train someone to acquire voluntary control of that function.”

Technically, true biofeedback requires a machine.  The patient gets hooked up to the monitor, and the patient can see, for instance, his heart rate.  If it is elevated, the practitioner coaches the patient to think calming thoughts.  As the patient does this, he can see his heart rate lowering in response to his thoughts.

The idea is, with practice, the patient learns what it feels like when his heart rate is elevated, he learns what it feels like when it lowers, and he can tangibly see that his thoughts are capable of producing that effect.  That way, when he feels his heart racing out on the highway, or at work, for instance, he feels empowered to use the techniques he has learned to lower it on his own.

I’ve prescribed home blood pressure monitors and biofeedback techniques to help patients lower their blood pressure at home as well (provided it is not dangerously high, of course!)  But according to Mayo Clinic, biofeedback can also be used for stress and anxiety, asthma, chemotherapy side effects, chronic pain, constipation, incontinence, IBS, and Raynaud’s disease.

Why Biofeedback Works

Most of your body’s functions are controlled by your autonomic nervous system (meaning not under your conscious control.)  Your brainstem controls core functions like breathing, blood pressure and heart rate, but these are heavily influenced by two branches of your autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems.

Your brain prioritizes its automatic functions (such as hunger, thirst, temperature, pain, pleasure, sexuality, anger and aggression) based on what is most necessary for survival at the moment.  For instance, if you’re being chased by a tiger, you’re not going to be thinking about your next meal.  Instead, your brain will activate your sympathetic nervous system (also called “fight or flight,” which will cause you to act in sympathy with your dominant emotion at the moment – fear).  Your heart rate, blood pressure, and blood volume will all increase, since those large getaway muscles are going to need a lot of blood.

Once you successfully evade the tiger, though, your parasympathetic nervous system calms you down: its focus is to “rest and digest,” so that’s the point at which you’d start to think about lunch.  That’s also when your heart rate and blood pressure will come down.

The Modern-Day Tiger

These days, the “tiger” might be your boss.  Or it might be the deadline looming over your shoulder.  Or it could be getting stuck in traffic.  Or anxiety left over from a fight with your spouse.  Or the bills you don’t know how you’re going to pay.  Or the fact that you are inundated with a never-ending stream of email and your phone won’t stop ringing.  But the response of the sympathetic nervous system is going to be the same.

Biofeedback trains you to consciously focus on switching from sympathetic to parasympathetic using stress management techniques like deep breathing, meditation, visualization, affirmations, and the like.  The stress management techniques themselves will lower your blood pressure and heart rate without the monitor, but for some patients, the tangible proof that the techniques are working may make all the difference.

The Take-Home Message:

If you tend to be anxious, have high blood pressure, or any of the other symptoms on this list, consider taking up some of these stress management techniques.  And if you want proof that they’re working, check out the apps by HeartMath for smart phones, or get a blood pressure monitor at home and try it yourself.