How to know when relaxation techniques are working: Using biofeedback at home - without expensive equipment.

Learn how to relax by monitoring your body's physical level of stress or relaxation. This can be done simply and easily at home without the need for complex equipment or measurement devices - just some simple items you probably already have.


Biofeedback is the process of getting feedback from the body to measure how tense or how relaxed the body is.

Most people have heard of a lie detector. This is a type of biofeedback machine. You won't be doing any lie detecting when you use biofeedback for relaxation, but the concept of measuring physiological responses to determine what may be going on with the mind is similar.

There are a variety of ways biofeedback is used to promote relaxation. A number of body responses can be measured, including body temperature, breathing rate, heart rate, brain waves, galvanic skin response, blood pressure, and muscle tension.

The galvanic skin response is measured by placing the fingers on the sensors of a biofeedback device. This measures the skin's resistance to electricity, something that changes instantaneously according to the level of tension experienced and is affected by pore size and sweat on the skin.

When using a biofeedback device, the sensors measure the variable of interest (whether galvanic skin response, skin temperature, or other). Usually you get feedback via an auditory tone or a gauge that you can watch. Either way, you will be given a reading to indicate more or less stress. With the auditory tone type of device, you will hear a hum that gets lower pitched with relaxation, and higher pitched with tension. A gauge will show the needle moving one direction for tension and the other for relaxation. By monitoring the gauge or tone, you can determine if you are becoming more or less relaxed.

Why is biofeedback useful?

When we are relaxed, breathing rate slows, heart rate decreases, hands and feet become warmer, blood pressure and muscle tension decrease, and brain waves change. By measuring one or more of these (and other) factors, it is possible to determine how relaxed or how stressed the body is.

If you know when your body is more relaxed, you can learn to deliberately cause a relaxed state. This is important when learning to relax, obviously, because the goal is to achieve a relaxed state.

Through biofeedback, it is possible to learn to control physical responses that are normally automatic. Those who are skilled can actually change their heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, and other factors at will.

Here the objective is to become RELAXED at will.

How to use biofeedback at home

Some of the factors I have discussed are difficult to measure and require specialized equipment. For example, brain waves, the galvanic skin response, and blood pressure.

There are some things, however, that can be measured quite easily with simple equipment you might even have at home. For instance, heart rate, breathing rate, and hand temperature.

I'll describe how to measure these three factors. Then you can do a relaxation exercise of your choice and try it out.

Here is what you will need:

Paper and something to write with Watch with a second hand or a stop watch Thermometer (the old fashioned kind with liquid inside is best, but a digital thermometer is okay too)

If you do not have a thermometer, you can just monitor your hand temperature by feeling your hands against your face - it won't give you a number, but at least you can perceive if your hands feel warm or cool.

This is what you do:

First, hold the thermometer in your non-dominant hand. Sit quietly for a minute. Don't do anything in particular, just sit so you can then get a baseline measurement of where you're at. After you have gotten comfortable, make three columns on your sheet of paper. Label them heart rate, breathing rate, and hand temperature. Keep holding the thermometer.

Next, time yourself for 60 seconds while making a tic in a new column on the paper each time you breathe out. Keep holding that thermometer. Don't count the breaths, just tic them off as they occur.

After you have made a tic for each exhalation, check the reading on the thermometer. Record the number in the temperature column.

Then find your pulse. Usually the easiest spot is on your neck, just below your jaw, beside your voice box. Feel the hard cartilage in the middle of your throat, and slide your fingers toward the outside until you reach the groove between the cartilage of your voice box and your neck muscle. You'll feel a pulse there.

With pencil in hand, time yourself for 30 seconds. During this 30 seconds, make a tic on the sheet of paper each time you feel a heart beat. Do not count the beats, simply tic off each one.

You will then have a record of your baseline heart rate, breathing rate, and hand temperature. Do a relaxation exercise, such as visualization, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation.

Once you are finished the relaxation technique, repeat the steps for measuring hand temperature, breathing, and heart rate.

You can also take these measurements at intervals, rather than just before and after the relaxation exercise. This way you can monitor your progress as you go along.

When you are finished, add up the tics in the "before" heart rate column and multiply by 2. Add up the tics in the "before" breathing column. Do the same for the "after" columns. Then compare the before and after. You will probably notice your heart rate went down by a beat or two per minute (or maybe more). Your breathing rate probably also went down, and your hand temperature probably increased.

This method of biofeedback is a bit different from standard biofeedback with a device, because a device will give you a constant reading. You can then monitor your progress moment by moment, instead of just before and after. You can use this method of biofeedback to monitor your progress at intervals during the relaxation exercise, making this process quite similar to using a biofeedback device.

You can find out which kinds of relaxation work the best for you (which ones affect your heart rate, breathing, and temperature the most), and you can see your progress over time. Maybe the first time you practice, you won't see much change. Over time, however, you might see that you become more and more skilled at relaxation, and are able to alter your readings quite a bit.

Some important things to note:

The stress response is MUCH faster than the relaxation response. This makes sense. If you need to run from something to save your life, your body needs to get ready NOW. Relaxation is not so urgent (plus you remain ready for a while in case the danger comes back), so the relaxation response occurs more slowly.

Biofeedback takes practice. No one learns to control automatic physical responses right away. Most people do not learn to "control" them at all. What they learn is how to relax, what it feels like to be relaxed, and what sorts of relaxation are the most effective in bringing on the relaxation response.

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