Chronic stress, depression and anxiety may be successfully prevented or treated with mindfulness and biofeedback.
Americans are reporting chronic stress at unprecedented rates according to a new American Psychological Association poll. Studies show that as many as one third of Americans are highly stressed at any given time, increasing their risk for depression and anxiety. Mindfulness and biofeedback techniques designed to reduce stress, may also prevent or treat mood disorders like depression and anxiety a recent report finds.
Chronic stress plays a central role in the onset of depression and anxiety, because stressed people often feel overwhelmed and unable to change their lives. In turn, stressed people tend to suffer from excessive fear, difficulty sleeping, negative mood, exhaustion, and feelings of hopelessness. Add persistent worrying and difficulty thinking clearly, and you have a recipe for mood disorders.
What’s interesting is that chronic stress, anxiety and depression share the same physiological and neurobiological characteristics. When under stress, the amygdala, the brain’s emotion center, becomes sensitized to threat, fear, and negative feelings, and the body’s fight, flight, or fear response gets stuck in a pernicious feedback loop. In addition, the hippocampus, a brain structure involved in memory, is flooded with toxic levels of cortisol, leading to difficulties remembering events clearly.
In the report, a team of researchers at Brigham Young University proposed that cost-effective mindfulness and biofeedback interventions that are designed to reduce stress, may also be effective in reducing negative mood, depression and anxiety.
Mindfulness Reduces Stress, Depression and Anxiety
Mindfulness refers to being aware of what is happening in your mind and body, in the present moment, without getting caught up in a story about, or judging your experience. While that may sound simple enough, the mind tends to spend the majority of its time ruminating about past events, or projecting into the future, rather than being in the present moment. This feeds the cycle of depression and anxiety, increasing one’s avoidance of unpleasant experiences or emotions rather than dealing with them head on.
Studies show that regular (ideally daily) mindfulness practice calms the mind and body, and increases a person’s ability to tolerate negative thoughts, emotions, and experiences without being overcome by them. In essence, mindfulness increases stress resilience by enhancing an individual’s ability to face the ups and downs of life directly, which increases their sense of control, and reduces perceived stress. These interventions are often inexpensive, and readily accessible on smart phone aps or online, and their effects appear to persist even after completing a mindfulness program.
Biofeedback Reduces Stress, Depression and Anxiety
Biofeedback teaches individuals how to change their experience by changing their physiology. Most often, people wear some form of sensor that measures heart and/or breathing rates, muscle tension or other factors, which provides give them real-time physiological feedback. The goal is to enable an individual to modulate their physiological stress response to improve their physical and mental health. Of the various forms of biofeedback, heart rate variability (HRV) feedback, which provides information about a person’s heart rate and breathing patterns, tends to yield the greatest reductions in stress and negative mood.
Studies show that biofeedback approaches where individual’s slow down their breathing to roughly 6 breaths per minute increase HRV. Higher HRV is linked to reductions in depression, anxiety, and panic, and improvements across a broad spectrum of health problems such as asthma, heart disease, hypertension, migraines, and gastrointestinal disorders. This is believed to occur because slow breathing promotes rest, digest and repair, which helps to offset a hyperactive stress response, thus restoring balance to the nervous system.
Several studies find that biofeedback can be used with traditional therapies for depression and anxiety, as well as a preventive intervention for increasing stress resilience and reducing the odds that mood disorders will occur. Biofeedback is particularly attractive because it requires little training, and participants are able to practice at home with portable devices. Significant changes in physiological functioning have been found to occur in as little as 3 weeks of 15 min of daily practice. These devices are relatively inexpensive when compared to the costs of psychotherapy or medication.
Whether engaging in mindfulness practices like meditation, yoga, tai chi or using a biofeedback device, research shows that stress reduction is an important target for decreasing the individual and public health burden of depression and anxiety. What’s more, these approaches are readily available, cost-effective, and often do not carry the side effects or social stigma of psychotherapy and medication.
Steffen PR, Austin T & DeBarros A (2017). Treating chronic stress to address the growing problem of depression and anxiety: Biofeedback and mindfulness as simple, effective preventative measures. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 4 (1), 64-70 DOI: 10.1177/2372732216685333.