The Counseling Center offers Biofeedback Training to currently enrolled UW-Seattle students. Please call (206) 543-1240 to schedule an appointment or for more information.
What Is Biofeedback Training?
If you know how to ride a bike you’re already skilled at using one form of biofeedback. Learning to go straight ahead and stop, without ending up in the flower bed involved learning to notice signals about your state of balance coming from your inner ear, muscles, and eyes. At first this task demanded all your attention, but gradually you developed an ability to respond to these signals by making small muscle movements that kept you upright. You didn’t think about which muscles to move, you just noticed what worked and learned to do it consistently. Eventually, this learning became so ingrained that you stopped even being aware of the constant process of reading body signals and responding accordingly. You just did it.
Biofeedback training, like riding a bike, involves developing the ability to self-regulate some aspect of your body’s functioning that you normally cannot consciously control. Also like riding a bike, this new skill requires practice to become reliable.
The aspects of your body’s functioning that are of particular interest in biofeedback training are your states of arousal and attention. For example, if you become so anxious when taking a test that you are unable to recall what you’ve learned you are over-aroused and unable to focus your attention on conscious recall. In contrast, if you habitually fall asleep while reading, or exhibit a flat disinterest in virtually everything around you, you are under-aroused.
Biofeedback training (BFT) uses simple video games, images, and music to give you information about aspects of your physiology – like heart rate variability, respiration rate, skin temperature, muscle tension, and skin conductance. The training teaches you to self-regulate these aspects of arousal.
What Is Biofeedback Used For?
In the world at large, BFT is being used in the treatment of a number of concerns, including attention deficit disorder, chronic pain, sleep disorders, anxiety and depression, and substance abuse recovery. In the Counseling Center , it is used to provide assistance with various forms of anxiety and stress, such as:
- Chronic stress
- Generalized anxiety
- Test anxiety
- Social anxiety
How Can I Try Biofeedback?
Service begins with a general intake appointment at the Counseling Center. This is an opportunity for you to meet with a counselor to discuss your concerns and identify next steps with your counselor that would address these concerns. If BFT is identified as a helpful resource, an appointment will be set up with one of the counselors who do biofeedback training. The biofeedback software is called EmWave©.
- EmWave© is an easy to use computer program that teaches you to self-regulate your arousal and attention by focusing on heart rate variability. After an initial training session with a counselor, you can continue to use this program on your own at no cost.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Whatever approach to BFT you choose, learning self-regulation in a laboratory setting is just the beginning. To be able to consistently relax yourself intentionally requires regular practice in increasingly “real world” environments. Self-regulation is a learned habit; it requires regular practice and can be lost without regular use.
The Good News
The good news is that biofeedback training works. There are many ways people have successfully learned to relax, including meditation, visualization, progressive muscle relaxation, and autogenics. BFT is not better than these other approaches, it is simply faster.
What are the Limitations or Side Effects of BFT?
BFT involves placing passive monitoring devices on the surface of your skin. There are no significant risks or side effects involved. If you have a heart condition, you should check with your cardiologist before using heart rate variability training.
Medications, such as anti-anxiety drugs or anti-depressants will not interfere with BFT, and BFT is unlikely to produce interactive side effects.
The most commonly experienced side effect of relaxation training is drowsiness. When you allow yourself to truly relax you may discover that you are sleep deprived! Holding your upper body in an erect position, with shoulders back and down, is a great help in combating drowsiness.
BFT as a method for self-regulation can be a very effective tool for dealing with stress, but it is seldom adequate by itself for treating various forms of anxiety. Typically, working with a counselor to modify patterns of thought and behavior is needed, and sometimes medication as well.
Symptoms of depression are often experienced by people struggling with excessive anxiety. Being anxious often doesn’t “make sense”, and can rarely be fixed by telling yourself to be reasonable. If one has any significant problem in his/her life that seems unsolvable, such as anxiety, failed attempts are often followed by discouragement and depression. Such “situational depression” isn’t a biological condition and usually doesn’t require medication. It does require finding a way to make at least some progress on the issue of concern. Working with a counselor is likely to be helpful in dealing with such depressive experiences.
Where Can I Learn More About Biofeedback Training?
BFT is an emerging technology and there are presently few generally available print resources that provide useful introductions. There are, however, a number of good sources of information available on the web. Here are some useful sites:
Davis, M. et al. (2000). The relaxation & stress reduction workbook. (5th ed.).
Schwartz, M.S. and Andrasik, F. (2003), Biofeedback: A practitioner’s guide. (3rd ed.).