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Biofeedback and Depression

Posted Jan 07 2009 3:00pm 2 Comments

When I lived in Topeka, KS I had often heard stories about celebrities that were patients at the Menninger Foundation.  In fact when I was a police dispatcher I worked several calls of walk-aways from the hospital along with a few suicides. The hospital was understandably tight-lipped about it. Supposedly Marilyn Monroe was found running around nude in a park near the hospital one night. Oh, Marilyn. Stories tend to get exaggerated over time, but given the messy lives celebrities live I tend to believe a lot of the stories I’ve heard have at least a grain of truth to them.

Doctors at the Foundation were among some of the first in the nation, if not the world, to research biofeedback and it’s use as a tool for promoting good health. In the late 70s they offered classes in biofeedback to the public. Having read about biofeedback and wanting to know more, I signed up.

At first we were shown several films of their experiments with Jack Schwarz, Swami Rama and other interesting people from around the world. These people had developed the ability to voluntarily control bodily processes (heartbeat, blood pressure, body temperature, etc.) that were considered to be non-voluntary or autonomic.

After this introduction we were given instruction in the use of several types of biofeedback instruments, the simplest one being a small, dime-store (a term that dates me) thermometer. We would hold this between two fingers, mark it’s temperature and then consciously relax and deepen our breathing while we sat in comfortable chairs in a darkened room. The temperature of our hands would slowly climb as the relaxation spread and allowed our veins to expand and carry more blood to our extremities. Some people were actually able to create a small fever in their fingers and get the temperature to go above 96.8.

Menningers had a 90%+ success rate treating people with migraine headaches using biofeedback. My mom was one of these successful patients. I always thought it was too bad she didn’t continue to practice the relaxation meditation after getting rid of them.

This was my first exposure to what years later my Tai Chi teacher calls “wu wei” or non-doing. You can argue that I was doing something, e.g. relaxing & breathing deeper and that this ‘doing’ had an effect. It is however not ‘doing’ in the traditional meaning of the word, it’s more passive. Like not stirring the water up in a pond allows it to settle down. Your ‘not doing’ let’s nature take its course. Sometimes by doing less you achieve more.

So it was with great anticipation that I bought HeartMath’ s emWave, a biofeedback tool to help with my meditation and relaxation practices . . . and of course the black dog.

Simply put, the emWave measures subtle changes in our heart rhythms, known as heart rate variability (HRV) which reflects heart-brain & autonomic nervous system interactions. Systems and interactions that are sensitive to changes in emotional state.

When we’re upset our heart rhythm pattern becomes irregular and incoherent. This negatively affects our health and sense of well-being.

Stress - Heart Rhythms Graph

When we feel good our heart rhythms become more regular and our systems (nervous, cardiovascular, etc.) act & interact more efficiently and harmoniously.

Coherence - Heart Rhythms

Thoughts create feelings which in turn affect our body. In a way by using the emWave we train ourselves to reverse this. By using the small (about the size of a pack of cards) emWave we learn to create more ordered and harmonious heart rhythms which in turn help us to feel better.

The emWave determines the degree of coherence found in our heart rhythm patterns and displays changes in real-time on a large tri-colored LED–the Coherence Level Indicator. By consciously relaxing, breathing slowly & deeply we can see the lights displayed on the unit turn from red to blue to green.  Green indicates a high coherence - a state associated with positive emotional attitudes which send signals to the brain that reduce stress, improve brain function, hormonal balance, immune response, coordination and reaction times.

So why can’t you just do it on your own? You can, but seeing your internal changes right there in front of you helps you to understand the cause and effect. Just breathing deeply doesn’t necessarily mean you’re affecting your heart the way you want to. The emWave shows you the changes.

I also purchased the book Transforming Depression.  One of the best things I’ve found in this book is the heart meditation. Meditation focused on the heart can be found in many traditions (Google it and see). You focus on your heart, slow & deepen your breathing and imagine that you’re breathing in and out of it. At the same time you recall a pleasant memory and re-experience the good feeling you had. When your mind wanders simply bring it back to your heart and the good memory.

The memory I use is one from a day in the year after my divorce. I had just gotten off work and it was my day to be with my children. My parents had picked them up earlier in the day and I was heading to their house for dinner. I remember feeling so elated at the thought of seeing them. As I walked to my car, I had a big smile on my face. It was a moment I was aware of at the time and it always makes me feel good now.

Whatever your moment is, try consciously relaxing, breathing deeply in and out of your heart and relive that time when you felt really good. Focus and refocus on your heart and the memory. You’ll be surprised at how it can lighten your mood.

For more information go to:
Rest from Stress

HeartMath
HeartMath videos on Youtube

Comments (2)
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Hi Cosmo,

thanks for sharing your experience! I wonder if you've tried Heart Tracker or Stress Sweeper? I personally failed with HeartMath's emWave, I can't just reach the coherence... Well, I actually tried Freeze Framer anf not emWave but I guess it might be the same... or I"m wrong. Anyhow, with Heart Tracker I felt much better in just 5 days. It's like I can't think of anything when I'm using it and I'm concentrated to breathe right.

Hello 

 I also would suggest the Heart Wizard. It is a wonderful program that not only has the training module like the EmWave or Heart Tracker but it has a whole wellness tracking program to assess your fitness levels, Biological age, Autonomic Balalnce and more for about the same price as the EmWave.

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