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An Introduction to Biofeedback

Most people think that they can't control blood pressure, body temperature, brain waves, digestion, muscle tension, heart rate, and the like. And most of the time, they're right; these basic bodily functions are normally regulated automatically by the nervous system. Usually, you don't even notice them. But it turns out that — with biofeedback training — you can change these normally involuntary functions at will!

Suppose that you're trying to control your blood pressure. A therapist hooks you up with electronic sensors to a machine (see Table) that can measure blood pressure and then translate the reading into a picture or sound (the feedback). As you think different thoughts, you observe the changes in the feedback (usually a series of tones or a computerized image).

Eventually, your mind figures out what you have to do to get your blood pressure into the normal range — and how to make that happen even in the real world. The following table lays out the most common forms of biofeedback and the conditions they're used to treat.

Common Types Of Biofeedback

TypeWhat's MeasuredBasic MethodUsed For

Brain waveElectrical activity in the brainSensors placed on scalpAlcohol and drug addition, brain damage, epilepsy, hyperactivity, insomnia

BreathingBreath rate, rhythm, volume, and locationSensors around chest and abdomen or around mouth and noseAnxiety, asthma, hyperventilation

Electrodermal responseSweat gland activitySensors placed on the muscle group in questionAnxiety, overactive sweat glands

Muscle spasms and tensionMay help treat rheumatoid arthritis, premenstrual syndrome, menstrual cramps, and menopausal symptomsIncontinence, muscle pain, physical rehabilitation, stress, teeth grinding (TMJ), tension headaches, torticollis ("wry neck")

Finger PulsePulse rate and amount of blood in each pulse (the higher these are, the more wired your autonomic nervous system is)Sensor attached to a fingerAnxiety, irregular heartbeat, hypertension

Skin temperature (also called thermal biofeedback)Blood flow changes (the more blood flows, the warmer the skin)Temperature sensor (thermistor) taped to fingerAnxiety, hypertension, migraines, Raynaud's disease

Biofeedback can even help relieve problems you aren't directly trying to alleviate. If you find a way to control your skin temperature or blood pressure, for example, you may discover that other problems — especially those that stemmed from an overactive autonomic nervous system — disappear, too! Some people also find themselves feeling more in control of their health, and more hopeful about life in general.

In some cases — especially stress reduction, Raynaud's disease, and certain types of headaches and other pain — biofeedback may be the treatment of choice. If you need to control asthma, diabetes, or epilepsy; recondition muscles; or recover from stroke, biofeedback may well be a useful addition to your overall treatment plan.

But don’t try to be your own therapist by purchasing biofeedback devices on your own. Unless you have very specific instructions from a professional therapist on how to use these gizmos, you’ll only waste your time and money because most of these devices are so complicated to figure out that they usually end up left in the back of the dresser drawer.

An Introduction to Biofeedback

Harold Cohen, Ph.D.

APA Reference
Cohen, H. (2020). An Introduction to Biofeedback. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 8, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.