With Steady Practice, Biofeedback Immensely Helpful to PTSD Victims
The Los Angeles chapter of the faith-based organization Volunteers of America recruited 33 combat veterans to participate in this research project. The men had all served in Iraq, had all been in the line of fire and had all been diagnosed with PTSD. None had previous experience with biofeedback, but all agreed to follow an eight-week training regimen that would show them how to use this technology to restore lost functioning and capacity.
Biofeedback has much in common with meditation. It helps practitioners cultivate peaceful emotional states that can be summoned during times of stress and turmoil. Heart variability biofeedback teaches conscious awareness of heart speeds and rhythms, allowing users to gain control over a process that is normally unconscious and automatic. In the Volunteers of America study, HRV biofeedback was combined with deep, controlled breathing and emotional regulation techniques that showed the veterans how to moderate psychological states through the use of positive mental imagery. Heart activity was measured using a special heart monitoring system attached to a laptop, which allowed for real-time observation in a visual medium. Subjects were walked through the biofeedback process slowly, gaining knowledge and skill until they learned how to intentionally control the operation of their cardiovascular and nervous systems.
The Volunteers of America study was carried out in two stages. First, participating veterans were given a crash course on how HRV biofeedback works. Then, once the study organizers were sure their subjects knew how to use the technology, the veterans were required to meet once weekly in coaching groups that focused on using HRV, emotional-regulation strategies and deep breathing in real-life situations known to provoke PTSD-based stress responses.
Overall, 27 of the original 33 study participants made it through to the end of the eight-week program. While there were obviously differences in individual performance, on average study subjects experienced a 20 percent decrease in PTSD symptoms. The improvements seen throughout the study were steady and progressive, implying that further healing could be expected if the veterans continued to practice these techniques after the cessation of the research project. Biofeedback skill improvements were also monitored to make sure participants were really learning, and dramatic advancements were seen in conjunction with the lessening of PTSD severity.
Great Feedback for Biofeedback
One 2009 study found that 20 percent of all veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. This is the most common form of mental health problem experienced by veterans who have spent time in war zones, and diagnoses of the disorder in the military have exploded as awareness about the prevalence of PTSD has risen.
PTSD creates disorder and chaos where before there was coherence, stealing emotional and psychological control from people who have been traumatized and/or subjected to long-term intense stress. It creates dysfunction in the same life-maintenance systems that biofeedback has the capacity to heal, which is why biofeedback as an alternative treatment for PTSD seems like such a logical choice. Biofeedback can improve mental and personal performance in anyone, but it is uniquely appropriate for those whose emotional reflexes have been damaged to the point where daily functioning has been inhibited.
Generally speaking, the health profession has become much more open and accepting of alternative forms of treatment, especially those that involve both the mind and the body in the healing process. This is true of the Veterans Administration as well, and interest in mind-body therapies has grown inside the VA by leaps and bounds over the past few years.
Dozens of studies have established the efficacy and legitimacy of biofeedback. But using biofeedback to treat PTSD is still lightly explored territory. A lot more research is needed before treatment specialists can be sure how best to integrate this self-improvement technology with more traditional forms of therapy for mental health disorders.