Biofeedback races: an activity to develop self regulation

I’ve written once or twice on biofeedback as I’ve used it, but I thought today I’d share an exciting idea that one of my colleagues (you know who you are!) came up with to help participants on our pain management programme get practice using their skills in a fun sort of way.

We’re a bit lucky in some ways, we have about 8 different portable biofeedback units – some monitoring EMG, and a couple of others monitoring heart rate and galvanic skin response. In the past we’ve taken our participants to the occupational therapy home unit to try out various household tasks while wearing the biofeedback units – but frankly, the men have switched off. Now I don’t know what this says about Kiwi males, but I do know it made the sessions really challenging. So as a team we were trying to think of ways to involve people in activities that they could be asked to start and stop, and periodically review their self regulation.

I had thought of using the Nintendo Wii, and giving them penalty points if the biofeedback unit beeped over a certain parameter – and I guess you could do this with an individual, and in fact that’s something I want to study with the Wii. But in a group, having only one or two people playing at once isn’t so desireable.

So we came up with ‘Biofeedback races’. A series of physical and mental challenges that each participant has to complete within a certain time limit without setting off the biofeedback unit alarm!

The penalty for setting the alarm off is to go back to the beginning of that task – and try again!

I know it’s going to be real challenge – because the more excited and keen to ‘get a result’ most people are, the more difficult it is to down-regulate physiology. So it will be a great opportunity for people to really challenge themselves with regulation – and possibly use mindfulness, which is another approach, to manage their physiological arousal.

At the very least, ‘Biofeedback races’ will be an opportunity for people to learn to use self regulation strategies during an activity, rather than thinking of it purely as a ‘relaxation’ tool to use before going to bed.

I’d love to hear if anyone else has crazy ideas for integrating experiential activities with pain management like this. I’ve written about the ‘Radioactive Rice’ activity, the ‘Minefield’ activity, and I’m about to incorporate a new challenge – the pipe bender – which I’ll describe soon.

Each activity has a purpose – to give people an experience of something important, so they can learn by engaging all the senses, contingencies and attitudes that ‘real’ activities do. It’s powerful stuff, provided that we include a good period of time to reflect and debrief so the learning is anchored.



  1. What a great exercise combination. I imagine your success rate in therapy is probably a lot higher than many people who only use traditional techniques. Biofeedback is a valuable tool that isn’t used enough outside of clinical and/or meditative circles.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment on this post! I think of biofeedback as simply a tool to be used. It’s all about giving people some sort of way to get in touch with their own physiology – and then making it an enjoyable process to develop skills!

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