Biofeedback 101: Your brain is talking, are you listening?

By Elah | 22.08.2021

If you’re living in a fast-paced world, chances are you’re dealing with stress. Whether it be work, relationships, social media, the 24/7 news cycle, the environment (noise and city pollution as well as the climate crisis as a whole), or the never-ending notifications from group chats and emails – let’s not forget the global pandemic – there have never been more stimuli signaling our bodies to go into “stress mode.”

This isn’t to say that we haven’t dealt with stress in the past. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors were well acquainted with “fight or flight scenarios’; that is – an imminent danger which causes us to react by either fighting the threat or escaping to safety. Imagine: a bear is standing in front of you. When our brain recognizes this type of stress, it sends a signal to the hypothalamus. The sympathetic part of the brain is activated, releasing hormones and telling our breath to shorten, the heart to pump faster, and sweat glands to activate.

This isn’t always a bad thing. There’s a certain level of stress your brain needs to stay alert and optimize your output. For example, you need a certain level of stress to remain focused in a work presentation, but not stressed enough that you will go blank. This is called acute stress. That which spans a short period of time, and once the “threat” is over, the body returns to the parasympathetic state, aka. relaxed.

One of the main issues perpetuating stress is that your body physiologically may still be going into “fight or flight” mode. Still, the threats of today are the aforementioned daily stressors that aren’t necessarily life-threatening, but our bodies may be reacting to them physiologically as if they are. And when stress reaches a tipping point, it crosses the threshold between healthy to limiting. This is when it’s time to listen and learn how to manage stress for both your short and long-term health.

When accumulated, this kind of stress leads to chronic stress (think: burnout.) It significantly affects the immune system and can lead to serious illnesses. If we look at figures from just this past pandemic year, we see that prolonged stress is causing a new set of health side effects. Two in three Americans reported having slept more or less than what they wanted to, a majority of adults experienced weight gain, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

With all the stress rising from within and engulfing us, it’s no surprise that scientists and psychologists have been searching for a way to appease it and find a balance between stress that motivates you and stress that stands in the way of your wellbeing.

Enter Biofeedback.

Biofeedback is the self-monitoring of our own physiology in real-time, through the use of external devices, allowing us to gain insights into our internal processes and learn to regulate them. For example, if you’re an Apple Watch wearer, you may have noticed that the watch reminds you to breathe precisely at the moment you need it most.

The ‘breathe’ feature on the Apple Watch exemplifies the basic principles of biofeedback and highlights the importance of breath to improve wellness. The watch measures something (mystery yet to be solved) about your physiological state. At the same time, the notification reminds you to breathe and allows you to be in control of your emotional state. The goal is for you to take a deep breath and bring yourself back to calm.

This relationship between the physical and emotional is the backbone of biofeedback. Biofeedback as an external window into your internal world, where you can use findings to adapt and regulate your wellbeing.

Mind Over Matter

The principles of biofeedback-— the connection between mind-body-spirit– is nothing new. Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, and Yoga have long recognized this unique connection and the mind’s ability to control our physical reactions. Biofeedback builds on these centuries’ proven philosophies, using cutting-edge technology to showcase progress. In this way, biofeedback can be measured with precise data.

Biofeedback is a technique you learn and not a treatment administered. Rather, it’s a process that becomes more efficient over time. Biofeedback is traditionally performed in a clinical setting with a therapist who places sensors on the body, and a computer screen emitting colors and sounds based on the readings.

Specific sensors typically measure different body changes, such as electromyogram (EMG) used to measure muscle tension; electrodermal activity (EDA) used to measure perspiration rate, finger pulse measurements that read blood pressure and heartbeat, and electroencephalogram (EEG) that measures electrical activity in the brain. All these are measured and relayed back to you to improve your overall well-being, and can reduce pain, depression, muscle tension and increase cognitive coping.

The Power of Breath

If biofeedback is the relationship between body and mind, breathwork is one of the main vehicles that allows for it to happen. It’s why one often says “take a deep breath” before something big is about to happen.

The power of breath to treat stress, anxiety, and depression has long been studied, with techniques such as meditation and breathwork becoming more commonplace. For example, one study showed deep breathing improves mood and reduced stress, while another showed breathing-based mediation reduced PTSD symptoms in American military veterans.

According to this study, when one breathes rapidly, it activates a network of brain structures, including the amygdala, and activity in this part of the brain suggests that breathing quickly may trigger feelings of anxiety, anger, and fear. But by slowing down the breath, one can slow down and reduce fear and anxiety.

The good news?

The power is quite literally in the palm of your hands.
By now, you’re probably used to holding a device in the palm of your hands daily (not to mention you’re probably reading this on one such device). However, whereas smartphones can make us feel like we’re in a one-way relationship with the phone, losing an uphill battle against notifications and unread emails, a much healthier two-way relationship can be nurtured with a biofeedback device. The beauty of biofeedback is that it empowers you to gain insight and control over your wellbeing. When it comes to biofeedback, it’s always a “takes two to tango” situation.

While often “ignorance is bliss,” in the case of your emotional state and wellbeing, being unaware may actually be the core of your unease. When it comes to mindfulness and mental health, the more you know, the more you grow, and Reflect helps you do just that. With a soft-to-the-touch fabric and round shape that nests perfectly in your hands along with an intuitive app to showcase progress, Reflect helps you guide your attention inward, so you can put your more attuned, relaxed, and focused foot forward.