Benefits of Mindfulness & Biofeedback Together
Benefits of Mindfulness & Biofeedback Together
Why Biofeedback & Mindfulness?
There are many treatment options for nearly every disorder and each seems to make a dizzying array of claims. So why biofeedback & mindfulness training? What sets them apart and why might they work for you?
A Good Thing to Ask!
First, it should be emphasized that the active patient, the one who asks such questions as those above, is the type that usually responds best to most therapies, including MIndfulness-Based Biofeedback Therapy™ (MBBT). And, studies show that the active, questioning, self-directed patient generally survives longer and has better results in dealing with our healthcare systems. Evidence always matters, and it is right and good to inquire into the safety and efficacy of any treatment approach.
Unique Benefits of Mindfulness-Based Biofeedback Therapy™
Biofeedback treatments require active, intelligent participation in the process, and this is supported by a clear understanding of the theory behind it and the evidence for it working. Recognizing this need, the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback has compiled statistics from hundreds of studies that tested the effectiveness of biofeedback for a wide range of disorders. They applied meta-analysis review techniques in line with the best principles of evidence-based medical practices. These are the standards that are adopted by the National Institutes of Health and that are the gold standard for determining efficacy. Further, the beneficial effects of mindfulness training have been shown in hundreds of studies. MBBT combines these two powerful modalities into a single, comprehensive training program.
MBBT is a behavioral treatment. While medications are useful and necessary in many comprehensive treatment plans, they rarely stand on their own as a treatment, especially for chronic conditions.
MBBT uses no medications and no secondary toxicity is developed due to the treatment. This is not the case for those treatments that rely predominantly on medications. Many medications that are initially effective cease to be so with continued use, as the body adjusts to them. And all medications have some side-effects which can range from undesirable to outright toxic. This speaks to the complexity and interconnectedness of our physiological systems. Even the most intelligent student of human physiology eventually comes to the conclusion that it is more complex than we can fully understand.
Any intervention in complex systems is subject to the “Law of Unintended Consequences”. And these consequences tend to be negative. It is no accident that one of the most ancient and first-principles of medicine is “First, do no harm” (Latin: Primum non nocere). A similar admonition (“to help, or at least to do no harm") is included in the Hippocratic Oath, a pledge traditionally taken by all physicians. It is a recognition of the respect we must have for our limitations and for the complexity and fragility of the human organism. This need for humility in dealing with complex systems can be extended to all systems, including the environment. There is great wisdom in working with the existing strategies of the body, rather than trying to block or over-ride them. Biofeedback focuses on enhancing existing body system rhythms and thus avoids the toxicity associated with more simplistic interventions.
By working with the basic balancing and maintenance systems of the body and mind, MBBT delivers “generative change” which is change that continues to unfold over time in a beneficial manner. What you learn in the first few sessions, and develop more fully as your practice deepens, will prevent untold future illnesses and avoid countless unnecessary stress-reactions. MBBT teaches behavioral practices that do not add to your drug load or other medical burdens. And the skills learned in MBBT, and witnessed by those in your life, often inspire change in those around you (see recent Harvard study) as they adjust to your new way of being and the health, well-being, equanimity, and self-control you manifest daily.
• Puts You in Control
MBBT requires that you internalize the trainings; that you make them habits and make them your own. This shifts the ‘locus of control’ from others to you. This is a major shift in the approach to health and personal empowerment. It is both a responsibility and an opportunity. It’s a major event: a power shift from others treating you to you maintaining yourself. With MBBT, your self-knowledge and sensitivity to internal balances grows and you become your own highest authority on your well being. You grow more sensitive and vigilant, as you realize you truly are the best- and first-responder to any threat of internal imbalance. As you come to know yourself better, you recognize imbalances sooner and adjust your physiology, mental focus, and behavior more and more automatically. Your body communicates to your mind more clearly, and you communicate to your health care providers more clearly. Listening, sensing, and communicating are specifically enhanced by MBBT.
Self-efficacy here refers to the sense of ability and control that grows from training in self-regulation. It’s a shift from passive acceptance to proactive health maintenance. There can be a sense of oppression and lack of control that grows from living with the bewildering array of pains, energy fluctuations, and emotional shifts that is the human condition. However, one need not feel abandoned to these ‘winds of life.’ Early on in MBBT, it becomes clear that there is a great deal of choice in how we sense and respond to changing circumstances. There is a grace and equanimity that can be cultivated and applied directly to those processes that may otherwise seem beyond our control. The science and practice of MBBT grew out of the recognition that we can actively change a great deal of our physiology and psychology at will, with the right training and the ability to visualize the effects in real-time. Proper coaching and immediate feedback are essential to achieve this, and these are major foci of biofeedback training.
• Team-work and Accountability
You should not go it alone. Most of us can make impressive lists of what we should do—even ought to do. But few of us find ourselves happily checking things off that list. Instead, the list grows, things go undone, and exhaustion, confusion, and old habits—especially bad ones—set in. It can be lonely and embarrassing. Who wants that? And who really wants to tackle their health issues on their own? That’s why a major focus in MBBT is gentle coaching, and continuity and consistency in trainings. Habit formation is a master art and science. It’s where the ‘rubber meets the road’ and it’s a strong focus of MBBT. Compelling theories, enthusiastic and competent practitioners, and committed patients are very important to the healing process, but they are subordinate to the importance of habit formation. In MBBT, habit formation is cultivated by clear expectations, attainable goals, accountability, and compassionate coaching.
• Works at the Core:
One of the main pillars in science is called the Principle of Parsimony. It states that the best theory is that which is the simplest and yet explains and predicts the most. A central theory underlying biofeedback as a means of self-regulation and optimum health is homeostasis (from Latin, ‘to stand equally’): the concept that all living things must maintain a balance among all components of all their systems. Interestingly, this maintenance is achieved not by locking-in to one condition, but instead by constantly changing, fluctuating around an average condition. Like a champion tennis player, swaying back and forth on their toes awaiting a serve, so too does the body oscillate in all kinds of ways in preparation for whatever life serves up. Examples of body systems that do this include temperature, hormones, immune system, digestion, levels of alertness, blood pressure, respiration, heart rate, etc. Every vital sign does it. They all oscillate between high and low levels over time. They know when to switch directions because they have sensors that listen for ‘feedback’: when the system swings too far in one direction sensors receive feedback triggering a reverse in direction.
In fact, the overwhelming impression one gets when looking at the massive posters one sees in academic biochemistry labs, the posters depicting the known life-chemistry reactions, is one of circles. These circles are just a graphic representation of the feedback principle in hundreds of biochemical reactions. Biofeedback simply extents this concept by adding a new array of sensors (medical wires/sensors) and an alternative type of feedback (graphic displays and/or sounds). The body is already wired to work this way; in biofeedback we’re just tapping in to an existing system in just the way it’s used to functioning.
This is working with the body, respecting it’s core mechanism, and taking advantage of this natural strategy for regulation and stability. This principle of physiological balance is actually a particular instance of a much more universal theory of system regulation studied by systems theorists across many fields, from economics to astrophysics (even the universe oscillates!).
• Complements Other Treatments
Most patients see a variety of health practitioners, and MBBT is always customized to complement and work with your other treatments. As a behavioral treatment, it does not cross-react with medications and has no toxic side-effects. However, you may find that as you increase your ability to self-regulate, you may need to ask your physician to lower the amount of medications you’re using. This is commonly the case in asthma, chronic pain, hypertension, and other disorders.
We hear a lot about Integrative Medicine, as if it is something new and esoteric. This is certainly a misperception. Integration is simply a recognition of that which was already there: a whole person. It’s a return to an original theory of wholeness and wholesomeness. A return to the question, ‘What’s best for this living thing in the big picture?’ Early medicine started out with very basic theories, and general observations about health and wholesomeness. But as we began to look closer, in our attempt to understand the human body, we were overwhelmed by details. The academic response was to slice up this confusing mass into more manageable pieces. Hence the rise of specialties in the West, so that one could at least gain some understanding of some small part of the immense complexity of the lifeform.
Much is gained by specializing, but much is lost too. The various sub-disciplines that developed, as physicians learned more and had to specialize more just to stay current in their fields, worked in increasing isolation. There was so much to measure and track that the more subtle systems-level theories, the functioning of the whole, and the means by which balance is maintained, were overlooked or simply ignored.
Biofeedback and mindfulness training is a return to basic understandings of system maintenance: oscillations and dynamic equilibrium. We work with the fluctuations in basic body systems and feed information back to you in real-time, so that you can begin to make associations between the timing of changes, the subtle sensations that occur with changes, and the ways to alter the systems towards a healthier balance. This is a very conservative approach, but its firm basis in basic physiological theory assures its value.
Mindfulness training teaches you to maintain focus and correct attentional imbalances on the spot. This mental balance is essential for attending and sensitizing to moment-by-moment shifts in physiology, thoughts, and emotions that signal either the stress response or the relaxation response. The more rapidly you notice these shifts, the sooner you can intervene and self-regulate them at will.
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