Listen to Your Body
The weather. Aging. Traffic. Income taxes. Rude people. Unfortunately, a list of all the things you can't control in life is practically endless.
But there's also some good news. You can learn to control most of the vital functions that affect your health--from blood pressure to pulse rate to body temperature, among others. Imagine learning how to divert blood away from your head to alleviate your migraine. Or relaxing specific muscles to relieve neck pain or fibromyalgia. Or even controlling incontinence by learning to contract certain muscles.
Women are great at reading other people's emotions, but the ability to read your body's reactions is something that comes with practice--and a little biofeedback training.
That's right--biofeedback. It might sound complicated, but it's actually just the monitoring of blood pressure, temperature, muscle tension, heartbeat or brain waves, which is turned into easy-to-interpret sounds, temperature or video images for the person being monitored.
Medical science first tuned in to biofeedback in the 1960s. Now it's used by mainstream medical doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists to help women relieve stubborn migraine headaches and other stress-related complaints, among other health conditions.
You begin with about ten one-hour sessions of supervised biofeedback training on a specially designed apparatus, then you practice--and apply biofeedback--on your own, says Angele McGrady, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and physiology at the Medical College of Ohio in Toledo and past president of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback based in Wheatridge, Colorado.
HOOK UP, TUNE IN
Typically, you sit in a chair with three wired metal sensors attached to a band on your head. From a pair of headphones, you hear something resembling static. Each click of the static means your brain is emitting an alpha wave, associated with relaxation. The more you relax, the faster the clicks keep coming. By listening to the clicks, you can gauge how well your body responds and learn how to modify your response.
"Paying attention is crucial in biofeedback," notes Susana A. Galle, Ph.D., director of the Body-Mind Center and clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Georgetown University Medical School, both in Washington, D.C. "By monitoring audiovisual signals such as pictures or musical tones from a computer connected to the biofeedback equipment, you establish a bridge between stress and its physiological effects. Then you can start to control it."
The specifics of biofeedback will vary from session to session and practitioner to practitioner. Generally, during the first session, the practitioner will try to get a sense of how you react to stress.
First, the practitioner takes a baseline reading of your relaxation level. While hooked up to a monitor, you relax as the practitioner measures your muscle tension, temperature and heart rate for four minutes. During the next four minutes, you perform a challenging mental task such as counting backward by sevens, which usually raises blood pressure and lowers the temperature of the hands. Then it's back to relaxation mode. Next is a period where you talk about an emotional problem, with the last four minutes spent achieving relaxation again.
"It's important for the practitioner to first observe a woman's level of stress and then how quickly she recovers," says Dr. Galle. "If a woman doesn't recover quickly, it means her stress baseline is high. Biofeedback helps a woman see how she reacts to stress and how she can control it by regulating how her body and mind work."
LEARN TO EASE UP
Having sensors and wires hooked to your body while monitors flash and tones beep might resemble a scene from a science fiction movie, but biofeedback's premise is downright simple, notes Dr. McGrady. "The idea is to take a body function that previously was thought to be uncontrollable, then show it to a person and teach them how to change that function."
Perhaps the simplest biofeedback exercise involves learning to warm up your hands (considered a sure sign of being relaxed). By pinching a sensor at the end of a wire attached to a handheld digital monitor, you measure your peripheral body temperature (which is slightly lower than your core temperature of 98.6°F). With the help of meditation or yoga or whatever relaxation method works best, you concentrate on raising that temperature, with the ultimate goal being 95°F, explains George Fritz, Ed.D., a psychologist with the Pain Management and Biofeedback Institute in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
"Relaxation is a skill like any other--it can be taught," notes Dr. McGrady. "I have women tighten the muscles in their arms or in their foreheads and let them hear the beeps, then tell them to relax and compare."
A Typical Biofeedback Set-Up
Biofeedback machines vary in design. Fairly high-tech but easy to use, they monitor physiological responses such as heartbeat, blood pressure or muscle tension. Sensors translate those responses in various ways--through a computer monitor (shown here), a meter, a light or a tone. Reading and understanding these signals can allow you to control your body's reaction to pain or stress.
REAPING THE BENEFITS
Because stress causes neurochemical changes in your body, many ailments that women suffer are brought on or aggravated by it. These are the conditions for which biofeedback works best--decreased appetite and diminished sex drive if related to anxiety, high blood pressure triggered by stress, and certain types of depression and pain.
Studies show that biofeedback works. It's been effectively used to treat many stress-related disorders that commonly plague women--certain forms of urinary incontinence, migraine and tension headaches, fibromyalgia (painful "trigger points" in muscles) and temporomandibular disorder.
Biofeedback is especially useful for women because they're more likely to get vasoconstrictive disorders--that is, blood vessels that misbehave--causing migraine headaches, Raynaud's disease and cold hands and feet. For similar reasons, practitioners also find that biofeedback training helps relieve hot flashes and premenstrual syndrome.
With the use of biofeedback, men and women with diabetes can be taught to increase the skin temperature in their feet and legs, according to a study conducted at the University of Wisconsin in La Crosse.
Biofeedback has even been shown to boost women's immune systems. The results of a study of 13 women who had undergone modified radical mastectomies suggest that a daily routine of relaxation, imagery and biofeedback training help boost the immune system by increasing the number of killer T-cells. Since these T-cells are champion disease-fighters in your body, when you increase their number, you're elevating your body's immune power.
The whole goal of biofeedback is to be able to do it on your own, notes Dr. McGrady.
"Women who are taught biofeedback learn to react not with tension and anxiety but with relaxation," she notes. "Eventually, women should start being able to read their own body's stress responses with no external monitors and remember how to counteract them."
"You want to maintain a baseline relaxation response so you're not revving your engines," explains Joseph P. Primavera III, Ph.D., psychologist and co-director of the Comprehensive Headache Center at Germantown Hospital and Medical Center in Philadelphia. "If your boss is a tremendous pain, you can't smack him in the head or quit, so you start revving your engine. And that's not a healthy thing to do. Biofeedback is a way to measure how well you control your fight-or-flight response. It just gives you feedback about whether your relaxation technique is causing physiological change," he explains.
"Women say, 'I know how to relax. After I get the kids fed and help them with their homework, I take a bath and light a candle at around 10:00 p.m.,'" says Dr. Primavera. "But learning to ease up and let go isn't that easy, especially in a world where women are expected to do it all. Biofeedback is a technique that's pretty easy to build into any lifestyle. Women can do it sitting in their cars or standing--whenever they need it."
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE
The whole key to biofeedback is to eventually be able to do it sans apparatus. So practice is the key, notes Dr. McGrady.
Here are a few ways to help you get the most out of biofeedback training.
Pick a technique, any technique. For biofeedback to work, you need to employ some kind of relaxation technique, such as visualization or meditation. (For more on visualization and meditation, see pages 204 and 233.) Or try passive relaxation, which means that you simply concentrate on the words or phrases that help you relax. Dr. McGrady suggests phrases such as, "I feel calm; I feel relaxed; my arms and legs are heavy," or phrases related to warmth.
Do it daily. You should find a quiet place and get into a comfortable position, but not one so comfortable that you'll fall asleep, notes Dr. McGrady. "Then take 10 to 15 minutes two times a day to practice your relaxation technique," she says.
Monitor your progress. To get an idea of how well you're relaxing, Dr. Fritz suggests that you use an inexpensive handheld digital thermometer, similar to those used in office sessions. Available from many practitioners or in stores that sell alternative healing products, a handheld thermometer can provide a quick affirmation of your relaxation level by showing if your peripheral temperature is dropping or rising.
A variety of health practitioners--from psychologists to dentists and from physicians and nurses to physical therapists--use biofeedback. Here's how to locate a practitioner trained in the use of this technique.
Number of practitioners in the United States: Between 5,400 and 7,200.
Qualifications to look for: Certification by the Biofeedback Certification Institute of America (BCIA). If certified, BCIA-C will be added to their credentials. This certification, however, is not mandatory in order to practice biofeedback.
Professional associations: Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback (AAPB), 10200 West 44th Avenue, Suite 304, Wheatridge, CO 80033.
To find a practitioner: Contact your state chapter of the AAPB through the address listed above, or send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the Biofeedback Certification Institute of America (also at the AAPB address above) and ask for a list of certified biofeedback specialists in your area.
Approximate cost: Varies according to the area in which you live.