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Treating Addiction With Biofeedback Therapy

Dr. Anna Pickering

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Anna Pickering

April 3, 2019

Biofeedback therapy helps patients with addiction learn to control their involuntary functions that often lead to substance abuse. The goal is to take on mindful techniques to cope with stress in a positive way without the use of drugs or other destructive behaviors.

What Is Biofeedback Therapy?

Biofeedback involves the reading of certain signals from the autonomic nervous system. This type of therapy was designed to help patients learn to control involuntary responses with electronic monitoring. Biofeedback therapy can help to improve physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health.

During this kind of therapy, patches (also known as electrode sensors) are placed on different parts of the body. These sensors read the different vital responses such as heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. This is done in correspondence with visual and auditory cues such as a tone, flash of light, or an image which may evoke stress in the patient.

The data provided from the tests can help a therapist determine how someone responds to various stressors. In an individual suffering from an addiction, these stressors can also double as triggers.

Triggers include people, places, things, situations, emotions, and thoughts. These are all factors that can evoke a relapse or make a person want to use drugs. Triggers can also include withdrawal symptoms, which can intensify involuntary actions.

Professionals gather the results or “feedback,” and patient “bio” reactions then relay them back to the patient. After figuring out how a patient reacts to these factors, professionals teach them different mindfulness techniques to help them relax. These techniques can include replacing negative thoughts with positive ones.

The electrodes mentioned are responsible for measuring involuntary functions such as:

  • blood pressure
  • brain waves
  • breathing
  • heart rate
  • muscle tension
  • skin conductivity of electricity
  • skin temperature

In relation to some of these functions, the three types of biofeedback that are most commonly used are:

  • Electromyography (EMG) – which reads muscle tension.
  • Thermal Biofeedback – which reads body temperature.
  • Neurofeedback or Electroencephalography – which reads brain wave activity.

In essence, each type of feedback helps medical professionals decide, on an individual basis, which treatment will work best.

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What Are The Benefits Of Biofeedback Therapy For Addiction?

Many people pick up unhealthy coping mechanisms and other ways to deal with stress. Our way of dealing with stress can become a habit, drug addiction, and other compulsive behavior. By learning to control involuntary functions, people can learn to remain calm in situations where they would normally react negatively. Negative behaviors can be anything from using drugs or alcohol, or even compulsively eating.

The number one benefit of biofeedback therapy is not simply learning how to live without stress, it’s learning how to manage it. Another benefit of biofeedback is learning to cope with stress in healthy ways. The final reward can be as wonderful as living without drugs, alcohol, pornography, excessive food, gambling, or anything else that drives someone to compulsion and obsession.

How can controlling involuntary functions help someone stop drinking or using drugs?

It may help to think of it in terms of a child learning to control their bladder or rectum to avoid having an accident. They receive a negative reaction when they have an accident, and a positive one when they don’t; thus, they change their behavior. Just as the child learns to control these functions, someone who’s recovering from an addiction can learn to control theirs.

How Does Biofeedback Work?

We normally don’t think about involuntary functions unless there’s something wrong with them. Then for reasons not entirely understood, when certain situations arise they cause us to become distressed, or emotionally distraught. These reactions are what biofeedback therapy can reveal.

This method works with the help of “a trained biofeedback practitioner to guide the therapy. Using a screen such as a computer monitor, patients get feedback that helps them develop control over their physiology. Just as looking into a mirror allows one to see and change positions, expressions… biofeedback allows patients to see inside their bodies” (U.S. National Library of Medicine).

“Much like physical therapy, biofeedback training requires active participation on the part of patients and often regular practice between training sessions” (NLM). In other words, it allows patients to take the driver’s seat in restoring his or her mental and physical health—as opposed to conventional medicine where they may not be actively involved in their own treatment. Biofeedback might actually give someone the feeling that they have invested more into their recovery.

Biofeedback can also help a person learn to react to the withdrawal symptoms that often play a critical role in his or her addiction. These symptoms often include anxiety, constipation, insomnia, fear, tension, migraine headaches, and others.

Each of these symptoms is more or less related to the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for regulating the involuntary processes mentioned earlier. The autonomic system is made up of a network of nerve endings in the internal organs; these are commonly referred to as interoceptors.

In his work, renowned physiologist Charles Scott Sherrington distinguished three different types of receptors which include:

  1. Exteroceptors – which give information about changes in the external environment.
  2. Proprioceptors – which transmit deep somatic sensations.
  3. Interoceptors – which initiate impulses from the visceral field.

Biofeedback primarily deals with interoceptors “which are located in the gastrointestinal tract, cardiovascular, and lymphatic systems, the urogenital and respiratory organs, the endocrine glands, red bone marrow, serous membranes and reticuloendothelial system” (NLM).

What Are The Different Biofeedback Therapy Exercises?

Biofeedback is a noninvasive form of treatment which opens up a new world for people suffering from addictions. It can be helpful for a person who had a bad reaction to medication-assisted therapy or another form of treatment and has also been successful in avoiding relapse.

It gives people a chance to learn healthy ways to cope with stress and the urge to abuse drugs or behaviors. Biofeedback can be a helpful tool to overcome alcohol, benzodiazepines, cocaine, opioids and other drugs. Biofeedback is also used for other types of addictions and illnesses.

Generally, biofeedback type of therapy takes place on-site and is performed by a person who specializes in it. Therapeutic sessions usually lasts anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. The frequency and length of time needed to see results depends on the length of time and how much of a drug a person uses.

Biofeedback isn’t usually the only addiction treatment used. It’s often paired with another behavioral treatment. Biofeedback exercises include mindfulness meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery. Mindfulness meditation can help a patient focus on things other than negative thoughts. It is a way of paying attention with purpose, in the moment, and non-judgmentally.

Progressive muscle relaxation teaches you to “systematically tense particular muscle groups in your body, such as your neck and shoulders. Next, you release the tension and notice how your muscles feel when you relax them.” Guided imagery uses music, words, and images to evoke positive imagery scenarios in patients to help them cope with stressors.

Find Evidence-Based Treatment For Addiction

If you’re ready to overcome addiction, contact an addiction treatment specialist to get started with recovery. We want to help you find an individualized, evidence-based treatment plan that suits your needs.

U.S. National Library of Medicine - What Is Biofeedback?

U.S. National Library of Medicine - Biofeedback

U.S. National Library of Medicine - Biofeedback in Medicine - Who, When, Why and How?

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