It’s a feedback loop that works both ways. The activity in your brain changes every second based on what your body is doing – a process called biofeedback. You may have heard of and thought that biofeedback required some equipment, like a finger heart rate monitor or software application. While technology can make measuring bodily changes easier, it’s not necessary. You can alter your brain’s function with conscious biofeedback simply by paying attention, which can have a huge impact on your thoughts, feelings, emotions, and stress level.
Your brain is perfectly capable of noticing what’s going on with your body – heart rate, breathing, muscle tension, sweating – and in fact, it does all the time anyway. To practice conscious biofeedback, you just have to become aware of this happening.
How Biofeedback Works
Your brain is constantly receiving signals from the rest of your body informing it of the environment and telling it how to think and feel. Information coming from your senses first gets interpreted by your brain as emotion, and then your brain adds its own subjective “special sauce” to produce feelings. (See: What’s The Difference Between Feelings And Emotions)
A gnawing feeling in your stomach could mean that you’re hungry or it could just be that you are feeling anxious about that meeting tomorrow. In his book, The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, Alex Korb explains it this way:
These types of signals are like your car’s check engine light – alerting you that something is happening, but not being very helpful in telling you what. Calmly doing a self assessment of your feelings can help distinguish the signals.
Nueral signals for physical sensations
The neural signals for your heart rate, breathing, digestion and other bodily functions are carried by the vagus nerve which runs throughout your upper body ending in your brain where they’re given meaning. Many physical sensations, like a queasy stomach, tight muscles, or miscellaneous aches and pains, have an emotional component which your brain may be correctly or incorrectly adding on. It’s up to you to interpret and influence the physical sensations coming into your brain.
Unknowingly, people tend to automatically generate many types of negative biofeedback, especially in the case of depression. For example, frowning or scowling expressions and timid or withdrawn postures increase feelings of sadness. Studies have shown that people with depression have greater muscle tension which increases anxiety and lowers heart rate variability reinforcing the depression.
Heart rate variability (HRV) is the change in the time interval between heartbeats and is directly related to a person’s health. HRV is regulated by the autonomic nervous system which is made up of your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), the calming brakes of your nervous system, and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the gas pedal of your nervous system. (See blog: Calming Your Brain And Body) Every time you exhale, information travels along your vagus nerve causing your heart rate to slow down increasing your HRV. SNS activity increases your heart rate decreasing HRV.
When a person is depressed, they have less activity in their vagus nerve, which means their heart does not change speeds as much, instead remaining steady. This is so significant that one treatment for stubborn depression is electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve.
HRV is affected by many factors including aerobic fitness, age, genetics, body position, time of day, and health status. During exercise, HRV decreases as heart rate increases. Generally, increased HRV with longer intervals is found in a well conditioned heart at rest. Your heart rate is intimately tied to the your bodily functions and emotional and mental states. I’m sure you can think of times when your heart raced with excitement or “missed a beat” in surprise.
However, HRV patterns are much more significant than simply their rates. In states of stress, anxiety, anger, and sadness the variation tends to be disordered and chaotic. In positive emotional states such as love and gratitude, the variation tends to be ordered and rhythmic. This state of rhythmic variation is known as coherence and is highly efficient and healthy for your mind and body.
On the HeartMath Institute’s website, the “Article Explains Importance of Heart Rate Variability for Your Health,” says:
‘An optimal level of HRV within an organism reflects healthy function and an inherent self-regulatory capacity, adaptability, or resilience,’ McCraty and Shaffer write.
Although generally the greater the HRV, the better, they note that too much variability, or instability ‘such as arrhythmias or nervous system chaos is detrimental to efficient physiological functioning and energy utilization… ‘Too little variation indicates age-related system depletion, chronic stress, pathology, or inadequate functioning in various levels of self-regulatory control systems.’
Many studies have correlated learning to regulate HRV or achieving greater HRV coherence with physical and emotional health benefits including: enhanced cognitive function and memory, reduced cortisol levels, anxiety, and blood pressure, and increased mood and physical stability.
In HRV biofeedback training using equipment, a computer would analyze your heart rate and respiration usually via a finger monitor to measure coherence. This information is fed back to the person training in real-time, so that they can learn how to alter coherence. There are systems available for you to learn how to do this on your own. and with training, most people can easily learn to engage in slow, effortless diaphragmatic breathing at a rate that will synchronize breathing with their natural heart rhythms to put them into a state of heart coherence.
When healing from a brain injury, I learned how to do this in neurofeedback therapy and even bought a home device for my son to learn to calm himself.
But you don’t have to have equipment to use your body to alter your brain or to stimulate your vagus nerve. You just have to become aware of and influence your body through your own actions. Some ways to do this are:
Splash cold water on your face – Rinsing your face with cold water stimulates your vagus nerve. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed or anxious try filling a sink with cool water and splashing your face.
Use the power of music – Music has been shown to increase HRV. While just listening to music works, making music has been shown to have an even greater positive effect. Music engages most of your limbic system which largely governs emotions.
Smile – It’s a simple thing to do and really can improve your mood. Even a fake smile causes your brain to release dopamine. Think of a fun time, a silly situation or your favorite joke. There’s not much difference in your brain between provoked and genuine smiling.
Stand Up straight – Studies have shown that standing up straight in a more confident posture makes you feel more decisive and confident in your own thoughts and beliefs. A confident posture also proved to be correlated with being more optimistic. Posture is an important source of feedback not only for your brain but for those around you. A confident posture makes others more confident in you. One study even showed that standing up straighter increases energy while slouching decreases energy levels. Sitting up straight has similar effects.
Your brain thinks you’re happy when you smile
Calm your face – There’s a muscle in the middle of your forehead in between your eyebrows. In the same way your brain thinks you’re happy when you smile, if your brow is furrowed and this muscle is tense, your brain interprets it as you being worried or upset. On bright days, wearing sunglasses will reduce squinting and relax this muscle making your brain feel calmer.
Relax your jaw and tongue – When stressed, you tend to clench your teeth and tense your tongue. Consciously loosen your jaw, wiggle it around, and open your mouth. Make it a point to relax your tongue which also calms your mind. (See: Why Your Eyes Look Up And Your Tongue Tenses When You Think)
Change your breathing – Taking long, deep breaths into your tummy, slows your heart rate and activates the calm, parasympathetic nervous system. Place your hand on your diaphragm, the center of your stomach a couple of inches below your lungs, and take slow, full breaths counting to six making your hand move in and out with each inhale and exhale. Even better – Get a device and learn how to consciously alter your HRV. After you get the hang of it, you can practice diaphragmatic breathing anywhere without using anything. Conversely, breathe faster to get more energy.
Clench and relax – Sometimes it’s actually helpful to clench your muscles and relax them to fully know the difference. Take a deep breath and intentionally flex a tense muscle for a few seconds. After holding it, exhale and relax the muscle. The most important muscles to relax are in your face, but don’t forget your hands, neck, butt, back, and stomach.