We all know, at least broadly, the meaning of the term “nervous system”. It represents that complex system of nerves that allows the transmission of electrical signals in our body and which is the basis of many vital functions. Due to its anatomical and functional complexity, the nervous system is divided into various branches. In other words, it represents a set of subsystems, each with its own anatomical and functional characteristics (see figure). This complex system includes the so-called “autonomic nervous system” (ANS), which participates in the regulation of the activity of the internal organs of our organism and which in turn is divided into two branches: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system .
Why divide them?
Well, these two branches seem to have a different role on target organs. Traditionally, the sympathetic nervous system is attributed a function of activation and mobilization of energy resources, while the parasympathetic nervous system is attributed an opposite function of deactivation, therefore of relaxation and conservation of energy resources. When does one or the other system activate? It depends on the characteristic of the situation and the meaning we attribute to it. These systems serve to prepare the individual to respond adequately to specific environmental demands. If the current situation represents a danger to us, our body will prepare itself for an attack or flight response by mobilizing energy resources through the sympathetic nervous system. The other way around, if the situation ceases to be threatening, an activation of the parasympathetic nervous system will prevail. However, it should be noted that, contrary to what it might seem, the activation of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are not in opposition to each other. It is currently believed that the relationship between the two branches can sometimes be antagonistic, other times synergistic, other times still independent.
What does all this have to do with biofeedback?
Biofeedback is a technique that can help people who show hyperactivity in stressful situations or in any case an abnormal activation pattern that can create problems or cause the aggravation of physical or psychological disorders already present. The purpose of biofeedback is in fact to increase the voluntary control over the reactions of one’s organism and to bring the physiological response systems that show an alteration into balance. In other words, those who respond to stressful events with excessive activation will use biofeedback to reduce sympathetic activation and increase parasympathetic activation. The other way around,
What exactly is biofeedback?
As the term itself suggests, biofeedback is nothing more than a biological return information, obtained through specific recording equipment. The idea of biological return information is the same as when we measure our weight on a scale. Also in this case, in fact, we rely on a tool that is capable not only of quantifying our weight, but of showing us the result by returning information that represents a sort of snapshot of our current body weight. The fundamental element from which to start in order to learn to exercise some form of control is precisely the feedback, that is the information returned by the instrument.
The specific physiological parameters most commonly considered include:
- Heart rate;
- The skin temperature;
- Muscle tension;
- The psychogalvanic response.
The equipment used, on the other hand, basically consists of:
- recording electrodes;
- signal processing tool;
- monitor for viewing and monitoring parameters.
What Should I Expect? What will the work consist of?
The procedure typically comprises two stages:
Phase 1: the psychophysiological profile
The first part consists in a careful examination of your psychophysiological profile, through which it is possible to observe the presence of patterns (configurations) of abnormal activation in stressful situations. You will be asked to lie down or sit comfortably while the staff will take care to apply some sensing electrodes to specific sites on your body. This will be followed by short registration steps in which you will be alternately told to relax and do some tasks before the exam can be considered concluded. Once finished, it will be possible to check from the graphs obtained how your body behaves (in physiological terms) in stressful situations and in the recovery phase. Let’s imagine that we have in front of us a person who complains of cramps and chronic muscle pain, for which a medical cause has been excluded, and to submit it to the examination just described.
Probably the graph obtained will show an increase in muscle tone in a stressful situation and the difficulty in returning to basic levels once the stimulation is finished. All this means that stressful situations induce intense muscle activation which, once established, tends to last over time even when the source of stress disappears. This pattern is able to generate the complained pains and it is therefore advisable to improve the control that the person has over them by passing to the second phase. All this means that stressful situations induce intense muscle activation which, once established, tends to last over time even when the source of stress disappears. This pattern is able to generate the complained pains and it is therefore advisable to improve the control that the person has over them by passing to the second phase. All this means that stressful situations induce intense muscle activation which, once established, tends to last over time even when the source of stress disappears. This pattern is able to generate the complained pains and it is therefore advisable to improve the control that the person has over them by passing to the second phase.
Phase 2: biofeedback
In biofeedback therapy, the electrodes are applied again and the person is asked to look at the monitor which shows the trace of his physiological responses. The equipment is set so that when the amplitude of the signal relating to the physiological function of interest exceeds a limit threshold agreed with the person, the instrument produces a sound. With the help of visual and acoustic feedback, the subject learns methods to reduce his own activation and obtains feedback on the ongoing self-regulation process. The limit threshold is gradually reduced in order to achieve ever greater levels of relaxation. When the goal is to achieve greater activation (as there is no adequate reaction to stress) the threshold is instead raised.
When should biofeedback be used?
Biofeedback is useful if at least one of the following conditions exists:
- stress is an important component in the etiology of the disorder
- excessive arousal or an abnormal psychophysiological reaction pattern contributes to maintaining and aggravating symptoms
- at the base of the disorder there is an alteration in physiological function
- in the treatment of medical unexplained physical symptoms (MUPS) or functional disorders
What are the strengths compared to other techniques or therapies?
- The active role of the person in both treatment and goal setting;
- The ability to act selectively and in a limited way on a particular aspect of physiological functioning, such as the muscular tension of the case described above;
- The auditory and acoustic feedback also allows to obtain feedback on the self-regulation process in progress;
- The ability to provide objective feedback on the ongoing self-regulation process;
- The ability to qualitatively and quantitatively monitor the responses related to the activation of the autonomic nervous system
- Although it is not a real relaxation technique, it can facilitate its achievement through greater control over one’s reactivity to environmental demands.
Who to contact
There are specialized private centers, or with dedicated sections, that use this method, but also free professions trained specifically in the use of biofeedback. In any case, you must rely on the care of specialized and competent people in the use of this technique.