Technology is often blamed for causing us stress and inattention.
But what if technology could solve these problems?
There is an increasing amount of accessible biofeedback devices and machines available today that can actually help you reduce anxiety and increase your concentration. Yet a lot of people don't know about them.
Biofeedback is the process of gaining greater awareness of how your body is functioning. By doing this, you learn how to change and manipulate your body and brain at will.
I’ve already discussed how neurofeedback dramatically altered my brain function for the better.
But neurofeedback is just one form of biofeedback, and there are lots of different types of biofeedback equipment available today.
This article explores my two favourite biofeedback devices that I’ve used and continue to use at home on a daily basis to maintain optimal brain and mental health.
1. The Muse Headband
Neurofeedback has been the best investment of my entire life. But when I first wrote about it, I got a lot of messages and comments from people expressing their disappointment that neurofeedback isn’t available in their area. Or that it's simply too expensive!
I understand that. You have bills to pay and children to support. If it's between putting food on your plate or doing some strange brain training, it makes sense that you'll choose the former and forget the latter.
But that doesn't mean you can't experience the benefits of clinical neurofeedback through other technologies.
In my experience, the Muse headband is an excellent substitution that can help you increase your mental resilience.
Muse is a brain-sensing headband that accurately monitors and measures your brainwaves, just like neurofeedback, but in the comfort of your own home.
As I discussed in my article about neurofeedback, your brain is constantly generating electrical signals. These signals can be detected from outside your head, via electroencephalography (EEG) sensors. Doctors and scientists have used this technology for more than 100 years to study the brain.
The Muse headset has seven EEG sensors that pick up the electrical activity of your brain while you meditate.
How The Muse Works and How It Can Help You
During each meditation session, the Muse headband sends your brainwave data to your mobile phone via Bluetooth.
The Muse app then quickly analyzes this data, and determines whether your mind is relaxed or active. It then provides you with instant feedback through your mobile phone.
The feedback comes in the form of auditory weather sounds. When you’re calm and focused, you’ll hear sounds of peaceful weather through your phone, such as gentle waves and chirping birds. But when your mind is wandering, the weather will become more turbulent and you’ll hear loud wind and crashing waves, reminding you to relax and refocus.
After each session, the app will display the percentage of time you spent in a calm, neutral or active state of mind.
In other words, the Muse is a mental health wearable that lets you hear what’s going on inside your mind so that you can learn to naturally guide yourself to a calmer, focused state.
To do this, you typically need multiple sensors attached to your head and thousands of dollars of professional neurofeedback equipment. That’s why many physicians, researchers and educators are extremely interested in the Muse.
Over 100 universities and institutes including Harvard are running clinical trials with the device. The Denver Public School system has already implemented a pilot program using the Muse in classrooms to help children with ADHD and other learning difficulties. And the Department of Veterans Affairs plans to test the product’s efficacy in managing the symptoms of PTSD.
If you truly struggle with anxiety and lack of concentration, I think it’s money well-spent. It costs about the same as several therapy sessions, but the Muse is much more helpful because, unlike psychologists and psychiatrists, it provides instant feedback on the functioning of your brain and doesn't push medication on you. Plus, you only need one headband for your household because more than one person is able to use the same headset.
My Experience with the Muse and How It’s Similar to Clinical Neurofeedback
I bought the Muse headband late last year after it was recommended to me by my neurofeedback practitioner here in Ottawa.
Based on further research, it appears to be the most effective and affordable EEG device on the market. It's very accurate, easy to use and immediately picks up when your mind wanders. I use it for 10-20 minutes, five to seven days each week.
The Muse headband may not be as tailored and profound as working with a neurofeedback practitioner, but it’s very similar. And with consistent practice and patience, you can reach similar levels of calm and experience many of the same cognitive benefits that you would with neurofeedback (without having to pay thousands of dollars for it). In fact, it’s signal quality has been shown to be almost as accurate as expensive clinical-grade EEG neurofeedback equipment (1, 2).
As you train with the Muse on a regular basis, you'll get better at managing your brain waves and become more centered and focused over time. Because of neurofeedback and the Muse, I have a consistent sense of being in the present moment, rather than being lost in thoughts about the past or future.
I still recommend clinical neurofeedback training over the Muse, as it’s the fastest way to make mental progress. But if you can’t access or afford neurofeedback, the Muse is an excellent substitute that packs traditional EEG technology into a small and cheaper device.
My neurofeedback practitioner actually suggests that some people may only need consistent practice with the Muse. Depending on the patient and the results of their "brain mapping," she'll sometimes recommend the Muse instead of neurofeedback training at her clinic.
However, this isn’t the case for everyone. The Muse wouldn’t have been enough for me. I personally needed clinical neurofeedback training, and others likely do too. But the Muse is definitely a good place to start. You can get it here or here.
If you decide to get the Muse Headband, you should also consider downloading the third-party EEG monitoring app called the “Muse Monitor” app. It's a third-party EEG monitoring app that displays all of your brainwaves (alpha, beta, theta, etc.) and their patterns on your phone in real time.
This app has allows me to test and experiment with different nootropic supplements and monitor how they affect my brain waves, something I was unable to do in the clinic with my neurofeedback practitioner. I plan on writing more about those experiments later.
2. The EmWave2
When you experience stressful emotions such as tension, anxiety, irritation, or anger, your heart rhythm becomes irregular and incoherent, negatively affecting your health and brain function. When you experience positive emotions such as appreciation, care, joy and love, your heart rhythm is more ordered and coherent.
The EmWave2 trains you to change your heart rhythm pattern and reach a state of coherence. When you are in a coherent state, there is harmony between your heart, brain and nervous system. Your psychological and physiological bodily functions are balanced, and your parasympathetic “rest-and-digest” nervous system becomes dominant.
Overall, high coherence is like “being in the zone” – a simultaneous state of calm relaxation and energized alertness. And the EmWave2 helps you get there.
How EmWave2 Works
The EmWave2 is a small handheld device about the size of an iPod. It collects your pulse through a pulse sensor, measures your heart rhythm, guides you to breathe in and out every five seconds, and determines if your nervous system is in a “coherent” or “incoherent” state.
If you’re completely stressed, the EmWave2 will give you feedback in the form of a red light, letting you know that you’re in an incoherent state. The device will then provide guidance you so that you can consciously increase your coherence. Once your heart rate and breathing are synchronized, the EmWave2 will give you positive feedback in the form of a green light, letting you know that you’ve reached a coherent state. As you get used to the device, it becomes a challenge to see how high you can score on the coherence scale. Higher coherence scores indicate that you are in a more relaxed state of mind.
The EmWave2 is being used by over 10,000 different health care professionals in the U.S., including 65 veteran administration hospitals and clinics for the treatment of PTSD.
Dr. Lawrence Rosen, an Integrative Pediatrician at the Whole Child Center, says he uses the EmWave2 with his patients that struggle with anxiety:
My Experience with the EmWave2 and How It Could Help You
I’ve been using the EmWave2 for over a year now and it works. Increasing my coherence has had a number of mental and emotional and benefits. When I have a high degree of coherence, I am able to focus while remaining physically and emotionally calm.
I use the EmWave2 twice every day for just five to ten minutes. After using it, it feels like there has been a positive internal shift within my body. It’s hard to explain exactly. But when I stop using it, I notice I feel less content and fall into negative attitudes and mindsets much more easily.
Here are some of the main benefits you may notice from using it:
Less stress and anxiety – The EmWave2 will help turn down your “fight or flight” response. If you struggle with generalized anxiety or chronic stress like I used to, I highly recommend this device (and supplementary zinc and magnesium). It won’t stop stress and anxiety completely, but it will definitely reduce the amount you experience, increase your resilience to it and help you cope with it when it does hit you. I use it when I find myself in an anxious state of mind. It shifts my mindset into a calmer state.
Improved mood – When you have low heart coherence, you’re more likely to be stuck in a stressed and depressed state of mind. In my experience, the EmWave2 can help you snap out of it and regain an emotionally-balanced mood and optimistic outlook.
Improved cognitive performance – Anxiety and depression can cause poor cognition. I noticed this for many years. Whenever I wasn’t feeling mentally well, my performance suffered and it was hard for me to think straight and be productive. That’s because stress shuts down the prefrontal cortex. The EmWave2 can increase the efficiency and functioning of your nervous system, which reduces stress and helps reactivate your brain’s higher-order functions. My focus has improved since I started using it.
Without some sort of biofeedback, it’s hard to know when you’re coherent or incoherent. The EmWave2 will tell you when you’re in an incoherent state, and then guide you so that you can consciously get yourself out of it.
At first, you may get really low coherence scores and find it incredibly frustrating. I went through the same thing. But you need to give it some time. These devices are long-term healing strategies, not quick-fixes. Getting the most out of the device will require a commitment to use it on a regular basis because the benefits appear over time. And if it doesn't end up helping you, you can return it for a refund.
As I’ve said before, cognitive problems and mental illness are multi-faceted. There are many underlying problems and multiple fixes. But regulating your nervous system and brainwaves is a big part of it, and these devices (along with neurofeedback) have allowed me to make huge strides:
Unfortunately, your health insurance won’t cover them. The pharmaceutical industry would lose a lot of money if everyone had access to these biofeedback technologies. Profits are the foundation of the broken medical system, not human health.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t take control of your own brain and mental health starting today.
Please let me know what you think in the comments, and share with anyone you think might benefit because a lot of people don’t know about these types of biofeedback technologies.
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Medically reviewed by Dr. Fred Hui, MD, CCFP, CAFC