What is ‘biofeedback’?
Although the term EEG biofeedback (also known as ‘neurofeedback’) is unfamiliar to many people in South Africa, both here and abroad it is extensively and successfully applied to help people, among other things, achieve calm and focus, improve mood, mental state and productivity, and even relationships.
This is according to an occupational therapist and bio/neurofeedback practitioner Megan Hofhuis, who is also affiliated to Akeso clinic Kenilworth.
“Biofeedback is the process of giving you information (feedback) about what is happening with your body (bio) in real time, so that you can achieve greater self-awareness of body changes and what thoughts are caused those changes. In this way, you can learn what type of thinking or state of mind has the desired effect on your physiology,” explains Hofhuis.
Personally, she has assisted many patients, with biofeedback: “From a scientist with chronic fatigue and an engineer with schizophrenia, to a student with a sleep disorder and mood disorders and an entrepreneur with an excessively busy brain and poor memory. In all of these instances – and many more – biofeedback has proven invaluable.”
How it works
“Different sensors placed on your body take measurements, which are then displayed on a computer screen so that you can see what your body is up to and what leads to changes in these measurements. For example, when you think about performing on stage, your heart rate shoots up, or when you’re sitting in a meeting at work your breathing becomes shallow and fast, or when you have too many tasks on your to-do list, your brainwaves go into overdrive.
“You can see how the situations – even if only imagined or remembered – negatively affect your mind and body’s ability to stay calm and focussed. But with the help of a biofeedback practitioner, you can learn skills and ways of thinking that can help you to better regulate or control my body and my mind,” Hofhuis explains.
“The same effect can be achieved with muscle tension, heart rate and brain waves, so that the next time you are in a highly stressful situation, you will be able to have control over these, and therefore decrease the stress response in the body and mind, and allow yourself to keep performing optimally,” she adds.
A case in point is soccer star Paolo Maldini who used to play for A. C. Milan. “His career as a footballer was changed profoundly after undertaking biofeedback training. He learnt how to regulate (control) his muscle tension, heart rate and brain wave activity so that his aim was more accurate and he made better, faster judgement calls on the pitch. Most of the men who play for A.C Milan and Chelsea F.C have undertaken biofeedback training, as well as many other pro athletes, corporate executives and business leaders who use biofeedback for peak performance training (optimising their minds and bodies so that they can achieve more every day),” Hofhuis points out.
Who can benefit?
The list of difficulties people experience that can be addressed by biofeedback is extensive, Hofhuis stresses. “It will commonly be used at sleep clinics, for children with attention deficit disorders, people with epilepsy, in the field of addiction and mood disorders and with peak performers such as opera singers and Olympic athletes.”
According to Hofhuis, biofeedback is highly recommended when medication isn’t working or when someone would rather not take medication for their condition. Parent of children who is struggling with something like attention deficit disorder or even a mood disorder might be hesitant for their child to start medication, hence they may opt for biofeedback first. Also, when someone appears to be treatment resistant, which can often happen in cases of addiction and schizophrenia, then biofeedback is indicated.
Even people who are on medication can benefit from biofeedback training, especially neurofeedback training, as it often results in a decreased need for the medication. “If a person does take medication, they must ensure that they regularly consult their doctor in case dosages need to be altered. This is especially true for diabetics,” Hofhuis cautions.
What parts of myself can I learn to control?
According to Hofhuis, generally, biofeedback assists you to control your heart rate, breathing, temperature, muscle tension, sweating, blood pressure and brain waves. Some practitioners also do pelvic floor muscle retraining which is very helpful for people struggling with incontinence.
What to expect in a bio/neurofeedback training session
One or more sensors will be placed on your skin. Where the sensors are placed, is dependent on what you want to measure or change. For example, if you want to learn a specific breathing style to assist with stress management, you will have a breath sensor placed around your middle. Or if you want to improve your memory, then a sensor will be placed on your scalp at the corresponding area of your brain that needs training.
“The sensor picks up on the activity of the area being measured and a computer screen will show this activity in the form of waves. Through different games, music and other forms of feedback, you will learn how to consciously control your mind and body. With enough practice, you will be able to do this at will, without the computer or practitioner.
“In some respects, biofeedback training is like learning the waltz. You are not going to be able to remember all the steps after one session, and once a week isn’t optimal either. Similarly, practitioners will recommend that you attend sessions twice a week for at least 15 sessions to notice changes and for those changes to be sustained. After practising a dance twice a week for eight weeks, you’ll probably remember the steps forever,” Hofhuis points out.
The neurofeedback side of biofeedback
“Before training starts, a client will have their brain waves assessed. This is done by conducting a QEEG (a quantitative electroencephalogram). From this, the clinician can determine how the brain is ‘talking’ to itself. It is talking too fast or too slow? Too loud or too soft? At the same time? There is a very specific balance of brain waves that is optimal for the brain and through training, the client and their coach try to achieve that balance,” Hofhuis explains.
“For example, generally, when someone has a disorder associated with poor concentration (ADHD), it means that some areas of the brain aren’t firing fast enough and those areas will be targeted to increase the requires frequencies. Someone experiencing anxiety generally has a brain that is working overtime and needs to slow down, so the specific areas that require attention will be trained to a slower frequency where calm and focus can be achieved. Training is the same as biofeedback; the client is required to manipulate images or sounds and music on the screen.
“Whenever their brain shifts into the required frequency the person is rewarded for example with the arrow moving towards the target, or the music beginning to play. As soon as the brain shifts out moves away from the desired state, the action or music will stop. In this way, our clever brains learn to regulate themselves. And with practice you will no longer need the computer, your brain will be able to access the desired state when it chooses,” she concludes.
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