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Wellness and Personal Development

Psychological Strategies for Reducing Stress

Harry Mills, Ph.D., Natalie Reiss, Ph.D. and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Psychological strategies for stress relief draw upon the broad discipline of psychology to provide insight into why people become stressed and methods for how that stress can be lessened. In general, such approaches function by improving and expanding people's awareness of and conscious control over otherwise automatic bodily and mental/emotional processes that function to amplify and exaggerate stress reactions.

Biofeedback and Neurofeedback Training

neuronsStress reactions involve the coordinated interaction of numerous bodily processes which usually operate automatically at an unconscious level. People do not choose to allow these processes (such as heart rate and breathing) to function; they just happen. People may be able to exert some control over some of these functions (such as how fast they breathe), but in general, most of these processes are not easy to influence. With training, however, individuals can learn to consciously control many of these otherwise automatic processes, and by so doing, gain better control over their stress levels.

Biofeedback and Neurofeedback training refer to a collection of techniques which are designed to teach people how gain conscious control over different body functions (e.g., heart rate or blood flow, brain wave patterns, etc.) that are normally controlled quite unconsciously by the autonomic nervous system. Biofeedback is a general term for the use of any sort of monitoring hardware to teach such conscious regulation of a body process. Neurofeedback is a more specific (and more recent) term that refers to the use of sensors to specifically monitor brain activity so as to teach people how to gain control of that component of their bodies.

All biofeedback techniques involve attaching sensors to your body. These sensors are then connected to a monitoring device (generally a computer of some sort), which is able to measure various body functions which are normally invisible or imperceptible to people. Monitors provide visual or auditory feedback so that people can become aware of how those body functions change from moment to moment.

A biofeedback therapist guides patients (the people receiving biofeedback training) through a series of physical and mental exercises designed to help them learn how to gain control over whatever body processes are being monitored. Moment to moment changes of monitored body processes are displayed visually or aurally (through the use of sounds), so that patients can see or hear relationships between what they do and how their body processes change as a result. With the aid of this feedback and training process, people are able to learn how to quickly and consciously alter their body processes in desirable ways. Often, biofeedback monitoring systems are designed to make a special noise or visual signal when monitored body processes reach desirable levels.

Biofeedback can be useful in helping people learn how to recognize and control the physiological aspects of stress. It is used most often to relieve stress-induced problems related to blood flow such as headaches, high blood pressure, sleep disorders or chronic pain. The most common forms of biofeedback are:

Electromyogram (EMG): An EMG uses electrodes or other types of sensors to measure the contraction and relaxation patterns of the skeletal muscles. Chronic muscle tension (e.g., muscles that are continually stiff, or contracted) is typically an indicator of stress. Using biofeedback techniques in conjunction with an EMG, people become skilled at recognizing the feeling of tense muscles (even changes that are quite subtle). Over time, people learn to voluntarily relax affected muscles, as soon as they notice tension, to relieve stress.

Electroencephalogram (EEG): An EEG uses surface electrode sensors attached to the scalp (typically via a shower cap looking apparatus) to monitor the activity of brain waves. EEG potentials (the brain wave energy that is "read" or received by the sensors) are created when neurons (brain cells) fire as they transmit and receive information. There are four basic types of EEG patterns, classified according to their frequency (number of Hertz or cycles-per-second): beta, alpha, theta, and delta. Each pattern is associated with specific levels of activity and behavior (e.g., focused attention, sleeping, etc.). People who are highly stressed tend to have excessive mental arousal associated with high-frequency (beta) EEG activity. In addition, individuals who are stressed do not experience the mental relaxation periods associated with alpha EEG activity very often. Using biofeedback techniques in conjunction with an EEG, the patient learns to recognize and associate specific patterns of EEG activity with different mind and body states. Eventually, the patient learns to control and increase alpha EEG activity, which leads to increased relaxation.

Temperature biofeedback: In this case, sensors that are attached to a person's fingers or feet measure skin temperature. Skin temperature typically drops when people are stressed. Using biofeedback techniques, people can learn to recognize this decreasing skin temperature, which can serve as a cue to begin relaxation techniques.

Galvanic skin response: This form of biofeedback training is based on readings from sensors (typically on the fingers or feet) that measure the activity of people's sweat glands and the amount of perspiration on their skin. Not surprisingly, people experience increased amounts of perspiration when they are stressed. As with skin temperature techniques, patients learn to recognize body states (increased sweat gland activity) that can cue the need for relaxation strategies.

Even though it is best to consult with a health care professional that has expertise in using biofeedback techniques for the treatment of stress and related mental health issues, there are some "at home" biofeedback products. Buyer beware; most people will receive greater (and more permanent) benefits from consulting with a health care professional in an office setting.