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U.S. Army Offers Stress Reduction Classes, Including Biofeedback Training, To Military Personnel

biofeedback sensorThe Fort Jackson Army Substance Abuse Program, which traditionally addresses issues of alcohol and drug abuse, will expand its programs by offering a six-week stress and anxiety reduction class, scheduled to begin Wednesday. Pierre Wilkins, a social worker with ASAP, explained that the goal is for people to identify stressors and stress symptoms and to learn how to reduce their stress levels. A second class building on the first one may become available if the need arises.

“The initial plan is to have six weeks (of classes) for people to see how they do,” Wilkins said. “If we find there are some people who still have not gotten to the point where they feel healthy about their stress level, we’ll go into more experiential (techniques), which we will do in the second six weeks (of class).”

The class will start off with an evaluation of the participants’ stress level, which includes inherently negative stress, such as a deadline, and inherently positive stress, such as a family event.

“We’re going to be starting with looking at the person’s recent experiences – that can be over the last two or three years – and evaluating what his or her stress level is,” Wilkins said. “At the end of that session, each person there should be able to know, ‘What’s my stress level, and is that a healthy level or a level that I may want to work on?'”


Pierre Wilkins, a social worker with the Army Substance Abuse Program, demonstrates use of the biofeedback equipment at Moncrief Army Community Hospital. The screen shows images that are designed to either increase or reduce stress in the participant. Throughout the biofeedback sessions, participants learn how to control their reaction to stressors. (Photo Credit - Susanne Kappler) (click to enlarge)

After that, participants will identify if they have any stress-related symptoms, such as frequent headaches, anxiety or depression, and how severe these symptoms are. Once the symptoms are identified, the focus of the class shifts to changing behavior to reduce stress. The change in behavior will be based on the participants’ individual needs, Wilkins said.

“For example, some person might say, ‘I don’t like shopping,’ or, ‘I don’t shop often, and I’m kind of tied to my personal space.’ Maybe the goal would be to say, ‘Go out shopping today and buy something that you find frivolous or not meaningful and see how it feels,'” he said.

Wilkins said he hopes that most people will be able to deal with their stress better after the first six weeks. For those who would like to continue working on their stress reduction, the second six-week class will examine how breathing and other physical factors contribute to stress and relaxation, said Bill York, a social worker with ASAP.

York will also offer a series of individual biofeedback sessions to people who want to continue after the second six-week class. York described biofeedback as a “noninvasive treatment technology that is based upon the principle that changes in thinking and emotions can result in changes in the body.”

People who participate in biofeedback sessions are connected to electrical sensors, which measure an array of bodily functions, such as heart rate, breathing rate, skin temperature, and muscle tension. While connected, the participant is subjected to visual and auditory stimulants.

a finger biofeedback sensor

Participants in biofeedback sessions are connected to electrical sensors, which measure heart rate, breathing rate and skin temperature among other things. The measurements provide feedback about the person's stress level. (Photo Credit - Susanne Kappler) (click to enlarge)

At the beginning of a session, a baseline is established and the participant is exposed to images and sounds that are designed to relax him or her.

“Then, all of a sudden, for 30 seconds, we show you things that are going to startle you, like creatures and various things that you will have a response to,” York said. For a Soldier, those images might include combat scenes, York said.

“We’re talking about de-stressing and all of a sudden (the Soldier) sees a picture of a rooftop, and I watch his heart rate triple in half a second,” York said.

The session will also analyze how long after the exposure to the stressor the person’s stress level remains high.

“What we do then is we look for change. Does your heart rate begin to go back down? Does your blood pressure begin to go back down in that follow-up phase?” York said. “A lot of people who are stressed; they don’t recover. Their heart rate stays up. Their breathing rate stays up.”

Throughout the sessions, people practicing biofeedback will learn to control their physical reaction to stressors, which will be reflected by the images on the screen.

For example, participants are shown an image of the sun setting over the water. As the person relaxes, the sun begins to set and the ripples in the water begin to calm.

“The advantage to this is you’re instantly seeing what your body is telling you,” York said.

The six-week stress and anxiety reduction class is open to all ID card holders, but a medical referral is needed to schedule a biofeedback session.

Material adapted from the United States Army. Original article written by Susanne Kappler, Fort Jackson Leader.

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