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Can biofeedback techniques help anxiety disorders and Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

Publication date: 31 October 2012

Can biofeedback techniques help the treatment of anxiety disorders and the management of Irritable Bowel Syndrome in particular?

This post is a guest article by Antonio Martins-Mourao, PhD, who is a practising Clinical Psychologist and a Lecturer in Psychophysiology and Mental Health, at the Open University, where he also runs the QEEG & Brain Research Lab currently researching Anxiety disorders.

Antonio Martins-Mourao

Anxiety disorders are often accompanied by distressing and restricting symptoms that motivate patients to seek primary medical care and regular GP assistance. A prime example of anxiety-related co-morbidities includes acute gastrointestinal complaints such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), which presents mechanisms quite similar to anxiety with clear consequences for patients’ everyday life management. IBS, in particular, has significant impact on the quality of life and productivity of sufferers, affecting 10% to 15% of the population in the UK, leading to an average loss of 20 working days per year. Conservative estimates suggest that IBS has a total direct cost of over 220 million pounds to the National Health System, per year.

An obvious question in the minds of many GPs would be: is there an efficient and cost-effective way to help sufferers with Anxiety and IBS to manage their symptoms? As a matter of fact there is. Biofeedback is a simple yet powerful technique that has been shown to stabilize the autonomic nervous system, reducing anxiety levels and tackling IBS symptoms within weeks. HRV biofeedback, in particular, is a painless and non-invasive technique that uses the patient’s heart rate data and patterns of breathing to facilitate “mindful” mental shifts and improved cardiovascular system function to promote Autonomic health and homeostasis. Once the patients learn how to reduce their sympathetic activation, using simple equipment, their symptoms begin to subside, leading to greater autonomy, confidence and increased self-esteem.

HRV biofeedback can be used by GPs, nurses, counsellors and psychotherapists, to promote emotional states that enable significant symptomatic reduction. It is also supported by an impressive number of studies published showing its reliability and effectiveness in the treatment for a range of clinical disorders, including pain, cardiac rehabilitation, anxiety and stress-related disorders. When used in combination with talk therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) the outcomes can be even more effective, requiring less therapist time.

There is an additional advantage. Biofeedback is medication-free and can be used by patients, at home, after basic training.

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