by Elyse M. Rogers
Biofeedback is an exciting new area I feel holds great promise. It gives the individual the ultimate ability to “take charge” of his health, not in the ordinary sense of eating a good diet, exercising and general sound life-style practices, but in the actual physiological sense as well. For biofeedback allows an individual the opportunity to actually see or hear his body physiology in a manner that he’d never been able to experience before.
In other words, a person can be connected to some type of a monitor that gives him continuing information on his body processes, such as heart rate, blood pressure, skin temperature, etc. With this information, the person can hopefully teach himself/herself (or be taught by professionals) to change or modify the process being monitored.
Articles have been written in the popular press about people who have learned to lower their high blood pressure through biofeedback, of those who have practiced reducing stress with biofeedback and of patients who have increased bodily temperature (such as made their hands warm) by learning biofeedback techniques. Sounds pretty neat to me.
Still, biofeedback has been something confined to a specialized clinic or hospital Just by the nature of the monitoring devices (EKG hookups or special connections to visual monitors), the procedure was time-consuming, costly and had to be conducted by professionals.
BIOFEEDBACK AT HOME
I always thought it was such a shame that ordinary folks like you and me couldn’t have the benefit of biofeedback. How exiting it would be to find out just what makes us uptight. Or know for sure what elevates our blood pressure or lowers it. Have you ever wondered, as I have, if when you’re trying to relax you’re actually making yourself more uptight because you’re “not doing it right?”
Now biofeedback for ordinary folks that can be used in the “comfort of your own home” is available. After reading about the GSR 2 unit, I immediately wrote to the people at Thought Technology Ltd. in Montreal, Canada, and asked them for more information on the biofeedback portable “home unit” (as I call it). They are excited about their product and Larry Klein, Vice President of Thought Technology who wrote to me and later talked with me on the phone, has the zeal of a TV evangelist when discussing his company’s biofeedback systems.
The fact that company executives have enthusiasm for and confidence in their products is often a good indication of a fine medical product, but it’s far from the whole picture—as we all know. So, I decided to get a unit, test it myself and perhaps even persuade friends and members of my family to test it too, so that I could pass on to you some solid experience.
THE GSR 2 UNIT
The GSR 2 unit is based on the principal that the body reacts to tension and stress through the skin. The skin resistance, called “galvanic skin resistance” (GSR) by scientists, is a reflection the sweat gland activity and the pore size, both of which are controlled by the sympathetic nervous system.
During times of stress or excitement, the sympathetic nervous system activates chemical and physical changes throughout the body. At such times, the galvanic skin reaction also changes. Our skin resistance increases during relaxation and peaceful times; resistance decreases when we become frightened or uptight.
Now let me describe the actual GSR 2 unit, which is the basic core of the system. It is a hand-held unit about the size of a pack of cigarettes, with an earphone (plug-type at the end of a cord—see illustration.
You place your fingers on the metal sensing plates of the unit and this “turns on” the unit. You’ll hear a buzzing tone that goes up and down depending on the stress level it detects. There’s a control level so that you can set the volume of the tone, but that’s all there really is to the physical operation of the unit. The basic unit comes complete with an instruction booklet that not only explains the simple operation of the unit, but has a short explanation of “Three Simple Relaxation Exercises.”
Since the unit turns itself off when the fingers are removed, the nine-volt battery that powers the system (replaceable) will usually last up to two years.
If you’re wondering what exactly the GSR 2 unit can do for you, the folks at Thought Technology Ltd. have provided six answers (slightly edited for space):
- Once you are able to put yourself into a relaxed state you have a valuable skill you can apply to your everyday life. You can remain calm, even without your unit.
- Deep relaxation gives the body and mind a chance to recuperate. When your body is released from stress, you can enjoy increased energy.
- The GSR 2 is often used in personal development programs such as autogenic training, yoga and meditation. It acts as an internal guide.
- GSR biofeedback skills can be put to good use by sports participants. Athletes do better in tense situations if they can channel their excess nervous energy into performance.
- Biofeedback skills can be of great benefit to students and people working in high pressure jobs.
- For some people, one of the benefits of relaxation can be a change in the requirements for various medications (e.g. hypertensive, diabetic, etc.)
There are some interesting accessories that go with the basic unit. You can get literature that explains optional equipment, and in the English version I received they have a section with a bibliography of biofeedback books, tapes (audio and video) and computer software. I didn’t realize there was so much good, and relatively inexpensive, information available on the biofeedback process and special educational information for physicians and other medical professionals.
- Standard meter. This is a meter about the same size as the GSR 2 and gives visual feedback on skin resistance. When you plug the meter cord into the 2.5 mm outlet (smaller of the two outlets), it turns off the sound and you read the stress change level on a small dial.
- Dual Sensitivity Meter. This is similar to the above, but has the added feature of allowing you to switch to a lower or “1/2” position (as they call it) which actually doubles the range of the meter.
- Temperature Probe. This accessory adds a completely different function to the GSR 2 by giving skin temperature feedback as well as skin resistance data. This added attachment has one end which plugs into the 3.5 mm outlet of the GSR 2 unit and another end which attaches lo a finger or toe with a Velcro fastening strip. Temperature changes are then recorded either through the earphone (included with the GSR 2 unit) or one of the meters (optional equipment) described above.
The temperature probe is particularly valuable for those who wish to control the temperature of the hands or the feet. Since increasing levels of stress tend to decrease the blood flow to the hands and feet (and hence make them “colder”), by controlling stress one can actually learn to “warm” the hands and/or feet by learning to control the dilation and constriction of blood vessels in the arms and legs.
Other accessories get more complicated and have more specific application. To mention a few:
- EMG 100T is a feedback unit that measures muscular activity and can be used for retraining in muscular disordered and relaxation training. It connects to the GSR 2 unit.
- Calmset 3 is a lightweight headset that looks a bit like a set of radio-earmuffs with two electrodes on a forehead band. It’s the sort of thing you might expect Captain Kirk to wear on a “Star Trek” rerun. It monitors skin, muscle and temperature changes and connects to the GSR 2 and other suitable monitors.
- Calmtone is an accessory I got such a kick out of, I simply must mention it. With this device (which looks a bit like one of those FM converters we foreigners need to get our U.S. FM bands to work in Japan), you can actually plug your biofeedback response into your stereo system.
You’ll know if you’re uptight not simply by a rising buzz in your car, but by an increase in the volume of that Tchaikovsky symphony you’re playing on your compact disc; as you get more relaxed, Tchaikovsky becomes more relaxed, Tchaikovsky becomes more mellow. Hen na koto deshyo ne?
After I unpacked the unit and skimmed the information booklet, I realized this whole idea of biofeedback was going to take more of a commitment of lime than I had at the moment. Since I wanted to be fair to the system. I decided the ideal time to try it would be on a family vacation scheduled over the Christmas holidays. So, complete with all the usual baggage which included not only clothes, but Christmas gifts for the family, tennis equipment, jogging gear, etc., I packed the GSR 2 unit and the accompanying relaxation tape.
So, while others were on the beach or in the jacuzzi, I tried my little biofeedback unit. It’s a wonder I registered any relaxation at all, since I was a bit impatient with the system and anxious to return to my usual program of holiday fun and games. But I did find the unit worked well and I began to learn more about the basics of relaxation which is, after all, the whole purpose of the biofeedback device.
In later sessions with the GSR 2, I became more skilled at using the unit, understanding my own body’s signals, and in reacting properly so that I could modify bad feedback and/or sustain good feedback. I’ll give you one rather funny example of how the system works. As I mentioned, the audio comes through the car-phone in a hum or buzz that increases with stress or excitement/activity and decreases with relaxation.
During one session, sitting before my word processor, I was so successful at relaxation that I started to doze off (I keep telling you folks that no amount of medical experimentation is too great for your dedicated reporter to undertake on your behalf); in an instant my body jerked involuntarily in that funny way that the body does sometimes when you’re just on the brink of sleep. At any rate, the involuntary movement startled me, but not half as much as the buzz in my ear that took off like an air-raid siren. So, the system works.
I should mention that buzzing tone. The people at Thought Technology say they’ve changed it to make it more pleasant-sounding in the newer models, and that would be a help. Because, despite the fact that the GSR 2 manual calls the noise “a pleasant low tone” and it is elsewhere referred to as “a hum,” I found the buzzing more like the whine of an annoying quito. Others who tried my system had the same comment. In fact husband Ed said, “I know I’m supposed to be using this to relax, but that tone is driving me crazy!”
So, at that point I would have recommended that if you wanted to use the system that you splurge and buy either the standard or dual meter as well as the basic unit. That way you could visually see the results rather than have the results buzzing in your ear.
However, after more use with the unit, I found I really did get used to the sound and no longer found it distracting or annoying. In addition, one of the benefits of a relaxation program or technique is that you close your eyes and sort of “let yourself float.” Obviously, having to continue open your eyes to “see” your progress could be extremely distracting. So, I’d go with the basic unit, after all. If the sound is distracting at first, or you continue to dislike it, you can minimize the irritation by taking the earphone from your ear and pinning it to your collar where you can hear it, but it’s not so loud or so “internal.”
WHO SHOULD BUY ONE
Buying and using a GSR 2 and/or other biofeedback units is a personal decision, of course, just like any other health and medical decision. Just remember it is in itself not a cure or treatment, but it simply allows you to get more in tune with your body so you can use meditation, relaxation or other techniques to help your body combat stress.
Like every other health tool, you must spend time and energy to make the tool work. In the same way a tennis racket is great, but does little for your exercise program if you never play tennis with it, so it is with the GSR 2 unit.
The unit is available in the U.S. and Japan. Unfortunately, the unit is much more costly in the Land of the Rising Sun. so if you spend any time in the states or Canada you might want to order it there.
In the U.S. or Canada, write to Thought Technology Ltd., c/o Cimetra, R.R. #1, Box 380, West Chazy, N.Y. 12992 for more information or to order. The GSR 2 unit is $49,95 and the meter is $16.95. Shipping runs about $4 by UPS.
Now, for Japan: the GSR 2 is ¥28.000, and the optional meter is ¥8,000. (I don’t set prices, folks, only quote them.)
Distributed in Japan by Pollux Overseas Inc., 3-7 Nihonbashi-Kobunacho, Chuo-ku, Tokyo. Phone 666-0511. Nihongo works best on the phone.