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Three Ways Biofeedback Can Help Your Clients

In my Stress Resilience Blueprint I claim that biofeedback is one of the best tools for training and developing the skill-set of stress resilience, or what I call mind-body skills (skills in managing the mind-body connection). In this article I take a more in-depth look at how biofeedback creates change for clients.

I think there are at least three ways:

  1. Gaining insight into the mind-body connection
  2. Training and developing mind-body skills
  3. Fitness training for the brain and nervous system.

Let's take a look at each in turn.

1. Insight into the Mind-Body Connection

Biofeedback creates a context for gaining insight into the mind-body connection, which is the idea that how you think, feel and act is reflected in body physiology and vice versa. Biofeedback shows how the mind-body connection plays out in practice. It can show how thoughts can trigger body responses, how stress affects us, and more generally how emotions work.

An example: you start thinking about the presentation you've got to give to the senior bosses next week, and your muscles tighten up – as though you were literally bracing against an unpleasant feeling.

This is an example of resistance, or wanting to reject part of your experience (because it's unpleasant). It's a key aspect of stress because it reliably triggers the “fight-or flight” response, or in other words it can amplify your original stress response. We have an example of the quicksand trap, which I wrote about in a recent article.

As a coach or therapist, you can demonstrate this dynamic easily and clearly for clients, using biofeedback. Take Galvanic Skin Response (GSR), which is what they used to use in lie detector tests. I like to ask my clients if they mind if I ask them a personal question. They always agree, but they show a response in the signal because they're immediately on their guard about what I'm going to ask. (Actually I don't have anything to ask.) That demonstrates the reality of the mind-body connection.

Next I ask them to (try to) make the GSR signal go down. It usually goes up! (That's the quicksand trap.) Then it goes up even more, because the client doesn't want it to be going up (that's resistance).

This insight into mind-body dynamics can be very important for some clients. They start to understand how emotions play out, and what works and what doesn't work, or what can work and what will never work, in terms of influencing them. This understanding frames their new coping mindset.

2. Mind-Body Skills Development

Suppose you want to learn to play violin, or to play tennis. You need only a minimal amount of verbal instruction, to get you started. The rest is practice. In the context of practice, the brain learns naturally and spontaneously through sensory feedback. Take tennis: visual feedback is seeing whether the ball goes where you want it to go, or into the net or out the back of the court. You also feel the shot, and hear it – more sensory feedback. Visual feedback is also the reason there a big mirrors in dance studios.

Change happens gradually – you get better, your ability or skill-level improves. Within the nervous system, neurons are adapting themselves – perhaps by growing new connections or synapses, or perhaps by recruiting more cells for the task. This is neuroplasticity. Repeated experience creates new brain pathways.

With biofeedback and neurofeedback, a similar gradual enhancement of ability happens. In psychological terms you get better at quickly and easily accessing your desired mind-body state. More specifically the key skills I listed in my Stress Resilience Blueprint are strengthened.

An example: with muscle tension biofeedback training you get better at fully relaxing muscles. This is an important aspect of the ability to “let go” mentally, for example in acceptance or forgiveness.

3. Fitness Training

Thirdly, biofeedback can be a kind of fitness training for the brain, or for the nervous system. This is a little different from learning.

Suppose you regularly go to the gym and lift weights. The result is that over time your muscles are stimulated to strengthen. Let's say the day comes when you need to move some furniture at home. Because you've exercised, you can respond to the challenge quite easily. If you hadn't trained, the muscles wouldn't be prepared and things would be a lot more difficult.

Biofeedback is like weight training for the brain and nervous system. If you exercise regularly, then, when life's challenges come along, as they inevitably will, you're much better placed to respond effectively.

That doesn't mean the stress response won't happen but your body will naturally keep it within bounds and you'll be able to quickly recover.

Different biofeedback parameters exemplify these three change modes to greater or lesser extents. Galvanic Skin Response is good for creating insight (but since it's largely an involuntary response it's not so good for skills development and fitness training). Muscle tension and breathing biofeedback are good for skills training, and HRV (heart coherence) biofeedback is a good exercise or fitness-building tool.

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