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Biofeedback

It was traditionally assumed by physicians as well as psychologists that functions of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) could not be consciously controlled. After all, the ANS is also called the involuntary nervous system; it controls so-called involuntary bodily functions such as blood pressure and heart rate. Then, in the late 1960s, a series of creative experiments by psychologist Neal Miller, Ph.D., demonstrated that people can consciously affect and control autonomic functions after all. Miller was experimenting with what later became known as biofeedback, a system of recording, amplifying, and feeding back information about subtle physiological responses. The mechanisms whereby we control autonomic functions are still poorly understood, but it appears that it involves activation of the parasympathetic branch of the ANS (which mediates the relaxation response), along with deactivation of the sympathetic branch (which stimulates fight-or-flight activity).

Biofeedback instruments give you information (feedback) about what is happening in your body. You can then use this feedback to facilitate relaxation and to relax targeted muscles. Biofeedback technology involves attaching highly sensitive electronic sensors to your body to detect subtle changes in targeted body functions. These data are then fed into an electronic device that amplifies it and delivers it back to you, usually in the form of audio signals or visual displays. You would then exercise methods of altering your physiology, usually by practicing specific relaxation skills taught by the therapist or biofeedback technician, who also adjusts the instruments. By monitoring the audio or visual feedback, you can determine whether your efforts at relaxation are successful, and you can introduce modifications depending on the levels indicated by the feedback. In this way you can learn sophisticated relaxation skills, such as relaxing a specific muscle group or increasing blood flow to a particular region. Biofeedback offers users a powerful way to overcome certain stress-related disorders and to learn systems of relaxation with direct access to information about mastery (Miller, 1985). But while biofeedback can be highly effective, it does require a commitment of time and practice from the user in order to achieve results. These machines cannot make you relax; they only give you information about your progress.


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