What is biofeedback (and how does it work)?

Biofeedback is a complementary therapy which can help you develop a greater awareness of your body and allow you to gain some control of your behavioural responses to certain stimuli. Here, we take a look at how it works, what to expect and the concerns that biofeedback can help manage. 

person having biofeedback

What is biofeedback? 

Biofeedback (also known as biofeedback therapy) is a non-invasive and complementary mind-body approach that helps you control otherwise automatic bodily functions like your heart rate and breathing. 

With training and practice, biofeedback therapy can help individuals make subtle changes to improve their physical, mental and spiritual health. This is done by identifying how the body’s involuntary functions are currently performing, and learning how to affect these functions to support physiology in the best way possible. 

Why might someone try biofeedback? 

Biofeedback isn’t a standalone treatment but it can help manage some conditions alongside other therapies. These concerns might be related to emotions (such as anxiety or depression), chronic pain, sleep, or other physical issues such as bowel problems, migraines or Tinnitus. 

Biofeedback can be suggested for most conditions, but it’s predominantly used for chronic pain, urinary incontinence, headaches and to lower blood pressure.  

A more comprehensive list of conditions that biofeedback can support includes (but is not limited to) the following: 

  • anxiety 
  • depression 
  • stress
  • trauma or PTSD
  • CFS/ME
  • chronic pain 
  • arthritis 
  • epilepsy 
  • faecal/urinary incontinence and pelvic floor strengthening
  • high blood pressure 
  • insomnia/sleep problems
  • headaches and migraines 
  • motion sickness 
  • Raynaud’s
  • Tinnitus 
  • ADHD

How does biofeedback work? 

Biofeedback is generally considered to be a system of training, rather than direct treatment. The idea is that, following a feedback session, you can work alongside healthcare professionals to develop a better understanding and awareness of your body’s involuntary functions, helping you create conscious changes to support your well-being. 

The first step in biofeedback therapy is, as the name suggests, having a feedback session. This involves a health professional using non-invasive equipment and techniques to measure functions such as:

  • your heart rate
  • blood pressure
  • pain perception
  • breathing
  • muscle tension
  • sweat

Following the measurements, the practitioner will provide feedback on the findings and suggest ways that you can voluntarily influence these functions in order to improve and maintain health. 

What to expect in a biofeedback session

A typical feedback session lasts around 30 minutes to one hour. The number of sessions you’ll need usually depends on a few factors, such as your goals and what condition you’re trying to manage. You can expect to have between four and 10 sessions. 

To measure responses in your body, electrical devices are used which involve sensors (usually pads called electrodes) being connected to specific parts of your body. You’ll be guided through various exercises such as visualisation, meditation and breathing techniques, and your responses to these stimuli will be monitored.  

Following the feedback, your practitioner will then suggest strategies to help you tune into your body and tweak the way it’s functioning. Some examples of these techniques include:

  • changing your sitting or standing posture to decrease tension in the muscles
  • altering your breathing patterns to calm anxiety and lower pain
  • relaxing muscles to reduce tension, pain and improve sleep

The more you practise this alongside a professional, you’ll soon be able to implement these strategies for yourself (using the equipment, to begin with) with the goal of seeing long-term improvement. 

Ultimately, you will begin to develop greater awareness of your behaviours and learn how to modify them. For example, when we feel stressed, our heart rate tends to increase. This is something that typically goes unnoticed for many of us and can exacerbate symptoms. With biofeedback therapy, you can learn how to slow your breathing and heart rate as soon as you recognise a change in your behaviour to remain calm and grounded. 

Another example of how biofeedback can be used is to help overcome incontinence in children. This works by placing sensors around the child’s pelvic area and, by teaching them exercises such as contracting their muscles, the child can learn to strengthen their pelvic floor, therefore reducing accidents. 

Types of biofeedback

Depending on your health concern, your therapist may use one or a combination of the following methods. Each has the same objective of measuring your stimulus response but they target a different area of the body.

  • Electromyography (EMG) measures muscle tension.
  • Respiratory records breathing.
  • Heart rate (HR) records the heart rate through a finger sensor.
  • Thermal biofeedback detects body temperature changes.
  • Neurofeedback monitors brain activity.

Getting started 

Biofeedback is a safe and risk-free therapy as it is non-invasive. It’s suitable for most people, although it’s worth bearing in mind that results may be harder to assess if you have conditions such as heart arrhythmia. It’s a complementary therapy, meaning that it should be used alongside other treatments (such as medication or talking therapies) and not in place of. Many people, however, report that biofeedback can be effective enough to decrease the amount of additional interventions needed over time. 

To find out if you’re likely to benefit from biofeedback, as well as any other questions you may have – such as the expected length and cost of treatment – it’s recommended to speak to individual biofeedback therapists as they may vary in how they work. 

Many healthcare providers will offer biofeedback therapy, such as psychiatrists, psychologists and other primary caregivers like nurses. It’s important to ensure that the person you contact is a licensed professional. We’d recommend you check their credentials, such as their qualifications and/or registration with a self-regulatory body such as the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback.

When used alongside other treatments, biofeedback can be an effective complementary therapy. But, remember, as with other holistic approaches, it may not be suitable for everyone. If you’re looking for other complementary or spiritual practices to dip your toes into, you can browse our list of approaches on Therapy Directory to find those that work for you. 

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Written by Emily Whitton
Emily is a Content Creator & Marketing Coordinator at Happiful and a writer for Therapy Directory.
Written by Emily Whitton
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