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Biofeedback: Relaxation and Strengthening the Mind-Body Connection

By CFI Predoctoral Fellow Katie Santamaria, M.A.

Our mind and body interact in profound ways, especially in the process of relaxation. There are many ways to achieve a state of relaxation. How does relaxation work? Most of us have heard about mindfulness, breath work, and meditation (hi, Headspace!), but a lesser-known form of relaxation is called biofeedback. Biofeedback is a fancy way to describe methods of relaxation that use external bodily cues to connect with an internal relaxation response. The ultimate goal is to switch your body out of “fight or flight” mode (when your sympathetic nervous system is activated) into “rest and digest” mode (when your parasympathetic nervous system is activated instead). The benefits of practicing relaxation include reduced tension, anxiety, chronic pain, and overall stress levels. It can also feel nice to give your body a physical break in times of overwhelm!

Biofeedback may sound intimidating, but it doesn’t need to be. You may already be practicing it in your daily life without knowing it. Have you ever looked at your heart rate on a fitness tracker or heart rate monitor at the doctor’s office and tried to slow it down? If so, you’ve already had experience practicing biofeedback.

There are many different forms of biofeedback. Each form involves modifying different bodily cues. The most commonly known bodily cue is heart rate, but there are other ways to measure parasympathetic nervous system activation, too! (Cool, right?). Some of these alternative measurements include galvanic response (skin conductivity) and skin temperature (yes, this changes with your relaxation response!).

Most often, heart rate biofeedback is the most accessible form of informal, at-home practice. Many people already own heart rate-measuring devices (e.g., Fitbit, Apple Watch, or any other fitness device with an HR monitor).

For the science-lovers and novelty-seekers, measuring your galvanic response can be fun to try. A galvanic response refers to the electrical resistance of your skin—, when you experience stress, electricity is more easily conducted due to sweat leading to increased moisture. You can purchase galvanic response measurements online.

Finally, for those who seek novelty without too much complication, skin temperature biofeedback relies on the slight warming of your skin which can be achieved when entering a state of relaxation. Many studies have examined “hand-warming” biofeedback techniques. You can measure hand temperature through simple handheld sensors (purchasable online).

To begin practicing biofeedback, consider watching the number on your monitor and actively trying to reduce this number. Try taking deep breaths from your diaphragm, closing your eyes, visualizing something peaceful, or following a meditation. There are several ways to practice relaxation, guided or not. The most impactful biofeedback practice is consistent—the more you practice relaxation (and receive the bodily cues providing feedback that your relaxation response has been successfully activated), the more easily you can enter that state of relaxation in the future.

So, which method is right for me? For most, it’s a matter of trying what interests you and sticking with what you like. After all, the best form of relaxation is the one you’ll enjoy doing. 

This sounds complicated! I need some guidance. That’s totally fair (and understandable)! Luckily, many psychologists can help guide the way on your biofeedback journey. They can also help guide you to learn how to truly breathe deeply: diaphragmatic breathing, or “belly breathing,” doesn’t come naturally for many people. Let your therapist know if you’d like to integrate relaxation training into your or your loved one’s treatment at CFI.

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