Monica Almendras and Erik Peper
For almost a year, we have managed to survive this pandemic. As we work in front of screen many people experience screen fatigue (Bailenson, 2021). The tiredness, achiness and depressive feelings have many causes such as sitting disease, reduced social contact, constantly looking at the screen for work, education, socializing, and entertaining, and the increased stress from family illness and economic insecurity. The result is that many people experience low energy, depression, loneliness, anxiety, neck, shoulder, back pain at the end of the day (Son, Hegde, Smith, Wang, & Sasangohar, 2020; Peper & Harvey, 2018).
Yet there is hope to reduce discomfort and increase by implementing simple tips.
Take breaks and take more breaks by getting up from your chair and moving. Taking breaks helps us to clear our minds and it interrupts any ongoing rumination we may have going on. Doing this helps a person be more productive at work or when studying, and at the same time it helps retain more information (Peper, Harvey, & Faass, 2020; Kim, Park, & Headrick, 2018). How many of you reading this actually take a short break at least once during work? We stay in the same sitting position for long periods of time, even holding off to go to the restroom. We tell ourselves ‘one more minute’ or ‘I’ll just finish this and then I’ll go”. Sounds familiar? We know it is not healthy and yet, we continue doing it.
Solution: Set a reminder every twenty minutes to take a short break. Download a program on your computer that will remind you to take a break such as Stretch Break (www.stretchbreak.com). Every twenty minutes a window will pop up on your computer reminding you to stretch. It gives you simple exercises for you to move around and wiggle as shown in figure 1. You can say it breaks the spell from staying frozen in one position in front of your screen. The best part is that yet is free to download on your computer. What more can you ask for?
Figure 1. Stretch break window that pops up on your computer to remind you to stretch.
Stop slouching in front of the screen. We tend to gaze downwards to our device and slouch, which creates tension on our neck and shoulders ((Peper, Lin, Harvey, & Perez, 2017). And yet, we still wonder why people suffer from neck-shoulder pain and headaches. It is time to make a transformation from slouching and feeling aches and pains, to an upright posture to be free of pain.
Solution: Use an UpRight Go 2 device on your upper back or neck is a great way to remind you that you are slouching (Harvey, Peper, Mason, & Joy, 2020). The UpRight is linked via Bluetooth to the App on the mobile phone, and once you calibrate it to an upright posture, you will see and feel a vibrate when you slouch. For people who are on the computer for long hours, this will help you to be aware of your posture.
If wearing a small device on your back is not your cup of tea, or perhaps it is not in your budget at the moment. There is a solution for this, and that means you can download the UpRight Desktop App on your computer or laptop (Chetwynd, Mason, Almendras, Peper, & Harvey, 2020). The desktop version uses the camera from your computer or laptop to monitor your posture; however, at the camera cannot simultaneous be in use with another program such as ZOOM. This version provides immediate feedback through the graphic on the screen as well as, an adjustable auditory signal when you slouch as shown in Figure 2. It is also free to download, and it is available for PC and Mac (https://www.uprightpose.com/desktop-app/).
Figure 2. Posture feedback app. When slouching, the app provides immediate feedback through the graphic on the screen (the posture of figure turns red) and/or an adjustable auditory sound (from: Chetwynd, Mason, Almendras, Peper, & Harvey, 2020)
Relax your eyes and look away from the screen. Many people struggle with dry eyes and eyestrain from looking at the screen for extended time periods. We log out from work, meetings, and class; to staring at the television, tablets, and mobile phones on our free time. It is a nonstop cycle of looking at the screen, while our poor eyes never have a single break. To look at the screen, we tightened our extraocular muscles and ciliary muscles; and the result is near-vision stress (Peper, 2021).
SOLUTION: The solution to relax the eyes and reduce eyestrain will not be to buy new eyeballs online. Instead, here are three easy and free things to reestablish good eyeball health. These were adapted from the superb book, Vision for life: Ten steps for natural eyesight improvement, by Meir Schneider, PhD.
- Look out through a window at a distance tree for a moment after reading an email or clicking a link
- Look up at a distant tree and focus at the details of the branches and leaves each time you have finished a page from a book or eBook.
- Rest and regenerate your eyes with palming (Peper, 2021). To do palming, all you need to do is sit upright, place an object under your elbows (pillow or books) to avoid tensing the neck and shoulders, and cover the eyes with your hands (see figure 3). Cup your hands to avoid pressure on your eyes and with your eyes closed, imagine seeing blackness while breathing slowing from your diaphragm. For five minutes, feel how your shoulders, head, and eyes are relaxing, while doing six breaths per minutes through your nose. Once your five minutes are up, stretch or wiggle around before returning to your work. For detailed instructions, see the YouTube video, Free Webinar by Meir Schneider: May 6, 2019.
Figure 3. Position for palming.
Implement these tips as an experiment for a week and note how it affects you. Many people report that after three weeks, they experience less pain and more energy. By taking charge of your own computer work patterns, you have taken a first e first step into transforming your health.
Bailenson, J. N. (2021). Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue. Technology, Mind, and Behavior, 2(1). https://doi.org/10.1037/tmb0000030
Chetwynd, J., Mason, L., Almendras, M., Peper, E., & Harvey, R. (2020). “Posture awareness training.” Poster presented at the 51st Annual meeting of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. https://doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.2.20194.76485
Harvey, R., Peper, E., Mason, L., & Joy, M. (2020). “Effect of posture feedback training on health”. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. 45(3). https://DOI.org/10.1007/s10484-020-09457-0
Kim, S., Park, Y., & Headrick, L. (2018). Daily micro-breaks and job performance: General work engagement as a cross-level moderator. Journal of Applied Psychology, 103(7), 772–786. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000308
Peper, E. & Harvey, R. (2018). Digital addiction: increased loneliness, depression, and anxiety. NeuroRegulation. 5(1),3–8. doi:10.15540/nr.5.1.3 https://www.neuroregulation.org/article/view/18189/11842
Peper, E., Lin, I-M., Harvey, R., & Perez, J. (2017). How posture affects memory recall and mood. Biofeedback.45 (2), 36-41. https://doi.org/10.5298/1081-5937-45.2.01
Peper, E. (2021). “Resolve eyestrain and screen fatigue.” Well Being Journal,.30, Winter 2021 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/345123096_Resolve_Eyestrain_and_Screen_Fatigue
Schneider, M. (2019. YouTube video Free Webinar by Meir Schneidere: May 6, 2019.
Son. C., Hegde, S., Smith, A., Wang, X., & Sasangohar, F. (2020). Effects of COVID-19 on College Students’ Mental Health in the United States: Interview Survey Study. J Med Internet Res, 22(9):e21279 https://doi.org/10.2196/21279
We are excited about our upcoming book, TechStress-How Technology is Hijacking our Lives, Strategies for Coping and Pragmatic Ergonomics, that will be published August 25, 2020.
Evolution shapes behavior — and as a species, we’ve evolved to be drawn to the instant gratification, constant connectivity, and the shiny lights, beeps, and chimes of our ever-present devices. In earlier eras, these hardwired evolutionary patterns may have set us up for success, but today they confuse our instincts, leaving us vulnerable and stressed out from fractured attention, missed sleep, skipped meals, aches, pains, and exhaustion and often addicted to our digital devices.
Tech Stress offers real, practical tools to avoid evolutionary pitfalls programmed into modern technology that trip us up. You will find a range of effective strategies and best practices to individualize your workspace, reduce physical strain, prevent sore muscles, combat brain drain, and correct poor posture. The book also provides fresh insights on reducing psychological stress on the job, including ways to improve communication with coworkers and family.
Although you will have to wait until August 25th to have the book delivered to your home, you can already begin to implement ways to reduce physical discomfort, zoom/screen fatigue and exhaustion. Have a look the blogs below.
How evolution shapes behavior
How to optimize ergonomics
Hot to prevent and reduce neck and shoulder discomfort
How to prevent screen fatigue and eye discomfort
How to improve posture and prevent slouching
How to improve breathing and reduce stress
How to protect yourself from EMF
Adapted from: Peper, E., Harvey, R. & Faass, N. (2020). TechStress: How Technology is Hijacking Our Lives, Strategies for Coping, and Pragmatic Ergonomics. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.
Forty percent of adults and eighty percent of teenagers report experiencing significant visual symptoms (eyestrain, blurry vision, dry eyes, headaches, and exhaustion) during and immediately after viewing electronic displays. These ‘technology-associated overuse’ symptoms are often labeled as digital eyestrain or computer vision syndrome (Rosenfield, 2016; Randolph & Cohn, 2017). Even our distant vision may be affected— after working in front of a screen for hours, the world looks blurry. At the same time, we may experience an increase in neck, shoulders and back discomfort. These symptoms increase as we spend more hours looking at computer screens, laptops, tablets, e-readers, gaming consoles, and cellphones for work, taking online classes, watching streaming videos for entertainment, and keeping connected with friends and family (Borhany et al, 2018; Turgut, 2018; Jensen et al, 2002).
Eye, head, neck, shoulder and back discomfort are partly the result of sitting too long in the same position and attending to the screen without taking short physical and vision breaks, moving our bodies and looking at far objects every 20 minutes or so. The obvious question is, “Why do we stare at and are captured by, the screen?” Two answers are typical: (1) we like the content of what is on the screen; and, (2) we feel compelled to watch the rapidly changing visual scenes.
From an evolutionary perspective, our sense of vision (and hearing) evolved to identify predators who were hunting us, or to search for prey so we could have a nice meal. Attending to fast moving visual changes is linked to our survival. We are unaware that our adaptive behaviors of attending to a visual or auditory signals activate the same physiological response patterns that were once successful for humans to survive–evading predictors, identifying food, and discriminating between friend or foe. The large and small screen (and speakers) with their attention grabbing content and notifications have become an evolutionary trap that may lead to a reduction in health and fitness (Peper, Harvey & Faass, 2020).
Near vision stress
To be able to see the screen, the eyes need to converge and accommodate. To converge, the extraocular muscles of the eyes tighten; to focus (accomodation), the ciliary muscle around the lens tighten to increase the curvature of the lens. This muscle tension is held constant as long as we look at the screen. Overuse of these muscles results is near vision stress that contributes to computer vision syndrome, development of myopia in younger people, and other technology-associated overuse syndromes (Sherwin et al, 2012; Enthoven et al, 2020).
Continually overworking the visual muscles related to convergences increases tension and contributes to eyestrain. While looking at the screen, the eye muscles seldom have the chance to relax. To function effectively, muscles need to relax /regenerate after momentary tightening. For the eye muscles to relax, they need to look at the far distance– preferably objects green in color. As stated earlier, the process of distant vision occurs by relaxing the extraocular muscles to allow the eyes to diverge along with relaxing the ciliary muscle to allow the lens to flatten. In our digital age, where screen of all sizes are ubiquitous, distant vision is often limited to the nearby walls behind a screen or desk which results in keeping the focus on nearby objects and maintaining muscular tension in the eyes.
As we evolved, we continuously alternated between between looking at the far distance and nearby areas for food sources as well as signals indicating danger. If we did not look close and far, we would not know if a predator was ready to attack us. Today we tend to be captured by the screens. Arguably, all media content is designed to capture our attention such as data entry tasks required for employment, streaming videos for entertainment, reading and answering emails, playing e-games, responding to text notifications, looking at Instagram and Snapchat photos and Tiktok videos, scanning Tweets and using social media accounts such as Facebook. We are unaware of the symptoms of visual stress until we experience symptoms. To illustrate the physiological process that covertly occurs during convergence and accommodation, do the following exercise.
Sit comfortably and lift your right knee a few inches up so that the foot is an inch above the floor. Keep holding it in this position for a minute…. Now let go and relax your leg.
A minute might have seemed like a very long time and you may have started to feel some discomfort in the muscles of your hip. Most likely, you observed that when you held your knee up, you most likely held your breath and tightened your neck and back. Moreover, to do this for more than a few minutes would be very challenging.
Lift your knee up again and notice the automatic patterns that are happening in your body.
For muscles to regenerate they need momentary relaxation which allows blood flow and lymph flow to occur. By alternately tensing and relaxing muscles, they can work more easily for longer periods of time without experiencing fatigue and discomfort (e.g., we can hike for hours but can only lift our knee for a few minutes).
Solutions to relax the eyes and reduce eye strain
- Reestablish the healthy evolutionary pattern of alternately looking at far and near distances to reduce eyestrain, such as:
- Look out through a window at a distant tree for a moment after reading an email or clicking link.
- Look up and at the far distance each time you have finished reading a page or turn the page over.
- Rest and regenerate your eyes with palming. While sitting upright, place a pillow or other supports under our elbows so that your hands can cover your closed eyes without tensing the neck and shoulders.
- Cup the hands so that there is no pressure on your eyeballs, allow the base of the hands to touch the cheeks while the fingers are interlaced and resting your forehead.
- Close your eyes, imagine seeing black. Breathe slowly and diaphragmatically while feeling the warmth of the palm soothing the eyes. Feel your shoulders, head and eyes relaxing. Palm for 5 minutes while breathing at about six breaths per minute through your nose. Then stretch and go back to work.
Palming is one of the many practices that improves vision. For a comprehensive perspective and pragmatic exercises to reduce eye strain, maintain and improve vision, see the superb book by Meir Schneider, PhD., L.M.T., Vision for Life, Revised Edition: Ten Steps to Natural Eyesight Improvement.
Increased sympathetic arousal
Seeing the changing stimuli on the screen evokes visual attention and increases sympathetic arousal. In addition, many people automatically hold their breath when they see novel visual or hear auditory signals; since, they trigger a defense or orienting response. At the same time, without awareness, we may tighten our neck and shoulder muscles as we bring our nose literally to the screen. As we attend and concentrate to see what is on the screen, our blinking rate decreases significantly. From an evolutionary perspective, an unexpected movement in the periphery could be a snake, a predator, a friend or foe and the body responds by getting ready: freeze, fight or flight. We still react the same survival responses. Some of the physiological reactions that occur include:
- Breath holding or shallow breathing. These often occur the moment we receive a text notification, begin concentrating and respond to the messages, or start typing or mousing. Without awareness, we activate the freeze, flight and fight response. By breath holding or shallow breathing, we reduce or limit our body movements, effectively becoming a non-moving object that is more difficult to see by many animal predators. In addition, during breath holding, hearing become more acute because breathing noises are effectively reduced or eliminated.
- Inhibition of blinking. When we blink it is another movement signal that in earlier times could give away our position. In addition, the moment we blink we become temporarily blind and cannot see what the predator could be doing next.
- Increased neck, shoulder and back tension. The body is getting ready for a defensive fight or avoidance flight.
Experience some of these automatic physiological responses described above by doing the following two exercises.
Eye movement neck connection: While sitting up and looking at the screen, place your fingers on the back of the neck on either side of the cervical spine just below the junction where the spine meets the skull.
Feel the muscles of neck along the spine where they are attaching to the skull. Now quickly look to the extreme right and then to the extreme left with your eyes. Repeat looking back and forth with the eyes two or three times.
What did you observe? Most likely, when you looked to the extreme right, you could feel the right neck muscles slightly tightening and when you looked the extreme left, the left neck muscles slightly tightening. In addition, you may have held your breath when you looked back and forth.
Focus and neck connection: While sitting up and looking at the screen, place your fingers on the back of the neck as you did before. Now focus intently on the smallest size print or graphic details on the screen. Really focus and concentrate on it and look at all the details.
What did you observe? Most likely, when you focused on the text, you brought your head slightly forward and closer to the screen, felt your neck muscles tighten, and possibly held your breath or started to breathe shallowly.
As you concentrated, the automatic increase in arousal, along with the neck and shoulder tension and reduced blinking contributes to developing discomfort. This can become more pronounced after looking at screens to detailed figures, numerical data, characters and small images for hours (Peper, Harvey & Tylova, 2006; Peper & Harvey, 2008; Waderich et al, 2013).
Staying alert, scanning and reacting to the images on a computer screen or notifications from text messages, can become exhausting. in the past, we scanned the landscape, looking for information that will help us survive (predators, food sources, friend or foe) however today, we react to the changing visual stimuli on the screen. The computer display and notifications have become evolutionary traps since they evoke these previously adaptive response patterns that allowed us to survive.
The response patterns occur mostly without awareness until we experience discomfort. Fortunately, we can become aware of our body’s reactions with physiological monitoring which makes the invisible visible as shown in the figure below (Peper, Harvey & Faass, 2020).
Representative physiological patterns that occur when working at a computer, laptop, tablet or cellphone are unnecessary neck and shoulder tension, shallow rapid breathing, and an increase in heart rate during data entry. Even when the person is resting their hands on the keyboard, forearm muscle tension, breathing and heart rate increased.
Moreover, muscle tension in the neck and shoulder region also increased, even when those muscles were not needed for data entry task. Unfortunately, this unnecessary tension and shallow breathing contributes to exhaustion and discomfort (Peper, Harvey & Faass, 2020).
With biofeedback training, the person can learn to become aware and control these dysfunctional patterns and prevent discomfort (Peper & Gibney, 2006; Peper et, 2003). However, without access to biofeedback monitoring, assume that you respond similarly while working. Thus, to prevent discomfort and improve health and performance, implement the following.
- Practice breathing lower and slower to reduce sympathetic activation. Every few minutes remember to breathe slowly in and out through the nose. See the following blogs for more detailed instructions:
- Blink many times. Blink each time you click on a link, after typing a paragraph or after entering a few numbers.
- Get up, move, stretch and wiggle.
- Every few minutes do a small movement such as rotating your shoulders, dropping your hands to your lap.
- Every twenty minutes get up, stretch and walk around to reduce the chronic muscle tension.
- Install the free Stretch Break software on your computer or laptop to remind you to stretch… and then shows you how. Download free version from: https://stretchbreak.com/.
- Use small portable muscle biofeedback devices to learn awareness of the covert muscle tension and how to work without unnecessary muscle tension. For detailed training procedures see the free downloadable book by Erik Peper and Katherine Gibney, Muscle Biofeedback at the Computer- A Manual to Prevent Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) by Taking the Guesswork out of Assessment, Monitoring and Training.
Finally, for a comprehensive overview based on an evolutionary perspective that explains why TechStress develops, why digital addiction occurs. and what can be done to prevent discomfort and improve health and performance, see our new book by Erik Peper, Richard Harvey and Nancy Faass, Tech Stress-How Technology is Hijack our Lives, Strategies for Coping and Pragmatic Ergonomics.
Enthoven, C. A., Tideman, W.L., Roel of Polling, R.J.,Yang-Huang, J., Raat, H., & Klaver, C.C.W. (2020). The impact of computer use on myopia development in childhood: The Generation R study. Preventtive Medicine, 132, 105988.
Peper, E. & Gibney, K. (2006). Muscle Biofeedback at the Computer- A Manual to Prevent Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) by Taking the Guesswork out of Assessment, Monitoring and Training. The Biofeedback Federation of Europe. Download free PDF version of the book: http://bfe.org/helping-clients-who-are-working-from-home/
Peper, E., Wilson, V.S., Gibney, K.H., Huber, K., Harvey, R. & Shumay. (2003). The Integration of Electromyography (sEMG) at the Workstation: Assessment, Treatment and Prevention of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI). Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 28 (2), 167-182.
Sherwin, J.C., Reacher, M.H., Keogh, R. H., Khawaja, A. P., Mackey, D.A.,& Foster, P. J. (2012). The association between time spent outdoors and myopia in children and adolescents. Ophthalmology,119(10), 2141-2151.
Waderich, K., Peper, E., Harvey, R., & Sara Sutter. (2013). The psychophysiology of contemporary information technologies-Tablets and smart phones can be a pain in the neck. Presented at the 44st Annual Meeting of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. Portland, OR.
This blog is based upon our breathing research that began in the 1990s, This research helped identify dysfunctional breathing patterns that could contribute to illness. We developed coaching/teaching strategies with biofeedback to optimize breathing patterns, improve health and performance (Peper and Tibbetts, 1994; Peper, Martinez Aranda and Moss, 2015; Peper, Mason, and Huey, 2017).
For example, people with asthma were taught to reduce their reactivity to cigarette smoke and other airborne irritants (Peper and Tibbitts, 1992; Peper and Tibbetts, 2003). The smoke of cigarettes or vaping spreads out as the person exhales. If the person was infected, the smoke could represent the cloud of viruses that the other people would inhale as is shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Vaping by young people in Riga, Latvia (photo by Erik Peper).
To learn how to breathe differently, the participants first learned effortless slow diaphragmatic breathing. Then were taught that the moment they would become aware of an airborne irritant such as cigarette smoke, they would hold their breath and relax their body and move away from the source of the polluted air while exhaling very slowly through their nose. When the air was clearer they would inhale and continue effortless diaphragmatically breathing (Peper and Tibbetts, 1994). From this research we propose that people may reduce exposure to the coronavirus by changing their breathing pattern; however, the first step is prevention by following the recommended public health guidelines.
- Social distancing (physical distancing while continuing to offer social support)
- Washing your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds
- Not touching your face
- Cleaning surfaces which could have been touched by other such as door bell, door knobs, packages.
- Wear a mask to protect other people and your community. The mask will reduce the shedding of the virus to others by people with COVID-19 or those who are asymptomatic carriers.
Reduce your exposure to the virus when near other people by changing your breathing pattern
Normally when startled or surprised, we tend to gasp and inhale air rapidly. When someone sneezes, coughs or exhales near you, we often respond with a slight gasp and inhale their droplets. To reduce inhaling their droplets (which may contain the coronavirus virus), implement the following:
- When a person is getting too close
- Hold your breath with your mouth closed and relax your shoulders (just pause your breathing) as you move away from the person.
- Gently exhale through your nose (do not inhale before exhaling)-just exhale how little or much air you have
- When far enough away, gently inhale through your nose.
- Remember to relax and feel your shoulders drop when holding your breath. It will last for only a few seconds as you move away from the person. Exhale before inhaling through your nose.
- When a person coughs or sneezes
- Hold your breath, rotate you head away from the person and move away from them while exhaling though your nose.
- If you think the droplets of the sneeze or cough have landed on you or your clothing, go home, disrobe outside your house, and put your clothing into the washing machine. Take a shower and wash yourself with soap.
- When passing a person ahead of you or who is approaching you
- Inhale before they are too close and exhale through your nose as you are passing them.
- After you are more than 6 feet away gently inhale through your nose.
- When talking to people outside
- Stand so that the breeze/wind hits both people from the same side so that the exhaled droplets are blown away from both of you (down wind).
These breathing skills seem so simple; however, in our experience with people with asthma and other symptoms, it took practice, practice, and practice to change their automatic breathing patterns. The new pattern is pause (stop) the breath and then exhale through your nose. Remember, this breathing pattern is not forced and with practice it will occur effortlessly.
The following blogs offer instructions for mastering effortless diaphragmatic breathing.
Peper, E. & Tibbetts, V. (1994). Effortless diaphragmatic breathing. Physical Therapy Products. 6(2), 67-71. Also in: Electromyography: Applications in Physical Therapy. Montreal: Thought Technology Ltd.
Adapted from: Peper, E., Pollack, W., Harvey, R., Yoshino, A., Daubenmier, J. & Anziani, M. (2019). Which quiets the mind more quickly and increases HRV: Toning or mindfulness? NeuroRegulation, 6(3), 128-133.
Disruptive thoughts, ruminations and worrying are common experiences especially when stressed. Numerous clinical strategies such as cognitive behavioral therapy attempt to teach clients to reduce negative ruminations (Kopelman-Rubin, Omer, & Dar, 2017). Over the last ten years, many people and therapists practice meditative techniques to let go and not be captured by negative ruminations, thoughts, and emotions. However, many people continue to struggle with distracting and wandering thoughts.
Just think back when you’re upset, hurt, angry or frustrated. Attempting just to observe without judgment can be very, very challenging as the mind keeps rehearsing and focusing on what happened. Telling yourself to stop being upset often doesn’t work because your mind is focused on how upset you are. If you can focus on something else or perform physical activity, the thoughts and feelings often subside.
Over the last fifteen years, mindfulness meditation has been integrated and adapted for use in behavioral medicine and psychology (Peper, Harvey, & Lin, 2019). It has also been implemented during bio- and neurofeedback training (Khazan, 2013; Khazan, 2019). Part of the mindfulness instruction is to recognize the thoughts without judging or becoming experientially “fused” with them. A process referred to as “meta-awareness” (Dahl, Lutz, & Davidson, 2015). Mindfulness training combined with bio- and neurofeedback training can improve a wide range of psychological and physical health conditions associated with symptoms of stress, such as anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and addiction (Creswell, 2015, Khazan, 2019).
Mindfulness is an effective technique; however, it may not be more effective than other self-regulations strategies (Peper et al, 2019). Letting go of worrying thoughts and rumination is even more challenging when one is upset, angry, or captured by stressful life circumstances. Is it possible that other strategies beside mindfulness may more rapidly reduce wandering and intrusive thoughts? In 2015, researchers van der Zwan, de Vente, Huiznik, Bogels, & de Bruin found that physical activity, mindfulness meditation and heart rate variability biofeedback were equally effective in reducing stress and its related symptoms when practiced for five weeks.
Our research explored whether other techniques from the ancient wisdom traditions could provide participants tools to reduce rumination and worry. We investigated the physiological effects and subject experiences of mindfulness and toning. Toning is vocalizing long and sustained sounds as a form of mediation. (Watch the video the toning demonstration by sound healer and musician, Madhu Anziani at the end of the blog.)
COMPARING TONING AND MINDFULNESS
The participants were 91 undergraduate college students (35 males, 51 females and 5 unspecified; average age, 22.4 years, (SD = 3.5 years).
After sitting comfortably in class, each student practiced either mindfulness or toning for three minutes each. After each practice, the students rated the extent of mind wandering, occurrence of intrusive thoughts and sensations of vibration on a scale from 0 (not all) to 10 (all the time). They also rated pre and post changes in peacefulness, relaxation, stress, warmth, anxiety and depression. After completing the assessment, they practice the other practice and after three minutes repeated the assessment.
The physiological changes that may occur during mindfulness practice and toning practice was recorded in a separate study with 11 undergraduate students (4 males, 7 females; average age 21.4 years. Heart rate and respiration were monitored with ProComp Infiniti™ system (Thought Technology, Ltd., Montreal, Canada). Respiration was monitored from the abdomen and upper thorax with strain gauges and heartrate was monitored with a blood volume pulse sensor placed on the thumb.
After the sensors were attached, the participants faced away from the screen so they did not receive feedback. They then followed the same procedure as described earlier, with three minutes of mindfulness, or toning practice, counterbalanced. After each condition, they completed a subjective assessment form rating experiences as described above.
RESULTS: SUBJECTIVE FINDINGS
Toning was much more successful in reducing mind wandering and intrusive thoughts than mindfulness. Toning also significantly increased awareness of body vibration as compared to mindfulness as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Differences between mindfulness and toning practice.
There was no significant difference between toning and mindfulness in the increased self-report of peacefulness, warmth, relaxation, and decreased self-report of anxiety and depression as shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2. No significant difference between toning and mindfulness practice in relaxation or stress reports.
RESULTS: PHYSIOLOGICAL FINDINGS
Respiration rate was significantly lower during toning (4.6 br/min) as compared to mindfulness practice (11.6 br/min); heart rate standard deviation (SDNN) was much higher during toning condition (11.6) (SDNN 103.7 ms) than mindfulness (6.4) (SDNN 61.9 ms). Two representative physiological recording are shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Representative recordings of breathing and heart rate during mindfulness and toning practice. During toning the respiration rate (chest and abdomen) was much slower than during mindfulness and baseline conditions. Also, during toning heart rate variability was much larger than during mindfulness or baseline conditions.
Toning practice is a useful strategy to reduce mind wandering as well as inhibit intrusive thoughts and increase heart rate variability (HRV). Most likely toning uses the same neurological pathways as self-talk and thus inhibits the negative and hopeless thoughts. Toning is a useful meditation alternative because it instructs people to make a sound that vibrates in their body and thus they attend to the sound and not to their thoughts.
Physiologically, toning immediately changed the respiration rate to less than 6 breaths per minute and increases heart rate variability. This increase in heart rate variability occurs without awareness or striving. We recommend that toning is integrated as a strategy to complement bio-neurofeedback protocols. It may be a useful approach to enhance biofeedback-assisted HRV training since toning increases HRV without trying and it may be used as an alternative to mindfulness, or used in tandem for maximum effectiveness.
TAKE HOME MESSAGE
1) When people report feeling worried and anxious and have difficulty interrupting ruminations that they first practice toning before beginning mindfulness meditation or bio-neurofeedback training.
2) When training participants to increase heart rate variability, toning could be a powerful technique to increase HRV without striving
TONING DEMONSTRATION AND INSTRUCTION BY SOUND HEALER MADHU ANZIANI
For the published article see: Peper, E., Pollack, W., Harvey, R., Yoshino, A., Daubenmier, J. & Anziani, M. (2019). Which quiets the mind more quickly and increases HRV: Toning or mindfulness? NeuroRegulation, 6(3), 128-133.
Kopelman-Rubin, D., Omer, H., & Dar, R. (2017). Brief therapy for excessive worry: Treatment model, feasibility, and acceptability of a new treatment. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 29(3), 291-306.
van der Zwan, J. E., de Vente, W., Huizink, A. C., Bogels, S. M., & de Bruin, E. I. (2015). Physical activity, mindfulness meditation, or heart rate variability biofeedback for stress reduction: A randomized controlled trial. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 40(4), 257-268. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10484-015-9293-x
Erik Peper, PhD and Rachel Zoffness, PhD*
KM was 14 years old when he came to my (Zoffness) office for treatment. He’d been diagnosed with migraine and cyclical vomiting syndrome and had been in bed for about 3 years. He had long, unwashed hair; was a sickly, pasty white; and rocked himself back and forth from the pain. He’d seen 15 doctors and had been prescribed 30 medications, including occipital nerve injections and Thorazine. Nothing had worked. Like most teens with chronic pain, KM was depressed, stressed, and terrified he’d never get his life back.
We started Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), beginning with pain neuroscience education. This involved teaching KM and his family how pain works in the brain, and how thoughts, emotions, physical sensations and behaviors work together to trigger and maintain flares. He then learned a variety of cognitive, behavioral and mind-body techniques to help manage and change pain. His parents received parent-training to support him behind the scenes. After a few weeks of treatment, KM was able to get out of bed and walk to the corner mailbox. After a few more weeks, he was able to walk his dog to the dog park and get a haircut. Within a few months he was jogging around the block, then running. As his functioning increased, his brain desensitized and his body strengthened, his pain started to recede. Gradually he returned to school and social relationships, eventually rejoining his soccer team. I attended his high school graduation a year ago. He got onstage and told the audience that, if you’d told him 4 years ago that he’d graduate high school, he’d never have believed you. He is currently in college, successfully managing his pain, living his important life.
Chronic pain (CP) in teens can be devastating. Teens are already tasked with managing the turbulence of hormone changes, social stress, academic stress, social media, family dynamics, and developing autonomy and independence. CP impacts not only the teen, but also the entire family. Because CP is framed as a biomedical problem, it is frequently treated with opioids and other minimally-helpful (and sometimes harmful) medications. Opioids are ineffective for long-term treatment of chronic pain, and are only useful in acute crises or to control pain at the end of life (Dowell, 2016; King et al, 2011).
Although we typically think of chronic pain as an issue primarily affecting adults coping with issues such as post-surgical pain and arthritis, CP affects up to 1 in 3 youth in the USA – more than 10 million children and teens (Friedrichsdorf, 2016; ). Pain impacts self-esteem, hope, and functioning, relegating teens to their beds and denying them normal educations and healthy social interactions. Like adults, teens often feel powerless and blamed. In a superb workbook, The Chronic Pain & Illness Workbook for Teens, psychologist Rachel Zoffness describes what pain is; how pain is constructed by the brain; how mind, body and emotions interact to affect pain; and offers a sequence of assessments and practices to reduce pain and improve health in language children and teens can easily understand. The approach combines cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with imagery, mindfulness, breathing, handwarming with biofeedback, and somatic practices (Turk & Gatchel, 2018; Peper, Gibney, & Holt, 2002).
This simple graphic of the pain cycle is helpful to clients (see Fig. 1).
Fig 1. CBT Pain Cycle
The pragmatic practices in this book offer tools and guided instructions that any child or teen can use for themselves, with parents, or with health providers. Therapists can use and adapt these activities with their clients of all ages. Although these scientifically-supported pain management techniques are written for teens, they can equally be used with adults. Below are two of many different practices described in the book that are useful for chronic pain.
Practice 1: Assessment: What sets off your pain?
The first step is to help youth identify factors that “trigger” – or set off – their pain. It’s helpful to define a trigger as a difficult emotion, situation, or event that causes pain to increase. Difficult situations and events of all kinds – biological, social, etc (situational triggers) can trigger difficult thoughts and emotions (cognitive and emotional triggers), and vice versa. For example, Adam was recovering from back surgery (situational trigger), got into a big fight with his sister about the car (situational trigger), and became angry and frustrated (emotional trigger). He felt the anger in his body, his muscles got hot and tight, and his back started spasming. Gina is an example of the reverse. She believed that nothing could cure her fibromyalgia (cognitive trigger), which made her feel depressed and hopeless (emotional trigger). She stayed home for weeks on end without school, friends, or distractions (situational trigger), and started feeling worse.
We can help youth with pain by asking:
- What emotions trigger your pain?
- What situations trigger your pain?
- Not getting enough sleep
- Arguing with family members
- Inflammation after physical therapy
- Missing fun events because you’re sick
- Thinking about upcoming exams
- Doctor’s appointments and hospital visits
Sometimes, the teen needs to keep a log for a week to identify the situations or triggers related to the pain. Once these have been identified then the teen can explore strategies to reduce the negative reactivity triggered by the emotions or situations.
Practice 2: Changing the voice of pain (Note: this is a summary of a longer activity)
One technique we use in CBT for chronic pain is identifying and tracking cognitive distortions, also known as “thinking traps.” I (Zoffness) call these traps “Pain Voice.” This is the catastrophic, pessimistic, critical, and negative voice that tells us awful, worrisome things, particularly about our pain or health.
Pain Voice pretends she can predict the future, and says it’s going to be terrible. She says: “You’ll never get better. Nothing will ever help you.” But since she can’t predict the future (who can?), Pain Voice is a liar! Pain Voice is also very bossy about what you can and can’t do: “You can’t see your friends this week,” or “You can’t go for a bike ride, and you definitely can’t have any fun.” Science teaches us that negative thoughts increase pain by turning up the brain’s “pain dial,” so we must make sure not to listen to or believe them. To stop Pain Voice, we first catch negative thoughts.
As soon as you learn how to recognize Pain Voice, you gain the power to change negative thoughts into more helpful “Wise Voice” thoughts. One way to bust Pain Voice is to start tracking your negative thoughts. First, list these critical, self-defeating, catastrophic Pain Voice thoughts. Notice if they’re helpful or harmful. Then check and question them, thoughtfully determining whether they’re the truth or a trap. Next, gather evidence as to why Pain Voice might be wrong by asking yourself, is this thought a fact? What evidence do I have that this thought might not be true? What else might happen other than what I’m predicting? Write out your Wise Voice responses, and use them to fight back every time you hear Pain Voice!
Jason’s example: Jason had terrible, daily back pain and hadn’t gone outside in 6 weeks. His friends texted, inviting him to watch a movie. Immediately he heard the thought, “I can’t go, I’m broken. If I leave my house my pain will spike and I won’t be able to function.” He recognized this as his Pain Voice and knew he had to fight back. He sat down with his worksheet and filled in the answers: yes, the thoughts were harmful, not helpful, and they were trying to trap him! He examined the evidence and wrote the Wise Voice thought, “This negative prediction is not a fact, it’s a trap. I’ve had back pain for 2 years, and sometimes going out and seeing friends actually reduces my pain.” Tuning into his Wise Voice gave him the strength to get the social support and distraction he needed to feel a little better! He went to his friend’s house, watched movies, ate popcorn, giggled, and had a great time. For the first time in 6 weeks, his pain went down. An example of his log is shown in table 1.
|Helpful or Harmful?||
|Returning to school after missing 3 weeks||If I go back to school, I’ll be so far behind that I won’t understand anything the teacher is talking about.||Harmful||Trap||This negative prediction is not a fact. I’m smart and competent, I’ll probably understand some things. Last time I was behind, I made up the work and everything was fine.|
|I can’t handle this!||Harmful||Trap||This negative prediction is not a fact. I’ve had 42 pain flare-ups this year, and I handled all of them. I’ve proven that I’m strong and resilient. There is a 0% chance I can’t handle this.|
Table 1. Example from Jason’s log
Summary: There is hope for youth with chronic pain. Interventions like CBT, mindfulness, biofeedback and other mind-body approaches are scientifically-supported and have evidence of effectiveness. Adhering to the biopsychosocial model – targeting biological, psychological and social factors – is proven to be the most effective treatment for chronic pain across conditions and ages. For more information, see Rachel Zoffness’ book, The chronic pain & illness workbook for teens, for pragmatic treatment practices and user-friendly pain education.
Friedrichsdorf, S. J., Giordano, J., Desai Dakoji, K., Warmuth, A., Daughtry, C., & Schulz, C. A. (2016). Chronic Pain in Children and Adolescents: Diagnosis and Treatment of Primary Pain Disorders in Head, Abdomen, Muscles and Joints. Children (Basel, Switzerland), 3(4), 42. doi:10.3390/children3040042
King, S., Chambers, C., Huguet, A., MacNevin, R., McGrath, P., Parker, L., & MacDonald, A. (2011). The epidemiology of chronic pain in children and adolescents revisited: a systematic review. Pain, 152(12), 2729-2738.
*Dr. Rachel Zoffness is a pain psychologist, consultant, writer and educator in Northern California’s East Bay specializing in chronic pain and illness.
“I am doing very well, and I am very healthy. The vulvodynia symptoms have never come back. Also,my stomach (gastrointestinal discomfort) has gotten much, much better. I don’t really have random pain anymore, now I just have to be watchful and careful of my diet and my exercise, which are all great things!” —A five-year follow-up report from a 28-year-old woman who had previously suffered from severe vulvodynia (pelvic floor pain).
Numerous clients and students have reported that implementing self-healing strategies–common sense suggestions often known as “grandmother’s therapy”—significantly improves their health and find that their symptoms decreased or disappeared (Peper et al, 2014). These educational self-healing approaches are based upon a holistic perspective aimed to reduce physical, emotional and lifestyle patterns that interfere with healing and to increase those life patterns that support healing. This may mean learning diaphragmatic breathing, doing work that give you meaning and energy, alternating between excitation and regeneration, and living a life congruent with our evolutionary past.
If you experience discomfort/symptoms and worry about your health/well-being, do the following:
- See your health professional for diagnosis and treatment suggestions.
- Ask what are the benefits and risks of treatment.
- Ask what would happen if you if you first implemented self-healing strategies before beginning the recommended and sometimes invasive treatment?
- Investigate how you could be affecting your self-healing potential such as:
- Lack of sleep
- Too much sugar, processed foods, coffee, alcohol, etc.
- Lack of exercise
- Limited social support
- Ongoing anger, resentment, frustration, and worry
- Lack of hope and purpose
- Implement self-healing strategies and lifestyle changes to support your healing response. In many cases, you may experience positive changes within three weeks. Obviously, if you feel worse, stop and reassess. Keep a log and monitor what you do so that you can record changes.
This self-healing process has often been labeled or dismissed as the “placebo effect;” however, the placebo effect is the body’s natural self-healing response (Peper & Harvey, 2017). It is impressive that many people report feeling better when they take charge and become active participants in their own healing process. A process that empowers and supports hope and healing. When participants change their life patterns, they often feel better. Their health worries and concerns become reminders/cues to initiate positive action such as:
- Practicing self-healing techniques throughout the day (e.g., diaphragmatic breathing, self-healing imagery, meditation, and relaxation)
- Eating organic foods and eliminating processed foods
- Incorporating daily exercise and movement activities
- Accepting what is and resolving resentment, anger and fear
- Taking time to regenerate
- Resolving stress
- Focusing on what you like to do
- Be loving to yourself and others
For suggestions of what to do, explore some of the following blogs that describe self-healing practices that participants implemented to improve or eliminate their symptoms.
Hot flashes and premenstrual symptoms https://peperperspective.com/2015/02/18/reduce-hot-flashes-and-premenstrual-symptoms-with-breathing/
Internet addiction https://peperperspective.com/2018/02/10/digital-addiction/
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) https://peperperspective.com/2017/06/23/healing-irritable-bowel-syndrome-with-diaphragmatic-breathing/
Math and test anxiety https://peperperspective.com/2018/07/03/do-better-in-math-dont-slouch-be-tall/
Trichotillomania (hair pulling) https://peperperspective.com/2015/03/07/interrupt-chained-behaviors-overcome-smoking-eczema-and-hair-pulling/
Peper, E., Lin, I-M, Harvey, R., Gilbert, M., Gubbala, P., Ratkovich, A., & Fletcher, F. (2014). Transforming chained behaviors: Case studies of overcoming smoking, eczema and hair pulling (trichotillomania). Biofeedback, 42(4), 154-160.
I quickly gasped twice and a sharp pain radiated up my head and into my eye. I shifted to slow breathing and it faded away.
I felt anxious and became aware of my heart palpitations at the end of practicing 70% exhalation for 30 seconds. I was very surprised how quickly my anxiety was triggered when I changed my breathing pattern.
Breathing is the body/mind/emotion/spirit interface which is reflected in our language with phrases such as a sigh of relief, all choked up, breathless, full of hot air, waiting with bated breath, inspired or expired, all puffed up, breathing room, or it takes my breath away. The colloquial phrases reflect that breathing is more than gas exchange and may have the following effects.
- Changes the lymph and venous blood return from the abdomen (Piller, Leduc, & Ryan, 2006). The downward movement of the diaphragm with the corresponding expansion of the abdomen occurs during inhalation as well as slight relaxation of the pelvic floor. The constriction of the abdomen and slight tightening of the pelvic floor causing the diaphragm to go upward and allows exhalation. This dynamic movement increases and decreases internal abdominal and thoracic pressures and acts a pump to facilitate the venous and lymph return from the abdomen. In many people this dynamic pumping action is reduced because the abdomen does not expand during inhalation as it is constricted by tight clothing (designer jean syndrome), holding the abdomen in to maintain a slim self-image, tightening the abdomen in response to fear, or the result of learned disuse to reduce pain from abdominal surgery, gastrointestinal disorders, or abdominal insults (Peper et al, 2015).
- Increases spinal disk movement. Effortless diaphragmatic breathing is a whole body process and associated with improved functional movement (Bradley, & Esformes, 2014). The spine slightly flexes when we exhale and extends when we inhale which allows dynamic disk movement unless we sit in a chair.
- Communicates our emotional state as our breathing patterns reflect our emotional state. When we are anxious or fearful the breath usually quickens and becomes shallow while when we relax the breath slows and the movement is more in the abdomen (Homma, & Masoka, 2008).
- Evokes, maintains, inhibits symptoms or promotes healing. Breathing changes our physiology, thoughts and emotions. When breathing slowly to about 6 breaths a minute, it may enhance heart rate variability and thereby increase sympathetic and parasympathetic balance (Lehrer & Gevirtz, 2014; Moss & Shaffer, 2017).
Can breathing trigger symptoms?
A fifty-five year old woman asked for suggestions what she could do to prevent the occurrence of episodic prodrome and aura symptoms of visual disturbances and problems in concentration that would signal the onset of a migraine. In the past, she had learned to control her migraines with biofeedback; however, she now experienced these prodromal sensation more and more frequently without experiencing the migraine. As she was talking, I observed that she was slightly gasping before speaking with shallow rapid breathing in her chest.
To explore whether breathing pattern may contribute to evoke, maintain or amplify symptoms, the following two behavioral breathing challenges can suggest whether breathing is a factor: Rapid fearful gasping or 70% exhalation.
Behavioral breathing challenge: Rapid fearful gasping
Take a rapid fearful gasp when inhaling as if your feel scared or fearful. Let the air really quickly come in and repeat two or three times as described in the video. Then describe what you experienced.
If you became aware of the onset of a symptom or that the symptom intensified, then your dysfunctional breathing patterns (e.g., gasping, breath holding or shallow chest breathing) may contribute to development or maintenance of these symptoms. For many people when they gasp–a big rapid inhalation as if they are terrified–it may evoke their specific symptom such as a pain sensation in the back of the eye, slight pain in the neck, blanking out, not being able to think clearly, tightness and stiffness in their back, or even an increase in achiness in their joints (Peper et al, 2016).
To reduce or avoid triggering the symptom, breathe diaphragmatically without effort; namely each time you gasp, hold your breath or breathe shallowly, shift to effortless diaphragmatic breathing.
The above case of the woman with the prodromal migraine symptoms, she experienced visual disturbances and fuzziness in her head after the gasping. This experience allowed her to realize that her breathing style could be a contributing in triggering her symptoms. When she then practiced slow diaphragmatic breathing for a few breaths her symptoms disappeared. Hopefully, if she replaces gasping and shallow breathing with effortless diaphragmatic breathing then there is a possibility that her symptoms may no longer occur.
Behavioral breathing challenge: 70% exhalation
While sitting, breathe normally for a minute. Now change your breathing pattern so that you exhale only 70% or your previous inhaled air. Each time you exhale, exhale only 70% of the inhaled volume. If you need to stop, just stop, and then return to this breathing pattern again by exhaling only 70 percent of the inhaled volume of air. After 30 seconds, let go and breathe normally as guided by the video clip. Observe what happened?
In our research study with 35 volunteers, almost all participants experienced an increase in arousal and symptoms such as lightheadedness, dizziness, anxiety, breathless, neck and shoulder tension after 30 seconds of incomplete exhalation as shown in Figure 1 and Table 1 (Peper and MacHose, 1993).
Figure 1. Increase in anxiety evoked by 70% exhalation.
Table 1. Symptoms experienced after exhalation 70%.
Although these symptoms may be similar to those evoked by hyperventilation and overbreathing, they are probably not caused by the reduction of end-tidal carbon dioxide (CO2). The apparent decrease in end-tidal PCO2 is cause by the room air mixing with the exhaled air and not a measure of end-tidal CO2 (Peper and Tibbets, 1992). Most likely the symptoms are associated by the shallow breathing that occurs when we were scared or terrified.
People who have a history of anxiety, panic, nervousness and tension as compared to those who report low anxiety tend to report more symptoms when exhaling 70% of inhaled air for 30 seconds. If this practice evoked symptoms, then changing the breathing patterns to slower diaphragmatic breathing may be a useful self-regulation strategy to optimize health.
These two behavior breathing challenges are useful demonstrations for students and clients that breathing patterns can influence symptoms. By experiencing ON and OFF control over their symptoms with breathing, the person now knows that breathing can affect their health and well being.
Blogs that that offer instructions to learn effortless diaphragmatic breathing
Peper, E., Gilbert, C.D., Harvey, R. & Lin, I-M. (2015). Did you ask about abdominal surgery or injury? A learned disuse risk factor for breathing dysfunction. Biofeedback. 34(4), 173-179. DOI: 10.5298/1081-5937-43.4.06
Peper, E. & Tibbetts, V. (1992). The effect of 70% exhalation and thoracic breathing upon end-tidal C02. Proceedings of the Twenty-Third Annual Meeting of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. Wheat Ridge, CO: AAPB, 126-129. Abstract in: Biofeedback and Self-Regulation. 17(4), 333-334.
This blog describes a structured imagery that evokes past memories of joy and health and integrates them into a relaxation practice to support healing. First, a look at the logic for the practice and then the process of creating your own personal imagery script. A sample audio file is included as a model for creating your MP3 file. The blog is adapted from Peper, E., Gibney, K.H. & Holt. C. (2002). Make Health Happen: Training Yourself to Create Wellness. Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt.
“I enjoyed regressing back into my childhood, remembered playing in the rain, making paper sailboats with my brother…. Placing my fingers in a bowl of water and stroking a paper sailboat enabled me to participate in the total experience… I felt tingling sensations all over my body, like tiny bundles of energy exploding inside of me. By the end of the week the simple word “rain” could induce these sensations inside my whole being.”–Student
Daydreaming! We all know how to do it. When we daydream, we feel, sense, hear, and taste our daydream—the image becomes tangible, as if we are living it. A well-developed relaxation image can also include colors, scents, sounds, flavors, temperature, and so forth. Evoking a past memory image of wholeness may contribute significant to healing, as illustrated in Pavlov’s experience with controlled conditioning and with self-healing.
THE POWER OF CONDITIONING
Most of us are probably familiar with the classical conditioning experiment of the famous Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov, who taught dogs to salivate on cue when they heard a bell ring—even when no food was provided. Pavlov accomplished this by giving the dogs food immediately after ringing a bell. Eventually, the dogs became conditioned to expect the food with the bell and simply hearing the bell ring would induce salivation (shown in Figure 1).
Figure 1. The process of classical conditioning. (Figure adapted from: https://opentextbc.ca/introductiontopsychology/chapter/7-1-learning-by-association-classical-conditioning/)
The conditioning effects of imagery can have an effect on health as well as physiology as reflected in an anecdote told by Theodore Melnechuk about Ivan Pavlov. As an old man, he became quite ill with heart disease and his doctors had no hope of curing him. They took his family aside and told them that the end was near. Pavlov himself, however, was not disheartened. He asked the nurse who was caring for him to bring him a bowl of warm water with a little dirt or mud in it. All day, as he lay in bed, he dabbled one hand in the water, with a dreamy, faraway look on his face. His family was quite sure that he had taken leave of his wits and would die soon. However, the next morning he announced that he felt fine, ate a large breakfast, and sat out in the sun awhile. By the end of the day, when the doctor came to check on him, there was no trace of the heart condition. When asked to explain what he had done, he said that he had reasoned that if he could recall a time when he was completely carefree and happy, it might have some healing benefit for him. As a young boy, he used to spend his summers playing with his friends in a shallow swimming hole in a nearby river. The memory of the warm, slightly muddy water was delightful to him. With his knowledge of the power of conditioned stimuli, he reasoned that having a physical reminder of that water might help him evoke that experience and those blissful feelings, and bring some of those memories into the present time. Using this strategy, he harnessed positive memory and the associated emotions that evoked the associated body changes to bring about his healing.
We all performs many conditioned behaviors every day. Some of these behaviors can have implications for our health and wellness. There may be aspects of allergic reactions that are conditioned. For example, the literature reports that a woman who was allergic to roses developed a severe allergic reaction to a very realistic-looking paper rose, even though she was not allergic to paper. Her body reacted as if the paper rose was real. (Mackenzie, 1886; Vits et al, 2011).
Conditioning can also affect our immune system. When rats were injected with a powerful immune-suppressing drug, while being fed saccharin-flavored water, their immune function showed an immediate drop. After the drug and saccharine water were paired a number of times, the rats were then given just the saccharin water and a harmless injection of salt water. Their immune cells responded exactly as if they had received the drug! The reverse ability, increasing immune cell function, has been shown to be influenced through conditioning (Ader, Cohen & Felten, 1995; Ader and Cohen, 1993).
Belief can also play a role in these scenarios. Bernie Siegel, MD,(2011) has recounted the story of a woman scheduled for chemotherapy who was first given a saline solution, and cautioned that it could cause hair loss. Although this is an unlikely result of a saline injection, given her belief, her hair fell out.
Actions, thoughts, and images affect our physiology.
We often anticipate, react, and form conclusions with incomplete information. Thoughts and images affect our physiology and even our immune system. Re-evoking a positive memory and living in that memory could potentially improve your health. In a remarkable study by a Harvard psychologist, Ellen Langer, eight men in their 70s lived together for one week, recreating aspects of the world that they had experienced more than 20 years earlier. They were instructed to act as they had in 1959, while the control group was instructed to focus entirely on the present time.
In the experimental group, all the physical cues were reminiscent of the culture twenty years earlier. Black and white television and magazines were from 1959. There were no mirrors to remind them of their current age—only photos on the wall of their younger selves. After a week in which the participants acted as if they were younger and the cues around them evoked their younger selves, 63% of the experimental group had improved their cognitive performance as compared with 44% of the control group. Among participants in the experimental group, even their physical health had improved. Independent raters who looked at the before and after pictures of these participants rated their appearance a little younger than the photos taken before the experiment (Langer, 2009; Grierson, 2014; Friedman, 2015). It is possible that by acting and thinking younger, we actually stay younger!
The limits of our belief are the limits of our experience. This concept underlies the remarkable power of placebo. If one believes a drug or a procedure is helpful, that can have a powerful healing effect (Peper & Harvey, 2017; also see the blog, How effective is treatment? The importance of active placebos).
CREATE YOUR OWN VISUALIZATION
Begin by remembering a time when you felt happy, healthy, and whole. Draw inspiration from Pavlov, who evoked happy memories from his childhood, apparently dramatically changing his health. To develop your personal visualization, set aside the time to recreate a healing memory. Remember a time in your life when you felt healthy and joyous (possibly from your childhood). For some, this might be time in nature or with your family or with friends.
Once you remember the event, re-experience it as if you were there right now. Evoke as many senses as possible. Think of the memory and any associations such as an old teddy bear, a shell from the beach, a favorite song, a certain perfume or some other tangible aspect of the experience. The goal is to recreate the experience as if it was current reality. Olfactory and gustatory cues can be especially powerful. If possible include the actual objects and cues associated with that memory—articles, pictures, music, songs, fragrances, or even food.
Sounds, scents, or touching and objects from that era of your life can deepen your ability to recreate and experience the quality of that memory—to actually be in the memory. These sensory reminders will help to evoke the memory and increase the felt experience. You might find it helpful to review Ellen Langer’s experiment, recreating an environment from twenty years earlier. The actual cues will deepen the experience, just as aromas often evoke specific memories and emotions.
The underlying principle is that memories are associated with conditioned stimuli that evoke the physiological state(s) in the body present when the memory was created.
Once you have created a vivid memory that engenders a sense of wholeness, develop a detailed description of your memory to help you evoke that experience. (For some, the memory calls up a timeless setting—relaxing on a warm beach, sitting in front of the fire on a winter evening, or sailing on a calm day. For others, the sense of trust may be associated with a specific person—someone you love—being with your grandmother, helping your mother bake a cake, or going fishing with your dad.). As you recreate the experience, engage all your senses (images, fragrance, tastes, textures, sounds, kinetics). Stay in your image: see it, smell it, taste it, touch it, hear it, be it and allow the experience to deepen.
Begin by writing up your imagery. Then record the introduction the structured relaxation and follow it with a description that evokes the memory as an MP3 audiofile. Use the following three-step process to create the script for your personal relaxation.
- Describe a time in your past when you felt joy, peace, love, or a sense of integration and wholeness.
- Identify the specific cues or stimuli associated with that memory.
- Write out a detailed description that will evoke your personal memory.
CREATING YOUR AUDIO FILE
In this approach, there are three components to your script: first, a relaxation practice to ease you into your visualization, then the visualization of your memory, closing with a brief script that brings you back into the present moment.
Begin the recording with progressive relaxation—use your favorite process for relaxing, or apply the script included here.
Generally tense the muscles for about 5 to 8 seconds and let go for 15 to 20 seconds as indicated by the …. While tightening and relaxing the muscles, sense the muscle sensations with passive attention. Tense only the muscles that you are instructed to tighten and continue to breathe while tensing and relaxing the muscles. If your attention wanders, gently bring it back to feeling the sensations in the specific muscles that you are instructed to tighten or relax.
First, find a comfortable position for relaxation… To fully relax your face, squeeze your eyes shut tight, press your lips and teeth together, and wrinkle up your nose… feel the tightness in your whole face… Now let it go completely and relax… Allow your face to soften, feel the eyes sinking in their sockets, and your breath to flow effortlessly in and out…
Tense both arms by making fists, and extend them straight ahead, while continuing to breathe deeply… study the tension… Now relax and let your arms drop as if you were a rag doll… To relax your shoulders, hunch them toward your ears and tighten your neck, while keeping the rest of your body loose and relaxed… Continue to breathe easily… Allow your shoulders to drop… Feel the weight of your arms… Feel the relaxation flowing from your shoulders, down your arms into your hands and out your fingers…
Now your stomach. Then let go and relax… Arch your back and feel the tightness in the back. Let go and relax….Allow your body to sink comfortably into the surface on which you are resting… Finally, tighten your butt, thighs, calves, and feet by pressing your heels down into the surface where you are lying, curling your toes and squeezing your knees together… Feel the tension as you continue to breathe, keeping your upper body relaxed… Now let go and relax… Allow relaxation to flow through your legs… Be aware of the sensations of letting go…
Feel the deepening relaxation, the calmness and the serenity… Feel each exhalation flowing down and through your arms, chest, and legs… Let the feelings of relaxation and heaviness deepen as you relax more… Notice the developing sense of inner peace… a calm indifference to external events… Let the feelings of relaxation, calmness, and serenity deepen for a few minutes. After a few minutes, evoke your memory of wholeness.
Insert your imagery script here.
Finish with the brief closing script
Allow yourself to just stay in this special place all your own… and know that you can return to this peaceful sanctuary any time you choose to do so. When you are ready to release the imagery, take a deep breath, gently stretch your body, and open your eyes.
Record these this whole script on your cell phone as an MP3 file.
When you record, it often takes a few tries before the pacing is correct. You may find it helpful to listen to the following audio file as a model for to create your own.
LISTENING TO YOUR VISUALIZATION
Create a sanctuary for yourself by turning off your cellphone, adjusting the heat to a comfortable temperature, and ensuring that you will have uninterrupted quiet time for 20 to 30 minutes. Loosen any constricting clothing or jewelry, your glasses, and so on. Settle into a comfortable chair, bed, or setting where you can easily relax. Enjoy letting yourself drift into and relive the memory experience.
Many participants report that this practice is an exceptionally relaxing and nurturing experience, one that supports regeneration. You’ll probably find that the more you practice, the more the relaxation deepens. You may find it helpful to keep notes and observe how you feel after each practice. Although it may feel strange to listen to your own voice, most people find that after a while it becomes more comfortable. After listening to it for a few times, you may want to rerecord the script. Finally, generalize this practice by smiling and evoking the memory scene as much as you desire during the day.
Additional strategies to enhance the relaxation
- Have a massage or take a warm shower or soak and then do the practice. Compare your level of relaxation afterwards to the result of using the audio alone.
- Practice gentle stretches to loosen tight muscles or “shake out” your arms and legs just before doing your relaxation practice.
- Draw or paint the relaxing image or actually go to the location where your memory occurred (if possible) and do your practice. Or practice outdoors in the most relaxing place you can find. Nature can be a great healer.
- Create an atmosphere that helps to evoke and augment your relaxation image (e.g., play background music or use fragrances that you associated with the image).
- Inability to evoke a memory of wholeness. When this occurs, it is as if one draws a blank. This is common, especially if one has experienced abuse or feels depressed. In that case, use the image presented in the script or make one up and create a totally imaginary peaceful image.
- Positive memories of wholeness evoke a bitter/sweet feeling. This occurs when images of wholeness include a loved one who has passed on or who is no longer in your life. On the one hand, this may call up strongly positive feelings, but it may evoke a sense of loss and sadness. If this occurs, simply chose a different memory or create a different script. Let the memory of loss go. Accept your experience and your feelings as much as possible, and know that at least you have been loved. For your image, it may be easier to focus on a natural setting you love—one you associate with peace and tranquility.
- Lack of experience with places in nature. Some people have only urban experiences and find nature alien. See what comes up for you. Does your favorite memory as a city kid recall a day of freedom on your bike or skateboarding, or an afternoon with your playmates? Perhaps you have treasured memories as a teen or an adult of long walks in the city or time spent with close friends. You also have the option of creating new images such as sitting by a fireplace, in a walled garden, or some other scene of peace and safety.
- Difficulty using progressive relaxation. If you’re having trouble isolating a muscle: touch it, stroke it with your hands, and then tense it fully (without strain) and feel the tension in your hands; feel the difference with your hands as you let go of the tension. Or, you may tighten only as much as is needed to feel the tension.
- The desire to stay in the imagery and not wanting to return to reality. If the imagery is much more pleasant than the present, use this process as a stimulus to reorganize your life and set new goals and priorities.
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Peper, E., Gibney, K.H. & Holt. C. (2002). Make Health Happen: Training Yourself to Create Wellness . Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt. ISBN-13: 978-0787293314
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In the video interview recorded at the 2018 Conference of the New Psychology Association, Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland, Erik Peper, PdD, defines biofeedback and suggests three simple breathing and imagery approaches that we can all apply to reduce pain, resentment and improve well-being.