Stress is one of the biggest challenges to mental health that the majority of us face today on a regular basis. It seems that all of us are constantly overworked, juggling too many balls in the air, and working to deadlines with no time to just unwind. Most of us need both hands and feet to count the number of things playing on our mind and this can leave us feeling like nervous wrecks.
But being stressed isn’t just subjectively unpleasant – it’s also actually very bad for your health and can have some seriously negative implications for your overall health. When you are stressed, this triggers what is known as the ‘fight or flight response’. At this point, your body floods with adrenaline (epinephrine) which causes your heart rate to increase and your blood to rush to your muscles. Time seems to slow down and you become faster, stronger and quicker to react.
While that all sounds great though, it actually places a strain on your body. This response was designed to deal with immediate threats like imposing predators – not ongoing ‘stressors’ like an angry boss. For this reason, staying in this state is very unhealthy and can make you more likely to become ill or to suffer with heart problems. Thus it is highly important that we learn to control our stress response and to spend less time in that state. After all, there is nothing to be gained from being overly stressed at all times. A little motivating ‘eustress’ (positive stress) can be a good thing sure, but if you can’t enjoy life because you’re always worrying… that never helped anyone.
What Is Biofeedback?
There are countless different treatments for stress which vary depending on the school of psychology you subscribe to as well as your own circumstances which may lend themselves more or less to particular management strategies.
One of the very best approaches to treating stress is to use something called ‘biofeedback’. Essentially, this is the process of using a heart rate monitor in order to monitor your stress levels and thereby to learn how to control them.
When you find yourself starting to get stressed, your heart rate will immediately begin to increase and the faster it gets, the more stressed you are likely to be. Thus by measuring your heart rate you can instantly get an idea of how stressed you are.
Biofeedback as a therapeutic technique then, will involve wearing a heart rate monitor and using that to constantly monitor your heart rate. Then, when you notice your heart rate increase, you can try using various relaxation and concentration techniques in able to help it slow down again. That way you will have dealt with your stress response and prevented it from exerting long-term effects on your health.
The Benefits of Biofeedback
In the short term then, biofeedback alerts you to the fact that you are stressed and then helps you to get rid of that stress so that you can feel better immediately. But the real benefits of biofeedback are not focused on the short term, but rather the long-term.
By getting a clear indication that you’re stressed you see, you can use biofeedback in order to learn to better recognize your own symptoms of stress. At the same time, because you’ll be getting alerted each time you get into a physiological state of stress, you’ll furthermore be able to make note of the various triggers and stressors that most affect you. Finally, because you’ll be able to use various techniques to try and get your heart rate to slow back down while getting immediate feedback, you’ll be able to ascertain precisely which techniques work best in helping you to achieve a sense of calm.
In short, biofeedback trains you to become better at managing stress and at listening to your own body. Eventually you will then progress to the point where you no longer actually need the biofeedback device and this can then help you to maintain a permanent sense of calm and to almost control your heart rate at will.
Other Biofeedback Devices for Measuring Stress
Heart rate monitors are the main tools that most people use for monitoring stress as they are simple, cheap and easy to come by. These days you can even get heart rate monitors built into your smartwatches and smartphones and a variety of different apps to use with them.
Alternatively you can also try using EEG. EEG stands for ‘Electroencephalograph’ and is a device that measures brain activity by looking at electrical impulses. This allows you to measure brainwaves which are also correlated with various different brain states. While EEGs have previously been very expensive pieces of clinical equipment and not really available commercially, there are much more affordable options available today which include the ‘Mindwave’ from NeuroSky. This device can be useful for teaching meditation and is certainly fun and interesting – but it is not really a practical device for combating stress as you’d need to wear it constantly and as stress can be a little complex and difficult to measure through brainwaves alone.
Another alternative is to measure skin conductivity which is the strategy used in many experiments. However this is again not really a viable option for use at home.
Do bear in mind that measuring your heart rate runs the risk of being confused by many confounding variables such as physical exertion and other ‘excitable’ emotions. Biofeedback is not infallible and involves using your intuition and insight alongside the data to interpret your own stress levels.