May 24, 2010
New Program Teaches Patients How to Control Stress, Reduce Pain
Augusta, GA—When you’re anxious or stressed out, you start to breathe a little faster. Your heart rate rises, your muscles begin to tighten, and before you know it, on top of your mental stress, your head aches, your back hurts and your shoulders feel tight enough to snap.
But what if you could learn to recognize and control your body’s responses to stress, and actually prevent stress-related pain and even lower anxiety levels?
“Biofeedback sounds very technical, but it’s really very simple,” said Dr. William Schiff, a psychologist with the Department of Behavioral Medicine at Walton Rehabilitation Health System. “At its most basic, it’s collecting information about your body and using that information to help improve your health. When you step on a scale and modify your eating habits, that’s biofeedback. It also can be an effective tool to manage stress and prevent or reduce pain.”
At Walton’s Department of Behavioral Medicine, psychologists use simple devices to measure a person’s number of breaths per minute, heart rate, Galvanic skin response (a measure of the skin’s electrodermal activity, which increases when a person is tense or anxious), temperature, muscle tension, or all of the above. While this data is being collected, patients can view in real time how their rates are elevated when they are feeling stress or pain, and can also see how these rates can lower as therapists teach them specific tactics to reduce stress and pain levels.
Since a person’s rate of breathing is the easiest to control, therapists typically start there. “Ideally, your breath rate is around six breaths a minute,” said Dr. Schiff. “But when you’re anxious, it can be as fast as 20 breaths a minute. Rapid, shallow breathing causes your heart rate to rise and muscles to tense, and if you already have issues with pain or headache, this increased pressure within the body can cause pain to slowly begin or increase. Increased pain leads to increased stress and so on.”
By learning to breathe in a slow, controlled manner, patients can slow down their body’s responses. This physical relaxation can help reduce pain and can then lead to mental relaxation too. Over the 12- to 15-week program, and through continued practice, individuals can actually learn to relax on recall.
While it may sound easy, even intuitive, according to Dr. Schiff, many times patients don’t realize how much stress their body is under until they actually see the numbers. “We’ve had a couple of our patients explain that they’ve tried breathing exercises before and that they didn’t work. Once we were able to measure their breathing rates and have them repeat the exercises, we found that they weren’t breathing as slowly and deeply as they thought. So the biofeedback really was able to give them valuable information that enabled this therapy to work for them.”
Biofeedback has been found to be helpful in patients with chronic pain, arthritis, headache, insomnia or hypertension, and to help reduce stress after heart attack and during cancer treatment.
“Your body has an ideal state, when everything is running on all cylinders,” said Dr. Schiff. “Biofeedback helps you become more aware of your body’s reaction to stress, and find the method that works best for you to help reduce pain and tension, and get back to that ideal, relaxed state.”
Media Contact: Danielle Wong Moores, Public Relations Specialist, 706-434-1050.
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