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Using Biofeedback with Alpha-Stim Part 2

Publication date: 20 December 2013

Last week I wrote a post on Alpha-Stim, a safe, easy to use brain stimulation tool, FDA-approved for depression, anxiety, insomnia and pain. Because Alpha-Stim requires no effort on the part of the user, I think it is a great counterpart for biofeedback, which is based on active learning, and I often rent both to clients. As I pointed out, there is evidence that Alpha-Stim potentiates biofeedback, and I would expect it works the other way round too, though the research didn't actually test that.

In this post I'll talk about my personal experience of using Alpha-Stim in combination with HRV biofeedback.

I've used HRV biofeedback for many years now as a support for my mindfulness practice. I find that a calm, still, clear, focused mind on the one hand, and steady, gentle and regular breathing, and heart rate coherence on the other hand, naturally go together, so I use the HRV biofeedback for background guidance.

More recently I've added Alpha-Stim to the mix. First thing to say, I don't have any significant anxiety or depression etc., so I haven't noticed any particular change in my mood.

Initially I used the two simultaneously, then later I did Alpha-Stim first then HRV biofeedback. Alpha-Stim, if used with sufficient current strength (which is controllable) does give you a slight sense of vertigo. This is not particularly conducive to mindfulness meditation. In fact I would say from my limited experience that I had a sleepy feeling too. Subjectively I found doing HRV biofeedback after Alpha-Stim more satisfying. The first time I tried it this way I experienced a definite warmth and positivity. (Of course this could have been placebo as I was definitely hoping for an effect.)

What about the effect on the actual HRV physiology? For the HRV biofeedback sessions, I used my own software, which is known as Mind-Body Training Tools (and available from my website). In Heart Rate Coherence (HRC) the heart speeds up and slows down in sync with the breath - a natural, reflex-like phenomemon with many beneficial correlates.

The software computes a number of measures of heart rate coherence, including "coherence score" and "synchrony". (These are defined more fully in the software's User Guide. The former is an innovative measure, the latter simply a measure of the time lag between the peak of the "heart wave" and the peak of the breath.)

My sense was that breathing rate and coherence score appeared no different, but that synchrony was improved in sequential case. "Improved" here means closer to zero, representing a tighter coupling between the heart wave and the breath. My general experience is that such a tighter coupling comes with a clearer, more focused, stiller mind.

The data from six sessions (3 simultaneous, 3 sequential) appear to bear that out, although the sample size is far too small to be conclusive. I've reproduced my session means in the table below. Note that each session was 10-15 minutes in duration, and they were done at the same time of day (late evening) on roughly consecutive days.

[table id=1 /]

The table suggests there may be a difference in the inhalation to exhalation (I:E) ratio. Of course I can't say that this is anything beyond very speculative - but it would be interesting to do some proper research. Perhaps there is an optimum I:E ratio for minimising synchrony.

Why should synchrony be tighter after Alpha-Stim, if indeed this is right? Getting even more speculative, it may be that Alpha-Stim improves the brain's timing mechanisms in a general sense. I'm reminded of a serendipitous "experiment" I did a couple of years ago. I have a device called "brain boy" which is a tool for training perceptual acuity. More accurate visual and auditory processing is probably a function of enhanced brain timing mechanisms. I tried a session of brain boy right after a session of CES and got the best score I've ever had, before or since - by a distance. I've never repeated the experiment but I think there's a really nice research project in there one day.

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