It was traditionally assumed by physicians as well as psychologists that functions of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) could not be consciously controlled. After all, the ANS is also called the involuntary nervous system; it controls so-called involuntary bodily functions such as blood pressure and heart rate. Then, in the late 1960s, a series of creative experiments by psychologist Neal Miller, Ph.D., demonstrated that people can consciously affect and control autonomic functions after all. Miller was experimenting with what later became known as biofeedback, a system of recording, amplifying, and feeding back information about subtle physiological responses. The mechanisms whereby we control autonomic functions are still poorly understood, but it appears that it involves activation of the parasympathetic branch of the ANS (which mediates the relaxation response), along with deactivation of the sympathetic branch (which stimulates fight-or-flight activity).

Biofeedback instruments give you information (feedback) about what is happening in your body. You can then use this feedback to facilitate relaxation and to relax targeted muscles. Biofeedback technology involves attaching highly sensitive electronic sensors to your body to detect subtle changes in targeted body functions. These data are then fed into an electronic device that amplifies it and delivers it back to you, usually in the form of audio signals or visual displays. You would then exercise methods of altering your physiology, usually by practicing specific relaxation skills taught by the therapist or biofeedback technician, who also adjusts the instruments. By monitoring the audio or visual feedback, you can determine whether your efforts at relaxation are successful, and you can introduce modifications depending on the levels indicated by the feedback. In this way you can learn sophisticated relaxation skills, such as relaxing a specific muscle group or increasing blood flow to a particular region. Biofeedback offers users a powerful way to overcome certain stress-related disorders and to learn systems of relaxation with direct access to information about mastery (Miller, 1985). But while biofeedback can be highly effective, it does require a commitment of time and practice from the user in order to achieve results. These machines cannot make you relax; they only give you information about your progress.

Types of Biofeedback

There are four main categories of biofeedback equipment and training, each measuring different bodily functions and having different applications. The most common application of biofeedback involves the use of EMG (electromyograph) training. The EMG, which measures muscular tension, is especially useful for treatment of stress-related disorders such as tension headaches, bruxism (teeth gnashing), and TMJ (temporal mandibular joint) disorder, all of which are caused by excessive tension in particular muscle groups. Learning to relax targeted muscles can significantly improve any of these conditions. Physical pain can also be reduced by EMG biofeedback training. It is widely known that pain can be reduced by up to 40 percent just by relaxation alone, for tension increases our perception of pain. In fact, much of the effectiveness of major painkillers (such as opiates) is due to the fact that they induce relaxation. Relaxation also allows endorphins to be released more readily. EMG biofeedback can be used for general relaxation quite effectively, as well as for relaxing specific muscle groups that may be involved in pain.

Many stress-related disorders, from migraine headaches to menstrual cramps, are related to blood-volume changes. Vasomotor activity can be measured and modified with the help of temperature biofeedback, which employs the aid of a thermistor to measure subtle changes in the temperature of the skin, reflecting changes in blood flow. Skin temperature increases when vasodilation, the opening of peripheral blood vessels, occurs. The more relaxed you become, the greater your peripheral vasodilation. By learning specific relaxation skills geared to increase blood flow to the hands or the feet, users can learn to decrease or eliminate migraine headaches, hypertension, and asthma.

EEG (electroencephalograph) biofeedback is useful in helping individuals modify brainwaves (which will be discussed in greater depth later in this chapter). Applications include treatment of insomnia (where muscle tension is not a problem), alcoholism, and ADD (attention deficit disorder). EEG biofeedback has been shown to improve attention and concentration. This application of biofeedback is relatively rare because few health care professionals have access to an EEG or the training to operate it properly.

EDR (electrodermal response) biofeedback has applications in the treatment of hypertension and hyperhydrosis (excessive sweating due to anxiety or arousal). Your electrodermal response reflects changes in the electrical conductivity of your skin due to the minute changes in sweat gland activity that occur in response to stress. Polygraph machines (lie detectors) also work on this principle. However, in general, this type of biofeedback is less reliable than the other forms, just as polygraph technology has been deemed somewhat unreliable and is therefore inadmissible as evidence in court.

Double Induction Hypnotic Tapes

Subliminal and hypnotic audiotapes for self-improvement have been on the market for many years. While some have been effective, the vast majority are of dubious quality for reasons that are beyond the scope of this book. However, within the last decade, hypnotic tapes have been developed that take advantage of powerful methods for promoting relaxation and planting suggestions. Basically, hypnosis is a method of pacing and leading you into a deeply relaxed state. There is nothing magical or mystical about the hypnotic state. It is just a state of profound relaxation whereby you become more suggestible or open to receiving suggestions. When you are hypnotized, your conscious mind is more easily neutralized and therefore cannot resist advice as easily. Your conscious mind is a pro at nullifying suggestions that are for your own good. That is why we cannot always rely on our conscious, rational mind to solve all our problems, or to provide motivation for beneficial change. Sometimes we have to access our unconscious, creative mind to help find solutions, increase motivation, or overcome fears or obstacles to our growth.

How Hypnosis Works

A useful analogy is to think of the human brain as a computer. Any computer, despite its hard drive, is only as good as its software and the data that we input. Garbage in, garbage out. Many times humans run into difficulties because of faulty programming earlier in life. We develop fears, insecurities, and thinking patterns that promote stress because of how we have been programmed. Hypnotic suggestions are a way of revamping or rehauling the old programming and installing new, healthier patterns. But the conscious mind is inherently conservative and reluctant to part with old, familiar programs to which it tenaciously clings. When we are relaxed, our conscious mind is more easily bypassed and we can access the unconscious processes that are more open to useful reprogramming.

Is Hypnosis Mind Control?

In case you are concerned, you cannot be made to do anything you do not agree with or do not want to do via hypnotic suggestion. Although being deeply relaxed or hypnotized may make you more open to suggestion, it does not render you helpless in the face of any suggestions that are antithetical to your beliefs, harmful to you or others, or offensive to you. We guarantee you would reject any suggestion that does not feel right for you, no matter how relaxed you might be. You will only adopt suggestions that you are ready and willing (but previously unable) to assimilate.

Within the last ten years, audiotapes have been developed that use a sophisticated hypnotic technique known as double induction. This method uses two separate voices weaving in and out rhythmically, often with each voice speaking to a different ear. The overall effect is often very confusing, for it is very difficult to follow two voices simultaneously, each carrying its own story line. It is meant to be confusing; this confusion helps neutralize your conscious mind, which eventually gives up the struggle of listening and enters a deeply relaxed state. Bypassing your conscious mind allows suggestions for beneficial change to be planted in the unconscious mind and take root.

These tapes also follow a form of hypnosis known as Ericksonian hypnosis, named after Milton Erickson, M.D., regarded by most people to be the greatest hypnotist who ever lived. The Ericksonian approach is far more effective than traditional forms of hypnosis. In Ericksonian hypnosis, suggestions are delivered in an indirect or metaphorical fashion, which is harder to resist than traditional hypnotic suggestions that typically take the form of commands. Most of us naturally resist commands. For example, let's suppose you have a tendency to procrastinate, which is starting to cause problems for you on your job. You listen to some hypnotic tapes in an attempt to motivate yourself to be more productive. To which suggestion do you think you would respond more favorably? On one tape you are admonished to “stop being lazy” and to “begin working now.” On another tape you are gently encouraged to “plant some seeds, watch them grow, and take great pleasure in the task of watering and nurturing your plant.” Obviously, the second suggestion is more alluring, but that does not mean you will take up gardening. Basically, your unconscious mind is being directed to begin a task, follow through, and gain pleasure from it.

Double-induction hypnotic tapes are available with a wide variety of applications: general relaxation and stress reduction, enhancing self-esteem and self-confidence, developing assertive skills, healing from illness and injury, pain control, facilitating restful sleep, overcoming specific fears, boosting creativity and problem solving, losing weight, conquering addictions, stopping smoking, mastering procrastination, boosting sexual responsivity, and many more.

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