emWave 2

If you don’t know, I have Panic Disorder. I quite randomly, and frequently, have awful panic attacks. I was offered a device called the emWave 2 which is a biofeedback device.

I’ve been using it for a few months and in this post I’m going to cover my experiences.


The basics

If you are anything like me, the term Biofeedback will probably invoke thoughts of pseudo-science bullshit to you. However, it’s a very simple concept with a great deal of research backing up its effectiveness in certain scenarios. Biofeedback is simply a way of monitoring some aspect of your physical state and communicating that to you clearly. Through being aware of physical states that you may not have the capacity to consciously evaluate, it allows you to learn how to change bodily processes that may seem otherwise out of your control.

The emWave 2 is a device that monitors your heart rate and calculates what it calls Coherence. If you didn’t notice by the link; coherence is just heart rate variability. It’s basically just your HRV. Higher HRV == Higher coherence. It’d be great if they just used the correct terms rather than these silly buzzwords. The buzzwords made reading the documentation frustrating and set off my bullshit alarms.

The idea being that the greater your HRV, the less stress you are feeling. HRV also has a casual link to emotional arousal in that the lower your HRV the higher your physical stress response will likely be. HRV also has links to the Polyvagal Theory which is somewhat interesting given that I have a form of dysautomnia, which is largely a dysfunction of the vagal nerve response.

The emWave 2 communicates your current HRV via a series of lights. Through careful and consistent breathing, and occasionally visualization therapy, it is possible to increase your HRV and thusly reduce the increased vagal response that occurs during panic attacks and other stressful situations.

The device has 2 buttons which control everything on the device. I found it very confusing to use when I started, and still find it confusing. You change modes by how long you press the correct button. This is very difficult to remember and not the sort of mental load I want to burden me in the middle of a panic attack.

Seriously, I can not fully express how awful it is to try and use the device. I strongly suggest reading the manual and fooling with it when you’re feeling fine. Once you have it set to the mode you want, don’t touch it.

The software

emWave Software

The emWave 2 comes with software that logs and tracks your progress with each ‘session’. Yeah, it’s kinda cool.

Quite honestly, I basically never use the software. I don’t care about my progress or what my “coherence” is over time. I’m sure this would be useful for someone that is using this for stress therapy or for something like PTSD episodes.

There are ‘games’ and ‘acheivements’ available in the software. I didn’t look at this much, since I really didn’t care about the software much.

For me, when I use the emWave 2, I am simply trying to get myself out of that pit of panic that is enveloping me at that current time. It is somewhat useful though to use the software to pull up which days I used the emWave 2 and how long. That does give me a decent log of when and how long my panic attacks where. It also does a fairly reasonable job of showing the severity over time.

The experience


When I started using this device, I was extremely skeptical. After I did a few days of reading on the science and concepts behind it, I was a bit more prepared to give it a shot.

There’s 2 ways to use the device, either to clip the sensor on your ear or to lightly touch your thumb to the button. I use the ear.

Basically, for me, the main benefit of the device is that it constantly reminds you to work on what’s wrong. The red/blue/green lights seem to be a very good indicator of my current state. It’s even become somewhat of a joke at the green light lighting up quickly when I encounter something I like, even during a bad panic attack.

The device does nothing magical. It simply is a rough meter for how well you are doing to cope with the situation you are in. Breathing is a huge part of it, and self re-assurance are exceptionally important to see any results. These things are needed regardless of the devices presence or not. The lights and sounds of the device are an excellent reminder to keep working when your mind begins to wander. Through encouraging consistent behaviour that is correlated with recovering from the situation, the device is very helpful.

At the $199 price, I wouldn’t recommend the device. It is exceptionally useful despite the price, but the price does set it in a tier of devices that are likely only helpful to people with reasonable income. Mentally ill people largely do not fall in to this category.

I also really dislike the hardware interface. I had at least 2 panic attacks that were prolonged by me accidentally turning the device to a different mode and/or turning the sound off. I became so focused on trying to fix what I accidentally did that the panic feedback loop took hold and sent me in to a very unpleasant place.

I would recommend researching similar devices however. For me, it has been a great aide in helping me cope with panic as it occurs, and I’ve improved my reaction to panic in the absence of the device.

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