Managing Stress with Biofeedback Devices

By James Porter
Created in partnership with Blue Shield of California

Mr. Porter is president of StressStop, a company that specializes in teaching people how to manage stress in the workplace.

Biofeedback is the feedback of internal biological information. A biofeedback device tells you what’s going on beneath the surface so that you can change it for the better. Yogis, swamis and monks in India have been controlling their internal states for thousands of years without biofeedback devices, through meditative practices and what we now call “relaxation techniques.” These techniques can help you do all kinds of seemingly magical things – like raise and lower  heart rate  and blood pressure– without the need of a device to measure progress.

Thus, when you use a biofeedback device, it’s not the device that relaxes you; it’s the technique you use along with it that causes the change. For example, you can learn deep breathing with a biofeedback device, but with training you can also do it on your own and achieve the same results (or better) without spending a dime on technology.*

That said, many people prefer to get the feedback provided by a biofeedback device. This gives them the confidence to know the techniques they’re using to reduce stress are working. Dr. Elmer Green, who pioneered the use of biofeedback for the treatment hypertension and migraine headaches (health issues that are often considered to be “stress-related”), proved the effectiveness of biofeedback way back in the 1970’s and 1980’s at the Menninger Foundation Research Center in Topeka, KS.

Several different biological functions are typically measured by these devices—skin temperature, brain waves, heart rate, blood pressure, galvanic skin response (sweating), and heart rate variability. There are products on the market that measure all these different functions of the body. Probably the two hottest trends in biofeedback right now are the measuring of heart rate variability and brainwaves. This review, which is by no means comprehensive, includes three popular devices that can be used for biofeedback. Prices vary, but generally range from about $200–$250.

The EmWave2 ($199)* measures heart rate variability. Heart Math, the company that makes the EmWave2, claims their product helps you achieve “coherence.” This is a word used to describe a calm state of physical and emotional well-being. Besides teaching you how to do deep breathing, the device simply monitors what YOU do to achieve this state of coherence.  As former Heart Math CEO Bruce Cryer, explains, “The way to achieve this state internally is by accessing a deeper level of appreciation and gratitude.”  In other words, you do the work, the EmWave2 tracks your progress, and lets you know how you’re doing.

The Muse is a neurofeedback headband that measures brainwaves. InteraXon, the company that makes the Muse, calls it “your personal meditation assistant.” This device teaches you how to meditate. Here again, you could learn how to meditate all on your own, but meditation is a lot trickier to learn than deep breathing. If you’ve ever tried to meditate and noticed how difficult it is (and how distracted you can get), this device will tell you when you are distracted and when you are not by:

  1. Showing you a graph of your brain-wave activity.
  2. Playing the sound of wind and waves (or other natural soundtracks you can choose from) at a slightly higher volume when you’re distracted and quieting the sound when you are focused.

When you become really focused you’ll hear the sound of birds. So, the hope is, with the help of this device, you’ll spend a lot more time focused and calm and a lot less time distracted and stressed.

The Fit Bit Ionic If you’re familiar with the Fitbit, a watch-like, self-monitoring device, the Fitbit Ionic is a more sophisticated model with many of the same features as less expensive models. In addition to all the regular features of a Fitbit (measuring steps, for example), the Ionic measures resting heart rate (RHR) and can teach you a breathing exercise.  Because it does more than simply track fitness, it’s billed as a “wellness” device. With all the different features on this device, you can manage your stress from a more holistic perspective—tracking the steps you take, the calories you consume, the hours of sleep you get, and of course your RHR. We know that lack of sleep raises cortisol levels and cortisol is a stress chemical. So monitoring your sleep and getting 7 to 8 hours a night is probably more important in the long run to reduce stress, than doing breathing exercises. Studies also show that the more physical exercise you get the better you sleep.

Bottom Line

As someone who has taught people how to lower stress for over 25 years, I’ve come to believe that stress management and wellness are one in the same: Your physical health directly affects your mental health and your mental health directly affects your physical health. The best way to mange your stress is to keep in mind all stress-related variables. If it works with your budget, the Fitbit Iconic does that for you.

*Diaphragmatic breathing (a deep-breathing exercise) Hold one hand lightly over your belly. Take a deep breath in. Notice your hand rising on the in-breath and gently falling on the out-breath. Repeat this several times until you feel relaxed.