Biofeedback Therapy: Can It Help Alcoholics and Drug Addicts?
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Biofeedback is a training program that teaches people to become more aware of physiologic functions. The technique taught during therapy sessions can be used to gain greater control over normally involuntary body processes, such as breathing and heart rate. The underlying principle of this therapy is to harness the power of the mind to modify involuntary body functions for overall improvement in health and well-being.
Biofeedback is useful for a number of medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, migraine headaches, incontinence, and chronic pain. Recovering addicts can benefit from biofeedback by understanding how involuntary functions drive their substance abuse. During sessions, specialized equipment receives physiological information from the body and converts these signals into audio and visual cues. Trained therapists then guide therapy and teach the client to make subtle changes based on this information. Essentially, biofeedback uses the power of thoughts to control the body and improve a health condition.
Table of Contents:
- What is Biofeedback Therapy?
- What Happens During Biofeedback Treatment?
- What is Biofeedback Used For?
- How Does Biofeedback Work?
- Benefits of Biofeedback Interventions
- Difference Between Biofeedback and Neurofeedback
- Biofeedback for Addiction Treatment
Biofeedback Treatment: An Overview
Human beings have control over voluntary activities, such as walking and talking. However, certain body functions, such as breathing and heart rate, are physiologic and involuntary. Biofeedback, a technique first developed in the 1970’s, is a mind-body training program in which a person learns to modify physiological functions, such as sweating, breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature, and muscle contractions. This active-participation patient-centered therapy helps recovering addicts gain control over a number of involuntary functions that add to distress during a tense or nervous emotional state. By learning to track the body’s reaction to physical and emotional stress, people with substance abuse problems can make subtle changes in their response to stressful situations. These relaxation exercises and stress-relief interventions help induce a feeling of well-being and calm.
Biofeedback therapists use the information obtained from tracking devices to create a customized plan tailored to the specific needs of each recovering addict. Alcohol or drug withdrawal symptoms are stressful and often associated with intense involuntary responses. Biofeedback helps manage many of the symptoms of drug and alcohol withdrawal, including anxiety, restlessness, and muscle pain.
Biofeedback Sessions: How Long Does Treatment Take?
Each biofeedback session typically lasts 30 to 60 minutes and is administered by a therapist with special training. This intervention requires specialized equipment during supervised sessions in the office. Smartphone apps are available to practice the exercises at home and supplement the training received during formal sessions. Interactive devices measure physiologic functions through sensors. The therapist then uses this feedback to help the addict master stress control by pacing involuntary activities.
How many sessions of biofeedback are needed for addiction treatment? For people with a mild addiction, results may be evident in as few as 10 sessions. People with severe addiction may need as many as 50 sessions. For a number of medical problems, 10 sessions are helpful, but for some health conditions, such as high blood pressure, it may take longer (20 sessions or so) to respond. Therefore, relapse prevention plans and addiction treatment with biofeedback can extend over two to three months or longer.
What happens during a biofeedback session? During a session in the therapist’s office, electrodes or finger sensors are attached to the client’s skin. These sensors transmit information (feedback) to the machine which displays images or flashing lights to represent the respiratory rate, heart rate, sweating, skin temperature, and muscle activity. When a recovering addict is under stress, the increased heart rate, tight muscles, excessive sweating, and quick breathing are evident on the monitor. When the individual performs relaxation exercises, there is immediate feedback in terms of the stress responses on the display. With time, therapists guide addicts in stress-relaxation techniques to control involuntary body functions and fine-tune their response to stress.
The machine shows the client their response to a specific situation. For example, a pulsing image on the monitor may indicate a fast heart rate. This is an indication to the recovering addict to use stress-relieving techniques to bring down their heart rate to a more normal level. By controlling their thoughts and behavior, the addict can control the body’s physiological reaction. The response, i.e., the slowing heart rate, is indicated on the display. Similarly, based on feedback, an individual may focus on relaxing certain muscles to relieve stress. In this manner, biofeedback uses the power of thoughts to control body functions which are usually automatic.
Who Can Benefit from Biofeedback?
Biofeedback is an excellent choice for addicts who experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms or side effects from addiction treatment drugs. It can also be used in pregnant females with a substance abuse problem because it is safe and does not expose the mother or baby to medications. People who have failed to respond to conventional treatment may benefit from biofeedback techniques.
This type of stress management training also benefits some mental health disorders that frequently coexist in people struggling with alcohol or drug abuse, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Studies have shown these interventions are useful in treating a number of chronic medical conditions, such as pain, migraine headaches, incontinence, and hypertension. Essentially, this therapy promotes relaxation and can be used to improve conditions associated with stress. Thus, it is helpful for a variety of illnesses, ranging from fibromyalgia, constipation, and irritable bowel syndrome to chemotherapy side effects, motion sickness, and tinnitus (ringing in the ears).
Biofeedback therapy in Michigan and other states is available to manage a range of medical conditions that are triggered or made worse by stress. Experts believe that this training program is beneficial as a natural relaxation technique for overall health and wellness. With time, clients learn self-regulation which can be practiced in daily life even after formal sessions are over and monitoring machines are no longer required.
Techniques of Biofeedback Therapy
Biofeedback exercises train recovering addicts in three key relaxation techniques:
Recovering addicts are taught to release negative emotions and focus on positive thoughts. A moment-by-moment awareness of feelings helps addicts focus on the present rather than rehashing a difficult past or worrying about the future. With its roots in Buddhist meditation, mindfulness teaches peaceful concentration for greater mind control.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
When under stress, addicts use relaxation exercises to release tension in their muscles, one at a time. Progressive muscle relaxation helps recovering addicts systematically focus on a muscle group, such as the neck and shoulders, and alternately tighten and relax these muscles. When practiced consistently, these exercises are helpful in lowering muscle tension during periods of anxiety and stress.
By guiding their thoughts towards positive, soothing scenarios and images, addicts learn to relax the mind and body. This method of relaxation helps focus the mind on pleasant images, such as the texture and color of a fruit, which directs the body into a relaxed state. This helps soothe symptoms such as anxiety, restlessness, muscle tension, and difficulty sleeping, which are commonly seen in people with substance abuse problems.
Advantages of Biofeedback Interventions
The most important advantage of biofeedback is that it is a noninvasive, self-regulatory, medication-free technique with no known severe side effects. It can be combined with other types of psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). It integrates well with alternative techniques for addiction recovery, such as music and art therapy.
Biofeedback is a good alternative for individuals who are intolerant to medications. In fact, it can help reduce or eliminate the need for pharmacotherapy. It may also help people who have failed to improve with medications. Essentially, these techniques help people take charge of their health in a safe, noninvasive manner. However, these exercises may not be appropriate for all patients and every medical condition.
It is a good idea to discuss biofeedback with a healthcare professional and find a therapist who has special training in these techniques. Before beginning treatment, ask the therapist about their registration and certification as well as their training and experience. Recovering addicts should also obtain information about the number of sessions required, the cost, and insurance coverage before starting treatment.
Comparison of Biofeedback and Neurofeedback
Neurofeedback therapy is a type of biofeedback that focuses on brain activity and attempts to calm down overactive brainwaves. Prolonged use of alcohol and drugs is associated with a disruption of normal brain activity. These abnormal patterns are associated with a number of symptoms, such as anxiety and depression, which can, in turn, trigger relapse in a recovering addict. Neurofeedback helps restore brain activity to healthy patterns and is an important adjunctive therapy to cope with substance abuse recovery.
Biofeedback machines consist of monitors for different body functions.
- Electromyogram to measure muscle tension.
- Bands on the chest and abdomen to monitor breathing patterns.
- Sensors to track skin temperature.
- Electrocardiograph to measure heart rate.
- Electrodermal electrode to obtain information about sweating.
Neurofeedback uses electroencephalography or EEG to measure brain activity and track brainwave patterns. It measures activity in different areas of the brain and their response during various actions. This allows the therapist to train the client in self-regulation and gain control over stress that arises in the autonomic nervous system. In this manner, it addresses problems that are worsened by deregulation in the brain. Neurofeedback is the most popular and widely available type of biofeedback therapy currently practiced in the United States.
Addiction Treatment: Does Biofeedback Help?
Training in stress-management helps addicts understand how their addiction affects their mind and body and how they can modify their response to stress. In essence, it helps recovering addicts gain control over their recovery. Biofeedback and neurofeedback are effective modalities in substance abuse treatment because they give recovering addicts a psychological edge in fighting addiction.
Biofeedback is useful in substance abuse recovery because it treats many of the common symptoms associated with drug and alcohol withdrawal, such as anxiety, depression, preoccupation, restlessness, fatigue, and insomnia. The goal is to help a recovering addict improve mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing through self-regulation, relaxation response, and stress management.
- Dana L Frank, Lamees Khorshid, Jerome F Kiffer, Christine S Moravec, Michael G McKee, Biofeedback in medicine: who, when, why and how?, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2939454/
- De Witte NAJ, BuyckI, Van Daele T, Combining Biofeedback with Stress Management Interventions: A Systematic Review of Physiological and Psychological Effects., https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30604099
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