Biofeedback Therapy: How Can Biofeedback Program Help Drug Addicts?

Last Updated: July 6, 2020

Authored by Dr. Ahmed Zayed

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

Biofeedback (Bfb) is a training program that teaches people to become more aware of physiologic functions. This 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 biofeedback therapy is to harness the power of the mind to modify involuntary body functions for overall improvement in health and well-being.
Biofeedback therapy 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 therapy by understanding how involuntary functions drive their substance abuse. During sessions, the biofeedback machine receives physiological information from the body and converts these signals into audio and visual cues. Trained biofeedback therapists then guide the process and teach the client to make subtle changes based on this information. Essentially, biofeedback treatment approach uses the power of thoughts to control the body and improve a health condition.

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 involuntary. Biofeedback therapy, as a treatment technique, first developed in the 1970’s. Biofeedback is a mind-body training program in which a person learns to modify physiological functions, such as:

  • sweating
  • breathing rate
  • heart rate
  • blood pressure
  • skin temperature
  • 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 Patient on therapy

Alcohol or drug withdrawal symptoms are stressful and often associated with intense involuntary responses. Biofeedback treatment helps manage many of the symptoms of drug and alcohol withdrawal, including anxiety, restlessness, and muscle pain.

Biofeedback Session: How Long Does The Treatment Take?

Each biofeedback session typically lasts 30 to 60 minutes and is administered by a therapist with specialized training. This intervention requires a biofeedback machine and other 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 several 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.

Patient asking doctor about biofeedback

What Happens During A Biofeedback Session?

How does biofeedback work? During a session in the therapist’s office, electrodes or finger sensors are attached to the client’s skin. These sensors transmit information to the biofeedback machine, which displays images or flashing lights to represent the respiratory and 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 display. With time, therapists guide addicts in stress-relaxation techniques to control involuntary body functions and fine-tune their response to stress.

Biofeedback device
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 of 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., slowing heart rate, is indicated on 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 Therapy?

This type of stress management training also benefits some mental health disorders that frequently coexist in people struggling with:

  • alcohol or drug abuse
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • 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 also 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 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.

Types of Biofeedback Exercises

Biofeedback exercises train recovering addicts in three fundamental relaxation techniques:

Mindfulness Meditation

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.

Guided Imagery

Biofeedback Therapy Patient after session

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 Therapy

Biofeedback therapy is a good alternative for individuals who are intolerant to medications. In fact, it can help reduce or eliminate the need for medications for addiction treatment. 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 this treatment  with a healthcare professional and find a biofeedback therapist. Before beginning treatment, ask the therapist about their registration and certification of the biofeedback machine 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

It is hard to compare Neurofeedback vs. Biofeedback because Neurofeedback therapy is a type of biofeedback treatment that focuses on brain activity and attempts to calm down overactive brain waves. 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 a relapse in a recovering addict. Neurofeedback helps restore brain activity to healthy patterns and is a necessary 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.

Doctor explains Neurofeedback vs. Biofeedback difference

EEG Neurofeedback therapy uses electroencephalography 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 the stress that arises in the autonomic nervous system. In this manner, it addresses the 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.

Using Biofeedback Therapy For Addiction Treatment

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 supports 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.


Page Sources

  1. 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/
  2. 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

Published on: April 18th, 2018

Updated on: July 6th, 2020

About Author

Dr. Ahmed Zayed

Dr. Ahmed Zayed is a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery. He is graduated from the University of Alexandria, Egypt. Dr. Ahmed Zayed has a passion for writing medical and health care articles and focuses on providing engaging and trustworthy information to readers.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.

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