You know that your brain controls your body, but did you know that your body also controls your brain? It’s a feedback loop that works both ways. The activity in your brain changes every second based on what your body is doing. This process is called biofeedback.
You may have thought that biofeedback required equipment, like a finger heart rate monitor or software. 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. For example, slowing your breathing or relaxing specific muscles can directly impact your thoughts, feelings, emotions, and stress levels.
Your brain is perfectly equipped to notice what’s going on with your body — heart rate, breathing, muscle tension, sweating. In fact, it’s doing it all the time anyway. You just have to notice it. To practice conscious biofeedback, you have to become aware and guide the process.
How Biofeedback Works
Your brain is constantly receiving signals from the rest of your body informing it of the environment and influencing how you think and feel. Information coming from your senses first gets interpreted by your brain as emotion, and then your brain adds its own subjective explanation to produce feelings. A gnawing feeling in your stomach could mean that you’re hungry or it could just be that you’re nervous about something 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.”
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 assigned meaning. The health and function of your vagus nerve is referred to as “vagal tone.” Low vagal tone is linked to numerous physical and mental conditions. One way to increase vagal tone is through vagal nerve stimulation (VNS).
Many physical sensations, like a queasy stomach, tight muscles, or miscellaneous aches and pains, have an emotional component that your brain may be correctly or incorrectly adding on. You have the ability to become aware and consciously interpret and influence the physical sensations coming into your brain. You can reduce pain in this way.
Heart rate variability (HRV) is simply a measure of the variation in time between heartbeats. It has been directly linked to many aspects of 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, and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the gas pedal. Every time you exhale, information travels along your vagus nerve causing your heart rate to slow down increasing your HRV. Your breath is the remote control of your nervous system. SNS activity increases your heart rate decreasing HRV.
Factors Affecting HRV
HRV is affected by many factors including aerobic fitness, age, genetics, body position, time of day, and health status. During exercise, HRV decreases as the 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 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.’”
Better HRV Coherence Means Better Health
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.
Unknowingly, people tend to automatically reinforce negative biofeedback, especially when depressed. For example, frowning or scowling expressions and timid or withdrawn postures have been shown to increase feelings of sadness. Also, studies show that people with depression have more muscle tension which increases anxiety and lowers HRV reinforcing the condition. This is so significant that one treatment for stubborn depression is the electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve.
In HRV biofeedback training using equipment, a computer analyzes 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. With training, most people easily learn to practice slow, diaphragmatic breathing at a rate that will synchronize with their heart rhythm to put achieve a state of coherence.
When I was 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. However, you don’t need any equipment to successfully use your body to calm 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. If you’re up for it, a cold shower or anything that exposes your body to cold also does the trick.
Use the power of music
Music has been shown to increase or decrease HRV. While just listening to music works, making music has an even greater positive effect. Music engages most of your brain and limbic system, which largely governs emotions.
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. In your brain, there’s not much difference between forced and spontaneous 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, and confident postures also correlated with being more optimistic. Posture is an important source of feedback for your brain. One study even showed that standing up straighter increases strength. Sitting straighter has similar effects.
Calm your face
There’s a muscle in the middle of your forehead in between your eyebrows, called the corrugator supercilii. It pulls your eyebrows down and together, causing your forehead to wrinkle. 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 you’re stressed, you tend to clench your teeth and tense your tongue. However, when you consciously loosen your jaw, your brain relaxes too. You can wiggle it around and open your mouth wide. Make it a point to relax your tongue which also calms your mind.
Change your breathing
Relaxed breathing slows your heart rate and activates the calm, parasympathetic nervous system. There are many breathing techniques that calm your brain and body instantly. Conversely, breathe faster, and you will create 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. However, don’t forget your hands, neck, shoulders, butt, back, and stomach. We do this in yoga. It works!