College Spotlight - The College of Health and Human Performance


Courage, sacrifice, bravery, and determination are a few words that may come to mind when you think about the soldiers who fight for our freedom.

No matter how much appreciation and respect we show our soldiers, it is hard to truly understand the horrors they’ve seen and the stresses they’ve encountered on the battlefield.

Our heroes may exhibit physical scars that we can see, but what about the wounds that are not physically visible? The two types of injuries most common for veterans of the war in Iraq are post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI), which leave psychological and emotional scars that are not as blatantly visible as physical ones.

The College of Health and Human Performance saw the need for helping these heroes. In February of 2008, Dr. Carmen Russoniello, associate professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies and director of ECU’s Psychophysiology Lab and Biofeedback Clinic, founded the Training for Optimal Performance Program (TOP).

TOP partners with the Wounded Warrior Battalion East at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina to help Marines and Navy Corpsmen who suffer from PTSD and TBI by using the biofeedback method. The soldiers travel to the clinic at ECU once a week for training, and a representative from the clinic visits the base once a week, as well.

What is biofeedback exactly? When an individual feels stressed, both the central nervous system and the autonomic nervous system of the body are activated, resulting in physical, mental, and emotional responses. These responses, known as the “fight or flight” reaction, occur as a natural defense mechanism to help the individual remove himself more rapidly from a potentially dangerous situation.

Due to emotional memory, humans continue to function in this mode even without a danger physically present. This often results in chronic stress, which may lead to various emotional conditions, cardiovascular disorders, gastrointestinal ailments, autoimmune deficiencies, and degenerative neurological disorders.

Biofeedback, used in conjunction with therapy, teaches patients to control their body’s responses to various emotional and physical conditions. The biofeedback equipment continuously measures and displays information regarding the person’s physiological state such as heart rate variability, skin temperature, skin conductance, and electrical activity of the muscles.

Biofeedback is an incredibly helpful method for several reasons, but one of its most intriguing characteristics is that it supplies the patient with visuals of what is occurring in his body.

In turn, the patient is able to see how different stressors affect his body, and the therapist then teaches the patient how to control these parameters. With this knowledge self-regulation, patients can diminish the impact of stress on their daily lives and improve their sense of wellbeing.

"I used to get angry really easily; I had a hair trigger temper,” said Corporal Will Thorpe, a Marine who has participated in the program for a little over a year. “Now my quality of life is so much better; this is a great program for anyone in any walk of life.”

Not only are soldiers benefiting from the Biofeedback Lab and TOP program, but both undergraduate and graduate students in HHP are invited to participate as well. Students can take biofeedback classes and have hands-on experience in the lab; classes are not just for students in one department, rather they branch out to all of the departments.

“ECU students are learning to appreciate the true meaning of sacrifice, altruism and courage,” said Russoniello. “The very things I can’t teach in a classroom.”

Tami Maes, a clinical psychophysiologist who earned her master’s degree in recreational therapy from ECU, has helped with the program from the beginning. Maes said she chose ECU specifically for the biofeedback program, and as a graduate student, she served as a research assistant to Russoniello.

“We have created an all-inclusive atmosphere,” said Maes. “It is important for both students and Marines to know that we, as humans, are more similar than different, and really the biggest difference is the experience we have had. Getting rid of stereotypes helps to put people all on the same level, and that is when we can really value each other.”

Matthew Fish, project coordinator and graduate student in recreational therapy, also said that the Lab presents a myriad of opportunities for students.

Fish actually became involved with the Lab when he was experiencing some health problems himself as an undergraduate. Once he started training with Russoniello and applying the biofeedback method to his life, he saw a definite improvement in his own health, he said.

Fish has had the opportunity to go to the military base once a week and work with the veterans. Helping the veterans and getting the experience at working at a military base has been a wonderful and “eye-opening” experience, Fish said.