Biofeedback training is a method of coping with stress and anxiety that involves monitoring and trying to exert voluntary control over involuntary physiological processes such as heart rate, blood pressure, galvanic skin resistance, and muscle tension. The idea originated in animal research conducted in the 1960s that demonstrated, among other things, that rats could alter their heart rate if given pleasurable brain stimulation when their heartbeat increased or decreased. The idea that completely involuntary physiological processes could be altered by classical conditioning was hardly new; Pavlov had demonstrated it long before, with the salivation of his dogs. Recognizing the potential therapeutic application of that principle for anxious humans was new, however, and required new equipment.
To use biofeedback to help control chronic headaches, for example, a person would wear a sensor in a headband, to record actual forehead muscle tension. A computer converts that information into an easily understood signal, perhaps a light that grows brighter with more tension and dimmer as tension is reduced. The patient must then learn to control the indicator, thus learning also to control the tension and the resulting headaches. Initial claims for biofeedback, based on a large number of studies conducted during the 1970s and 1980s, were a bit optimistic, suggesting that people could easily learn to control heart rate, ﬁnger temperature, blood pressure, and various other physiological functions.
A more sober appraisal of the research indicates that some people can slightly increase blood ﬂow to the ﬁngers and relax forehead-muscle tension. In 1995 the National Institutes of Health concluded that biofeedback can be an effective treatment for tension headaches, however, the technique works due to the patient’s relaxation, which does not necessarily require specialized biofeedback equipment.
- National Institutes of Health. Press Release: NIH Panel Encourages Wider Acceptance of Behavioral Treatments for Chronic Pain and Insomnia. https://archive.hhs.gov/news/press/1995pres/951018b.html, 1995.