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EMG or Muscle Tension Biofeedback For Stress & Anxiety Management and Mindfulness Support

This article looks at what makes muscle tension (EMG) such a useful biofeedback parameter in stress and anxiety management and emotional resilience work.

As I've explained elsewhere, biofeedback is a tool for training and developing what I call mind-body intelligence: the ability to guide your body towards more optimal states, as the basis for emotional resilience and emotional intelligence. It works by works by measuring physiological changes associated with stress and emotions, and feeding this information back in real time as the basis for learning to self-regulate.

In general there are three features that characterise a useful biofeedback parameter:

  • easy to measure
  • relates to subjective experience in a clear and meaningful way
  • it's possible to learn to influence.

Muscle tension fits all these criteria. Let's start with the second.

Muscle Tension & Stress

Most people are familiar with the experience of tightening up under stress - for example you have to give a presentation and your throat and chest feel tight (and you feel anxious). Or the golfer who needs to make a put to win the competition finds his limbs stiff and jerky. These are examples of the mind-body connection - the idea that how you think, feel and act is reflected in how your body functions and vice versa. Even passing thoughts can provoke a measurable body response.

Measuring Muscle Tension

Muscle tension can be measured easily via an electrical correlate called electromyography or EMG. EMG is a simply a kind of voltage. the signal comes from the nerves controlling the muscles - the more nerves that are firing, the stronger the voltage and the stronger the muscle contraction.

You need three sensors, attached to the skin typically using small self-adhesive pads. Two are the sensors are the more important - they're know as the active sensors, and essentially you're measuring the tension between these two, and to some extent around about them. Clearly which muscles you measure depends on where you place the sensors. Two common placements that are useful in practical ways are:

  • wrists (one active on each wrist) - picks up tension in the shoulders, arms and hands. This is useful because we commonly tighten up here when we're stressed.
  • forehead - this picks up tension in the whole head, especially the face. This is useful because emotions manifest as facial expressions (e.g. we frown when annoyed) and also because inner dialogue can manifest as subtle activity in the muscles of the mouth.

Muscle Tension Biofeedback & Breathing Training

EMG biofeedback can be an important component of optimal breathing training.

Stress and anxiety affect breathing - we tend to fill the lungs right up, and then we don't really fully let the air out again. This leads to shallow, rapid breathing in the upper chest. Over-breathing or hyperventilation is more likely. This happens because the main breathing muscle, the diaphragm, tenses up and then doesn't fully relax. It's a kind of defensive posturing. It can happen even for minor stress, and can become a habitual pattern, especially when stress is presistent.

This kind of chest breathing shows up in the EMG signal when we use the wrists placement - the shoulders are lifting the chest up and down. The figure below shows what this looks like.

emg biofeedback screenshot chest breathing

Relaxed, optimal breathing involves letting the air right the way out - we don't need to hold on to any. This happens when the breathing muscles, most notably the diaphragm but also the shoulders and upper chest, fully release their tension.

Quietening Racing Thoughts

I mentioned that inner dialogue can manifest as subtle or subliminal activity in the muscles of the mouth (i.e. those involved with speech). Thinking can be quite literally inner speech. Many people find that learning to fully relax these muscles with the help of the forehead placement for EMG biofeedback helps them to quieten racing thoughts and mental chatter much more effectively.

EMG Biofeedback & Mindfulness Practice

Mindfulness is an increasingly popular tool for stress management and building emotional resilience. But many people find it difficult - their wayward minds lead them to spending most of their time in a state of distraction or even worry, and the practice is neither gratifying nor productive.

There's a way that biofeedback can help. Distractions, especially when they're emotionally charged, tend to lead to measurable changes - for example tightening in the facial muscles. This means that biofeedback can function to some extent as a distraction detector - letting you know when you've wandered off and helping you return to the focus. (This of course is the hard part in mindfulness meditation.) As long as the feedback isn't too intrusive, it need not interfere with the spirit of mindfulness practice. For example you can have a bell ring, only whenever you tighten up beyond a certain limit. The rest of the time you're free to focus on your direct experience.

How You Can Access Muscle Tension Biofeedback Training

I'm deeply inspired by the potential that biofeedback training offers and motivated to help as many people access the benefits as possible, and to make doing so as easy and convenient as possible. Whilst in an ideal world you'd probably visit my office here in York for one to one coaching, in practice that's often not possible especially if you live at a distance from me. But it doesn't mean you can't work with me.

My services are based around:

  • An online (video-based) biofeedback training course - designed to give you the key information, ideas and practices to make working with biofeedback a success. The course aims to develop emotional resilience and stress management skills, and is built around optimal breathing training, focusing on three key biofeedback parameters related to breathing, one of which is EMG.
  • Biofeedback device rental, so that you can practice at home with the three key biofeedback modalities for optimal breathing: EMG, capnometry, and heart coherence (also known as heart rate variability or HRV biofeedback).

I also offer one to one distance coaching via telephone or skype, to support my clients.

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