Biofeedback: A window on stress

Stress can be challenging and even healthy at certain levels but all too easily can become a silent monster that steals our work performance and satisfaction with life.  It damages our vitaility and left unchecked will damage our health.  Biofeedback can be a very safe and effective way of dealing with stress and in this acticle we take a look at how stress manifests in the body and how we might deal with it by working just with heart rate variability biofeedback.

Why do we get stressed?
From when we are babies in arms we develop and store primitive "emotional programmes" that are basically about ensuring our survival.  It's a form of conditioned behaviour.  The brain is silently learning to recognise “patterns” in the environment that represent threats to our survival.  When we are out and about in the world the part of the brain known as the amygdala matches our current situation with these stored patterns of threats.  At any time a “threat” is detected, a response is initiated and it is instantaneous. 

The amygdala sends a signal to our physiological systems to power up our so-called fight or flight mechanism and it literally disconnects us from our higher consciousness – in other words it stops us thinking clearly! 

Every cell in the body responds to the stimulus.  When someone cuts you up in traffic and you respond with what later seems like “irrational” behaviour – it’s this process at work.  Our autonomic nervous system becomes out of balance as the so-called sympathetic pathway speeds up the body for high effort. 

A million years ago, the effort of running away or fighting the threat would have burned off the adrenaline which floods into our system to allow this effort.  For people today, there might not be such an opportunity and when repeated often, this adrenaline overload leads to increased risk of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, cancer, heart disease, stroke and the many other consequences of imbalance.

The job of the so called parasympathetic pathway of the autonomic nervous system is to slow down these body systems and release hormones that naturally neutralise the adrenaline.

Relaxation and meditation can bring this about but only slowly and anyway we may not be able to relax when it is most needed.  It’s not just the "hard wired" autonomic nervous system at work – it’s also the molecules of emotion that flow through our body.  We actually have a chemical nervous system with powerful hormones at work. The hormonal system is slower acting but is extremely powerful and needs to be in balance too. 

We probably don’t yet know all of the hormones that flow to regulate our balance.  Two of the best known are DHEA which is associated with positive emotions, feelings of well-being and success, and cortisol which is associated with negative emotions, feelings of submission and despair.  It is no good taking DHEA pills (although they exist) because what we need is balance – both in the fast response autonomic nervous system and in the slower response of the hormonal system.

The body has a built in way of creating coherence and stability from chaos and biofeedback is one effective way of giving us a window on our instantaneous state and helping us to learn to seek a balanced state naturally.

A commonly used signal in using biofeedback to deal with stress is the Heart Rate.  The heart is a powerful source of electromagnetic energy – much more powerful than the brain (1000 to 5000 times more powerful) and it can be used to send a signal back to the brain that quickly defuses the stress induced imbalance. 

As the heart beats it generates electromagnetic energy in a rhythmic way that can be seen as the familiar ECG waveform. (The heart rate is a measure of how many heartbeats or cycles there are in a minute ) We now know that a healthy heart has a rhythm that varies smoothly.  Even when we are at rest, the heart rate speeds up for a few cycles and then slows down for a few cycles.  When we are ill or stressed this heart rate variability becomes chaotic or very uneven.  This biological rhythm is communicated to every cell in the body and literally entrains every cell and organ system to fall into step

If a "smooth" signal from the heart is communicated to the brain, the amygdala no longer seems to inhibit thinking.  Once again, we can regain access to the higher consciousness and intuitive, creative abilities of the brain.  This action of putting attention to the heart activates the slower pathway we noted earlier that allows us to access the cerebral cortex.  We actually see things in a broader perspective and miraculously this is the key to defusing stress, improving creativity and even personal communications.

Biofeedback can let us measure a trainees heart rate variability in real-time and feedback to them an audio-visual display in a way that they both see and feel when they are achieving improved balance.  This "feeling" aspect is important as ultimately we want this behavious to be possible without the equipment.  Of course, we can, with modern biofeedback systems we can look at many other signals as well and we will examine these in additional articles.