Biofeedback without a Machine

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines Biofeedback as The technique of making unconscious or involuntary bodily processes (as heartbeats or brain waves) perceptible to the senses (as by the use of an oscilloscope) in order to manipulate them by conscious mental control.  With biofeedback, a client learns to monitor and regulate the mind and body in ways that promote mental and physical health and well-being. Initially, this is done with the assistance of a clinician and special equipment. This equipment includes sensors that monitor respiration, heart rate, skin temperature, muscle tension, and brain waves. Eventually, the client may learn how to monitor and regulate on their own without equipment.

One way to assess one’s physical well being is by obtaining a baseline measure of one’s breath rate.  Not only can breathing incorrectly, dispose you to a range of chronic illness, but also it is linked to a variety of different mental health conditions including anxiety.  It is possible to obtain your normal respiration rate by counting the number of breaths you take in 1 minute.  This is what is called your “normal respiration rate.”

What’s normal?

8-14 breaths per minute is commonly accepted as normal.  Men and people in their twenties show slightly lower rates than women and older individuals.  Also people with diseases that affect respiration typically show faster breath rates: 18-28 breaths per minute.  Clients with anxiety often display 16 or more breaths per minute (Pepper, Tylova, Gibney, Harvey, and Combatalade, 2008).

Can I do Respiration Biofeedback without a screen or Software? 

Yes!  Use diaphragmatic breathing techniques to begin to move your breathing closer to a normal range.  Diaphragmatic breathing means breathing in and out of your nose, which slows down the rate of your breath.  On the inhale your belly expands and contracts on the exhale.  If you feel dizzy when you are diaphragmatically breathing, then you are not diaphragmatically breathing.  Chances are that you are breathing in or out too much, breathing too slow, or too fast.  Find a rate that feels comfortable.  Breathe in until you are full and out until you are empty.  Do not force the air in or out.  Diaphragmatic breathing should be a comfortable experience that results in a regulation of the nervous system, allowing you to feel alert and relaxed.

There are also useful phone applications that can assist you in pacing your breathing.  The Breathe Deep: Personal Assistant for Breathing Meditation by Igor Mineev, for instance, allows you to set a pacer to a particular breath rate.  When the pacer is set at 8 breaths per minute, it will tell you when to breathe in and out to achieve 8 breaths x minute.  It is important to remember to take it slow!  It would not be advisable to start practicing with a pacer at 8 breaths per minute when you typically breathe at 20 breaths per minute.  First try reducing your breath rate by following a pacer that is 1 or 2 breaths closer to an optimal range and adjust from there.  Just like more things, practice helps!  Since our physical body is connected to our emotions, don’t be surprised if you notice changes to your mental health symptoms as a result of ongoing practice.

Heather Ingram, PsyD, BCB