Biofeedback therapy helps addicted individuals learn to control their thoughts and reactions in stressful situations which could trigger a relapse or other harmful behavior related to substance abuse. Biofeedback therapy is especially useful when combined with other researched-based treatment methods in addiction treatment.

What Is Biofeedback?

Biofeedback is a therapeutic technique which helps individuals learn how to control various, involuntary physiological functions so they can feel more balanced, in control, and capable of restoring personal health and wellness.

Certain functions within our bodies occur without us having to consciously direct them. These are the functions biofeedback monitors and helps a person learn to control. They include:

  • blood pressure
  • brainwaves
  • breathing rate
  • heart rate
  • muscle contractions
  • skin temperature
  • sweating

When these processes get out of control, a person experiences a distressing situation in a more acute way. As these feelings build, reactions to them can actually cause a person’s stress response to spiral out of control, feeding the sense of distress and intensifying these physical responses.

Learning to control these factors can lessen the impact of stress on a person and enhance a state of calm, effects which then reduce the potential for substance abuse as a coping method.

Breaking this cycle is a critical component of stress reduction and good mental and physical health. For a person who abuses drugs or alcohol, this is even more important, as stress can precipitate increased amounts of substance abuse or a relapse back to drugs or alcohol.

Relaxing muscles, slowing breathing, reducing blood pressure, and quieting the mind can all help a person to feel less anxious, more centered, and more in control of their thoughts and reactions.

Biofeedback guides a person through stress-relieving techniques to accomplish these and other goals. Feeling confident in these methods helps a person handle treatment and life in a manner which promotes better health and sobriety.

The University of Maryland Medical Center writes that the following are the most frequently used forms of biofeedback:

  • Electromyography (EMG) (assesses muscle tension)
  • Thermal biofeedback (assesses skin temperature)
  • Neurofeedback or electroencephalography (EEG) (assesses brain wave activity)

Biofeedback machines may either be wearable (worn on the body) or interactive and offered on a computer or mobile device. The machines use sensors or electrodes, placed at various locations across a person’s body, to measure the physiological and brainwave changes.

Stress And How It Connects To Addiction

Though experts are still learning all the ways by which biofeedback works, one common denominator appears to be stress. Many of the conditions which biofeedback works best on, including substance abuse and co-occurring mental health disorders, are circumstances brought about or aggravated by stress.

Stress is one of the biggest triggers of substance abuse and relapse. Learning how to handle stress in a healthy way is a critical component of treatment for drug and alcohol addiction, both during and after treatment.

For an individual with a substance use disorder, drugs or alcohol often become a means to reduce this stress and to avoid coping with the issue at hand. Biofeedback therapy sessions can help a person learn to regulate stress and moderate their reactions to people, places, and circumstances which could trigger substance abuse.

Understanding A Biofeedback Session

Biofeedback is a progressive therapy, meaning each session builds upon the last, strengthening a person’s skills at regulating and controlling the body’s stress response. In order to do this, a person must master certain methods which regulate and reduce this response.

With specialized equipment, biofeedback sensors relay information about a person’s physiological and brainwave reactions in real-time. As a person’s body and brain react, the machine feeds back this information, most commonly as an image, light, or tone. Once a person associates a physical response or brainwave change to these cues, they can learn to control them.

For instance, a certain sound or tone will communicate when a person is in a calm or stressed state. As a therapist works an individual through a series of mental exercises, he or she begins to notice a pattern. Certain methods will reduce stress and create a calm state marked by a certain image, light, or tone. The longer a tone is present, the longer a person maintains these positive, healthy states.

The therapist then helps the individual recreate these favorable changes by mastering the practices which work best for them so they can induce this state more frequently.

Many of the methods used to moderate these responses are mindfulness and stress management practices, such as:

  • deep breathing exercises
  • guided imagery
  • meditation
  • muscle relaxation
  • thinking positive thoughts

During biofeedback, if a person correctly employs these methods, their body should respond accordingly. Heart, blood pressure, and breathing rates may all fall, and brainwaves begin to normalize or fall within a relaxed range.

As this happens, the biofeedback machine communicates these changes so the person knows what behaviors or mindsets to mimic in the future for positive changes. In time, the goal is for a person to be able to employ these methods on their own, without the machine, and outside of a therapeutic setting.

When faced with a challenging situation, a person can then utilize meditation or another stress-reduction practice to stay in control. Within recovery, these states enable a person to enhance, protect, and maintain a sober life.

What Is Neurofeedback?

Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback used more extensively than others to treat substance use disorders. Prolonged drug and alcohol abuse change the way the brain functions, upsetting critical chemical processes that make it hard for the brain to function properly. Neurofeedback helps a person regain control over their brain to create a more balanced mental state.

A National Institutes of Health article explains, “Neurofeedback…is a therapeutic method designed to train the mind and body to act in a more optimal way in order to improve emotional, cognitive, physical, and behavioral experiences.”

Emotions, thoughts, and physical response to the environment, and the way a person behaves due to these things influences their life. When caught up in negative states, maladaptive behaviors rise, which can lead to or aggravate a substance use disorder. If a person learns to direct their emotions and thoughts in a more positive direction, their behaviors are likely to follow in this path.

When the brain is constantly stimulated or excited (states which can occur from stress and certain forms of substance abuse), a person may feel anxious or distressed. These mindsets can make drugs and alcohol seem like a tempting escape. A more relaxed, calm state occurs when the wavelengths of the brain change. Neurofeedback helps a person to be aware of these changes so they can recreate them.

Biofeedback Therapy Within Substance Abuse Treatment

Biofeedback therapy is useful as a tool for treating addiction because it also benefits numerous co-occurring disorders which accompany addiction, such as anxiety, ADHD, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For this reason, it can be a useful component of dual diagnosis treatment programs.

Anxiety and depression may also result from withdrawal, symptoms which biofeedback may help to reduce. Biofeedback therapy can also be useful when used as part of a relapse prevention program.

Biofeedback therapy takes time and multiple sessions to be effective. Many people achieve the most favorable outcomes when using this therapy with other treatment methods, like behavioral therapies. For this reason, inpatient drug rehab centers are often the best choice for those who desire intensive, non-invasive care.

For more about biofeedback therapy and addiction treatment programs, contact us today.