By Susie West
One of the unique things about Avalon Hills is the integration of biofeedback and neurofeedback training into our program. Biofeedback in general, refers to taking the trainee’s biological data, such as heart rate or skin temperature, and translating them into meaningful information, often in the form of games or other visuals. Neurofeedback is a form of biofeedback that uses the electrical activity of the brain as the biological input. The reason that biofeedback is such an integral part of treatment at Avalon Hills is because of the powerful insight it provides our clients. Our emotional world and physical state are inextricably linked and biofeedback gives us a glimpse into the connection between the two.
The old adage about getting “cold feet” isn’t just metaphorical–the temperature of our skin, specifically in our extremities, is closely linked to stress and anxiety. Our hands contain many small capillaries and in a calm state, the muscles in the hands relax allowing for increased blood flow to our fingers which makes our hands warm. When our hands (or feet) are cold, it’s a good indicator that we are under some sort of stress. A practice that we’ve found to be helpful is surface temperature training, during which the client practices increasing the temperature of her skin.
How do you train someone to intentionally raise the temperature of her skin? With a thermometer of course! Using a bit of medical tape, a skin temperature thermometer is carefully placed on the client’s pinky finger, the technician then proceeds to read a series of prompts that encourage the client to relax. These phrases, known as autogenic training, promote a sense of calm by guiding the client through various parts of the body and verbally “telling” each part to relax. With practice, surface temperature training can result in the willful change of hand temperature by 10 degrees or more. While in treatment, clients’ eating disorder behaviors are interrupted, effectively removing their primary source of stress relief. Surface temperature training is just another skill clients can put in their toolbox.
Successfully learning to raise skin temperature is also helpful in preparing our clients for the neurofeedback training they will receive. The sensitive nature of the neurofeedback equipment means that muscle tension will interfere with its ability to detect and provide accurate feedback for the client. Without the know-how of some basic relaxation skills, neurofeedback would be very challenging simply because the program will not run if too much muscle tension is present. The act of being able to regulate basic biological responses (muscle tension, skin temperature, etc.) also generally translates into the ability to regulate more complex responses, like mental activity and even brainwaves. The ability to regulate physical responses and mental activity is crucial to interrupting the habitual patterns of thoughts and behaviors that are so prevalent with eating disorders and moving our clients towards fully recovered lives.
Surface temperature training is a great skill for anyone looking to lower stress, improve focus and for general well-being. Autogenic training has been practiced for decades and studied since the 1950’s. It has been used to treat a plethora of conditions such as migraines, hypertension, asthma, anxiety and depression, and more. In addition to its efficacy, another benefit is how accessible it is–it can be practiced anytime, anywhere and with little-to-no equipment after sufficient training. Often, the act of thinking through a few of the phrases is enough to lower distress and transition into a calmer state of mind. While willfully raising the temperature of one’s hands by tens of degrees may just seem like a neat party trick, this modest practice is foundational for building the self regulation skills necessary to progress through treatment and transition into a lifetime of wellness.