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The hidden body signals that could change your behaviour

Apps based on “biofeedback” techniques promise to help reduce stress and more by reporting on what’s going on in our bodies. How do they work?

“Gently close your eyes. Listen to the soundscape you’re now in. As you focus your awareness on different parts of your body, the soundscape will, like your mind, become quiet and serene. If you begin to let your mind wander or fret, the soundscape will become louder and noisier. If this happens, don’t worry – simply return your attention to the awareness of your body. Take one or two slow breaths…”

This is the script of a guided relaxation exercise in an app called Clarity. It is designed by Galvanic, the company behind the Pip, a small handheld device that is currently measuring my electrodermal activity – the conductance of a small electrical current across my skin – eight times per second as the soothing narrator instructs me to relax amid the sound of rain.

The device monitors my stress levels using skin conductance to gauge the arousal of my autonomic nervous system, which controls my heartbeat, breathing and other bodily functions. The Pip’s goal is to teach people to control my stress levels by reporting hidden signals from their body that they might otherwise not notice. You play games on an associated app, where the goal is to change these signals and bring your stress down.

It’s an example of a “biofeedback” device. While the Pip measures skin conductivity, other approaches in the same vein monitor things like brain wave activity, muscle tension, or what your heart is doing. The Inner Balance Transformation System, for example, is an app that promises to improve well-being and reduce anxiety by giving you a clearer picture of your heart rate over the course of the day. Biofeedback techniques have also been used to help train athletes.

So, what is the science behind biofeedback devices, and does the approach work?

“In biofeedback, individuals are instructed to control a physiological response – of which one is usually not aware of,” explains Adrian Meule, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Salzburg. “For example, individuals may be instructed to lower their blood pressure and can monitor their current blood pressure on a screen. Thus, they can evaluate their success… and the strategy that they used to achieve this – maybe breathing slowly or other ways to relax – is positively reinforced.”

Meule says that several biofeedback techniques have been used for children. Feedback about their physiological responses is often displayed in the form of a smiley face or framed in terms of a game, with points scored when they successfully regulate their physiology.

“Thus, the feedback of a successful regulation of a physiological response becomes more positive, which in turn reinforces the strategy that the children used for controlling it,” he said.

The Pip works along these lines and has translated biofeedback training into a series of games. In the Clarity app from the beginning of this article, for example, the user listens to a rainy jungle soundscape. As she relaxes – measured by the handheld sensor – the soundscape gets quieter in real time. At the end, the user is presented with a score.

The most game-like Pip app, though, is Relax and Race, which is designed to train players to remain calm in stressful situations. The game is a race, and depicts a dragon that flies faster as users relax or flies slower if the users stress levels rise. The score is easily quantifiable as the time it takes the dragon to finish the race.

I found the game difficult at first, since anticipating a race immediately makes me more stressed  

I found the game difficult at first, since anticipating a race immediately makes me more stressed – a race is, after all, the ‘flight’ portion of the flight or fight response. But by using techniques like counting my deep breaths, I learned to make the dragon fly faster and am rewarded with a quicker time. Even in a busy week, I found it was motivating enough for me to play it multiple times.

The theory is that the games’ rewards provide positive reinforcement of the de-stressing techniques you’re using, such as slow breathing. “Positive reinforcement… is the introduction of some stimulus in the environment just after a behaviour that results in an increase in that behaviour in the future,” explains Rebecca Doggett, a clinical assistant professor at New York University.

While I’m using biofeedback in the hope I will learn to relax when faced with stressful situations in my daily life, biofeedback has also been shown to be effective in several other contexts.

Before winning the World Cup in 2006, the Italian national football team trained with biofeedback techniques, using a “Mind Room” where they were encouraged to control their breathing, muscle tension and more. Biofeedback training has also been incorporated into the training regimes of Olympic athletes like Canada’s short-track speedskating team.

 

“Biofeedback training before a high-profile competition (which is usually done with a psychologist) helps athletes get their bodies to a place where their performance should be optimal,” says Christine Moravec, a research scientist at the Cleveland Clinic who has studied uses of biofeedback. “There’s a relationship between arousal and performance.

“You want to get your body in a place where your heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure and muscle tension, is exactly optimised without going too far. If your heart is beating too fast or you’re breathing too fast, you’re not going to perform optimally. Biofeedback is used to help people get to the right place.”

Moravec’s own research has focused on the effectiveness of biofeedback training on improving medical conditions. Research suggests biofeedback training might ease symptoms associated with conditions like cardiovascular disease, tension headaches and migraines, and heart failure.

After several weeks of practice, participants reported a reduction of the frequency of food cravings – Adrian Meule  

“In many cases the training is used to help make people feel better who have serious diseases,” explains Moravec. “For example we’ve looked at biofeedback training in people with lung disease. If we can help calm down their bodies, maybe they won’t be so stressed.”

But because many diseases involve the same active response from the nervous system that is activated by stress, calming the nervous system actually helps improve symptoms of certain diseases too.

“Heart disease is a good example of this,” says Moravec. “The same part of the nervous system that is activated when we feel stressed is also activated by cardiac disease. So if you can train your body back to where that system is not so activated, it helps the disease as well.”

Meule’s research investigated biofeedback as a way to control heart rate variability and its effect on food cravings. Heart rate variability increases when someone relaxes and breathes more slowly. With the help of a pacing bar, Meule trained participants to slow their breathing to six breaths per minute.

“After several weeks of practice, participants reported a reduction of the frequency of food cravings,” he says. Though the underlying mechanisms of these effects are unknown, he says it might be because the vagus nerve that affects brain areas involved in craving regulation is activated.

So, take a moment to reflect on what your body might be doing right now – the beat of your heart, the pace of your breathing. Becoming more aware of these signals via tech could change your behaviour, well-being – and perhaps more.

Read more from BBC News: Tech to take the stress out of stress

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