Biofeedback enables people to monitor a part of their physical or mental state, and then use that information to learn how to change their physical or mental state. (1)
Research has found that biofeedback is a particularly effective tool for managing anxiety and stress. For example, biofeedback can help people learn how to decrease their heart rate, and therefore reduce their anxiety levels.
This technique isn’t just used to help people experiencing mental health challenges. It’s used to help people improve their performance, physical health and mental health.
Effectiveness of biofeedback
Yes, biofeedback helps with a range of difficulties, examples of which are noted in the next section. (2)
Regarding the use of biofeedback to help manage symptoms of mental health problems, researchers have found that:
- Biofeedback is as helpful, or almost as helpful as other techniques - like stress inoculation or medication - for improving anxiety symptoms. (3,4)
- Biofeedback shows promise in helping people with anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). (5)
What biofeedback can help with
Biofeedback can help people learn how to adjust aspects of their experience to manage an array of physical and mental health issues. Examples include:
- Pain management, including chronic pain
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Motion sickness
How biofeedback works
Biofeedback helps you to become aware of how your thoughts, feelings and behavior influence your body processes.
Your body is connected by sensors to a device, which records data from your body. The data is displayed to you visually, or fed back to you as sound or some other meaningful way. It’s quite common for feedback to be shown on a computer monitor, for example. Typically, you’re able to see the feedback in real time, so that you can match it up with what’s happening in your body.
Your therapist then shows you how to change aspects of your experience (thoughts, feelings, behaviors), to learn to control body processes which would previously have felt involuntary.
Types of body processes commonly examined include heart rate, skin temperature and breathing rate. By being able to control these body processes, people can better able to manage stress, anxiety and aspects of medical conditions.
Biofeedback sessions require a high degree of active participation. You’ll need to practice regularly to learn the new skill - just as you would when trying to learn any new task.
Frequency and length of biofeedback sessions
Typically, a biofeedback session lasts for around 30 minutes to an hour. Treatment length depends on how quickly you learn to change your body’s reactions. That said, treatment is usually short-term, often involving only 6-8 sessions.
What happens in a typical biofeedback session
Your therapist will attach some kind of sensor to the target part of your body. Biofeedback is noninvasive, so this will be something like an electrical sensor attached to your skin.
These sensors will capture data from your body, which is fed back into a device which can show you what is happening, in real time. This might be a graphic on a monitor, or a flashing light when some particular event happens in your body.
Your therapist teaches you how to use this information to change your body’s reactions. For example, you might have sensor bands on your muscles to monitor tension. This information can be displayed on a screen for you to observe in real time - perhaps as a line that goes up as tension increases, and down as muscle tension decreases.
Your therapist will then guide you on how to alter your muscle tension. You might experiment with changing things, like clenching your jaw, to see how it affects your muscle tension. You might perform a stressful task and observe how it influences your muscle tension. The therapist might then coach you on how to use self-talk (or relaxation, mindfulness, or imagery) during a stressful situation to decrease your muscle tension. You’re likely to have a goal - perhaps moving the line on the monitor below a certain level.
With practice, which typically includes homework, you learn how to actively control this aspect of your body process. The end goal is that you are able to control your body processes in daily life, without the help of feedback.
What to look for in a biofeedback practitioner
There are several factors to consider when looking for a biofeedback therapist, such as:
Look for a mental health professional with a current license; this ensures that your therapist has completed the appropriate level of education to practice. When browsing through therapists on Zencare, you can rest assured that our therapists have already been vetted.
Check that your prospective therapist has completed specialized training in biofeedback. Laws regulating the practice of biofeedback vary from state to state, so you might feel more confident working with a practitioner who has gained certification. This demonstrates their training in biofeedback. The Biofeedback Certification International Alliance is one such organization offering certification.
Take a look at therapists’ biographies, as this is often where they note their experience and specializations.
Prioritize the potential for developing a strong working relationship between you and your therapist. This trusting relationship, called the “therapeutic alliance” can have a significant impact on the effect of therapy.
Talk in advance
The best way to gauge how you might feel about your prospective therapist is to ask for a preliminary phone call. Most therapists will be happy to do so. This gives you the opportunity to ask about your therapist’s:
- Education and qualifications
- Training and certification in biofeedback
- Their experience using biofeedback to help manage your particular concerns
- What biofeedback training with them will be like
- Their participation in insurance plans and cost of therapy
It’s a good idea to speak to a few different therapists before making your mind up.
Sources and references
- American Psychological Association, “Getting in Touch with Your Inner Brainwaves through Biofeedback”
- Biofeedback in medicine: who, when, why and how?
- Comparative efficacy of biofeedback and stress inoculation for stress reduction
- Neurofeedback and Biofeedback for Mood and Anxiety Disorders: A Review of the Clinical Evidence and Guidelines – An Update
- Efficacy of Alfa EEG wave biofeedback in the management of anxiety
- Mayo Clinic, “Biofeedback”