I recently took a Biofeedback class from Jen Strating at Wholeness Center, and was amazed by my own ability to influence many autonomic, or so called involuntary functions in my body. I watched on a computer screen as my heart rate and finger moisture increased after talking about a stressful event, and then saw how these measures decreased when I focused on deep breathing and positive imagery. Biofeedback uses many indicators of stress including heart rate, sweat, muscle tension, and body temperature, to teach relaxation techniques that can later be applied in real life situations. Biofeedback is useful for treating many mental and physical conditions including anxiety, insomnia, migraines, general stress, and chronic pain, as well as being helpful for anyone who wants a way to visually track mind and body balance.
One of the tools used in my biofeedback session involved measuring heart rate, with the goal of increasing my heart rate variability. Two branches of our nervous system, the sympathetic branch, responsible for “fight or flight”, and the parasympathetic branch, responsible for “rest and digest”, moderate heart rate. The sympathetic branch increases heart rate, while the parasympathetic decreases it. High heart rate variability reflects a healthy balance between both nervous system branches, but frequently one branch becomes out of balance, and leads to physical and emotional symptoms.
Physical manifestations of an overactive sympathetic nervous system may include insomnia, high blood pressure, musculoskeletal pain, cold hands and feet, and constipation. Emotionally it may result in increased anxiety and stress. Conversely, an overactive parasympathetic nervous system may result in depression and decreased thought clarity. Physically, a person may have diarrhea, dizziness, low blood pressure, fatigue, and weight gain. However, with a healthy balance between both nervous systems, the body can respond optimally to life’s stressors.
There are many ways you can influence the balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the nervous system. Biofeedback provides a visual method for measuring the balance and learning different ways to improve the balance. Yoga, meditation, and deep breathing, are other techniques that help calm the body, and bring parasympathetic balance. Aerobic exercise and engaging in activities that bring joy and excitement will help boost an under-active sympathetic nervous system. While many factors including diet, hormones, other medical conditions, and life events influence our nervous system activity, trying some of these tools and activities will help you develop positive coping skills, and learn to reach a healthier and more balanced you.
Article by Whitney Seibert, PA-C
Whitney Seibert is a physician assistant specializing in psychiatry and Jen Strating is a biofeedback therapist and yoga instructor at Wholeness Center.