Bodywisdom: American Biofeedback

In search of wellness, many Americans are turning to their gadgets to monitor the parameters of health including their blood pressure, weight, caloric intake, steps taken, blood sugar levels, heart rate, etc. Technology has liberated biofeedback from the exclusive domain of the clinician and delivered it into the capable hands of the proletariat.

Researchers have discovered that heart rate variability (HRV) is a powerful biomarker indicating resilience and physiological well-being. HRV describes the different timing of the heartbeat during inhalation and exhalation.

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) originates in a primitive part of our brain and regulates the heart and other functions that keep us alive like breathing, digestion, blood pressure, and so on.

There are two branches of the ANS: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. These systems evoke either the fight or flight response or the relaxation response, respectively.

The ANS controls our physiological state and relays information to the rest of our body to either safely relax or muster in defense. Our body adapts to the vicissitudes of life, but if stress preponderates and we aren’t eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep or exercising regularly then we are dominated by the fight or flight response and our sense of calm safety vanishes.

When mobilized for defense we are edgy and reactive instead of curious and playful. This results in low variability in our heart rate. Scientists correlate low HRV with depression, anxiety, cardiovascular disease and increased risk of death. High HRV indicates a healthier ANS and the ability to rebound from stress with more resilience.

Training HRV improves cardiovascular function and physiological flexibility. Measuring HRV motivates people to adopt healthy habits like mindfulness, exercise, nutrition and sufficient sleep. The biofeedback from HRV training helps you track how your nervous system is reacting to your mood, lifestyle habits and other factors in your environment.

Biofeedback uses finger clip electrodes routed to a box that is connected to the computer. The wires feed information from your fingertips into the biofeedback software which processes the information into graphs measuring parameters like HRV. The oscillating hills and valleys of the “sinusoidal wave” (sine wave) of your heart rate are displayed on the computer screen as part of the feedback.

Following a “breath pacer” also displayed on the computer screen, you breathe mindfully by inhaling for an even amount of time and exhaling for an equally even amount of time. With training, your heart’s sine wave smoothly mirrors the sine wave of the breath pacer below. This development activates parasympathetic nervous system dominance and the relaxation response.

HRV is a salubrious tonic tempering modernity. Training HRV initiates a subjective shift to a sense of safety and social engagement. Tracking HRV increases awareness about how our behavior affects our nervous system and physiological functioning. While HRV can’t deter stress, it teaches people to be mindful about how their thoughts and emotions are affecting them and trains them to develop their innate regulatory resources for resilience.

Nancy Ivey is a freelance writer specializing in health and wellness. Email her at shaktideva@mchsi.com


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