Reprinted with the Permission of Prevention & Mr. Golin

The Biofeedback Way To Starve Stress

By Mark Golin

If you're like me, then you've probably flirted briefly with some sort of meditation or guided-imagery technique in an attempt to give stress the slip.

Unfortunately, I always ran into the same problem. After wrapping myself up into a reasonable facsimile of the lotus position, I'd close my eyes and set sail for inner peace. About 10 minutes into my journey, I'd start wondering if I was doing it right.

Am I relaxed now? I'd ask myself. That little voice of doubt always managed to be just loud enough to disrupt any attempt at achieving relaxation.

The end result of all my endeavors was always the same: a sigh of defeat and a couple more instruction books relegated to the bottom of a closet.

But a couple of months ago, hope came to me through the mail in a package from a company called Thought Technology. Inside was a hand-sized piece of machinery with the enigmatic label GSR 2. It was a biofeedback unit. I vaguely recalled biofeedback as a sort of 70's self-improvement fad that somewhere along the line was quietly forgotten. But since I was about due for another adventure in stress control, it couldn't hurt to give biofeedback its turn.

Being inherently suspicious of anything I don't understand that promises to do me good, the first order of business was a call to John A. Corson, PhD., professor of psychiatry at Dartmouth Medical School and an expert in the field of biofeedback.

"Basically, what a biofeedback unit does is monitor a biological process that would be otherwise difficult or impossible for the subject to detect," Dr. Corson says. "Changes in body function are then transformed into an easily understood signal, such as a tone or meter reading, so that the subject can see exactly what a certain part of his body is doing from moment to moment."


One reason for spying on your body's workings is that they often times change as your emotional state changes. The autonomic nervous system is a perfect example of this, says Dr. Corson. I call this system the emotional fire in the boiler because it initiates many physical and chemical changes as components of heightened emotional states, such as fear or excitement.

Perspiration is one of those functions controlled by the autonomic nervous system. You may have noticed yourself sweating a bit the last time you gave a recital at Carnegie Hall or were chased by a Siberian tiger. This is the autonomic system working at its best. On a subtler level, the size of your pores as well as the level of perspiration production are constantly changing in reaction to everyday stimuli and stress.

"These changes are very small and are measured in units called micromhos," says Dr. Corson. The GSR 2 biofeedback unit monitors the skin's micro-mho level and emits a tone, which rises in pitch as more moisture is produced or drops as the skin becomes drier.

The end product is a direct line of communication with how you're really feeling. So it seemed as if biofeedback was the answer to my meditation struggles with the voice of doubt. Now I'd know for sure if I was relaxing correctly because the tone would tell me. It was time for some experimentation.


The actual unit fit easily in my hand and had a small elastic band that held my fingers snugly against two smooth metal plates. Upon contact, a small earphone began humming softly in my ear. I closed my eyes and started purposefully thinking about a stressful situation: my next article deadline. Sure enough, within three seconds, the tone started climbing the scale until it resembled the high-pitched whine of a mosquito. No doubt about it, I was definitely worked up.

'Soon I had the unit humming a low
tone - virtually one-note hymn to relaxation.'

Bringing the tone back down took a little more work. Over the next two weeks, I practiced regularly with the unit while listening to a tape of relaxation exercises that came with the package. Soon I had the unit humming a low complacent tone that was a virtual one-note hymn to relaxation. If I heard the tone rise, I stopped and examined my thoughts to see what was bothering me. In this way, I not only learned correct relaxation techniques, I also discovered hidden stressors that I never realized were upsetting me.

As I was lying on my living room floor totally calm after a half hour of feedback, I wondered why such a great technique had been a mere fad 15 years ago. "The instrumentation and training techniques for clients were less sophisticated back then," says Dr. Corson. "People bought biofeedback units with the idea that they could just plug themselves in and rewire their emotions for relaxation."

If regeneration is high on your priority list,
biofeedback may be just the ticket.

That's not the case at all. If you're thinking of giving biofeedback a try, be prepared for some serious work. To start, you've got to find a good relaxation technique and really concentrate on making it work. "The unit itself only tells you how you're doing, not what to do," cautions Dr. Corson. A good analogy is that of a maze. At one end is you, at the other is relaxation. Biofeedback can tell you when you're on the right path and can also let you know when you're taking false turns.

I put in a good half hour a day at feedback. But Dr. Corson says even 10 to 20 minutes daily, done regularly, can have a beneficial effect. "Besides the promise of daily relaxation, I've found that biofeedback in conjunction with stress-management training often delivers other bonuses, such as better sleep and relief from stress-relaxed high blood pressure," he says.

Eventually, when you've learned proper relaxation techniques, you can wean yourself from the feedback unit. But again, to make it work, you still must practice your exercises regularly. Otherwise your body will forget everything you taught it. "Occasionally it's a good idea to go back to the biofeedback unit to make sure your skills are in good order," says Dr. Corson.

If regeneration is high on your priority list, biofeedback may be just the ticket. It helps you gain control of your body and mind so that you can realize some of your latent potential. And it does this by rechanneling your own attention rather than by depending on external resources. If you just want to calm down a bit, biofeedback can show you how to do it faster and better.

Thought Technology is a leading manufacturer of quality, home biofeedback units. If you're interested in learning a little more about the GSR 2, drop them a line.


Thought Technology Ltd. © 2006

Privacy Policy