Brain Science and Updates From the Field

Finding A Better Balance

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Stairways program on cutting edge of biofeedback technology

An ACT team staff member uses an interactive computer game associated with the HeartMath InnerBalance application.


Math has long been the source of aggravation for countless individuals. However, thanks to an innovative and interactive biofeedback smartphone application, Stairways’ Assertive Community Treatment team (ACT) is using math to reduce stress.

Since February, the ACT team has been utilizing HeartMath Inner Balance, an iPhone app that seeks to reduce tension by improving one’s heart rate and breathing.

ACT has integrated the tool’s use in its work with clients as well as staff members, ACT physician Jennifer Pasternack, Ph.D, said.

“We’re using it for ourselves for stress,” she said. “Our clients are also using them for stress but it’s good for many of them who have had trauma as well.”

InnerBalance works by using an earlobe-clip that monitors one’s heart rate variability (HRV) — the changes in one’s heart rhythm that often reflect their present emotions. The HRV is then visually represented onscreen as a flowing wave, while the user is encouraged to breath in a slower, calmer manner by following along with a breath-pacing tool.

Sam Trychin, Ph.D., an Erie psychologist and consultant to Stairways Behavioral Health, introduced InnerBalance to Stairways after he had used the tool for more than five years, he said.

“Psychology influences physiology,” Trychin said. “And the inverse is true. Changing your breathing along with greater thoughts of appreciation can have a direct impact on your heart rate that you are able to see on the spot.”

Calmer, deeper breathing along with more appreciative feelings, Trychin says, results in fewer drastic fluctuations on the HRV meter. As this improved balance is achieved, “coherence”— the relationship between your HRV and a relaxed emotional state — increases as well, which, in turn, reduces the psychological and physiological symptoms of stress.

InnerBalance has yielded positive results for people suffering from mental illness as well as physical pain. For example, Veterans Affairs medical centers across the country have introduced the tool to veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

At Stairways, Bernadette Valentinetti, a mental health professional in ACT, said she likes to incorporate the app into therapy as a way to visually show clients how their stress and heart rate directly correlate. With some clients, Valentinetti makes use of InnerBalance computer games that sync with breathing and heart rate variability to simulate adventure settings, such as being in a tropical garden or on a rainbow.

“I have a client that has a lot of anxiety and this is one way for her to regulate that,” Valentinetti said. “It’s a way for them to increase coherence without having to think of it as a deep-breathing exercise.”

ACT’s use of InnerBalance hasn’t been just limited to therapy with clients, however. The team’s staff also uses it immediately before meetings as a means to increase coherence and mitigate stress.

“It fits in well with our philosophy in that there’s not much of a difference between us and our clients,” she said. “Coping mechanisms are coping mechanisms and we all have stress whether we have a mental disorder or not.”

Pasternack, who initiated the app’s use after beginning to use it herself in December, said she has seen a difference in her own life.

“I feel I’m much calmer and more able to handle stress when it does arise,” she said.



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