Biofeedback Center newest stress-buster for Iowa State University students

AMES, Iowa - Test anxiety … social angst … money woes.

Stressed-out college students are nothing new. But at Iowa State University, they have a new option for dealing with stress: Biofeedback.

This fall, Iowa State opened a Biofeedback Center for students. Created and directed by Student Counseling Service staff psychologist Todd Pietruszka, the center is free and open to all ISU students. Iowa State is the first of the three Regents' universities to offer a biofeedback service to address students' emotional needs.

Biofeedback uses technologies like video games and guided meditations to teach relaxation techniques, concentration skills and healthy coping responses.

When people are anxious, their heart rates increase and skin conductance changes. These unconscious psychological occurrences offer insight into corresponding emotional responses. Biofeedback teaches people to become aware of their physiological responses, while providing techniques -- like deep breathing, visualization or mindfulness -- to consciously reset the body's conditioned responses.

"Biofeedback is a fancy name," Pietruszka said. "It really means getting information about your physical responses and using that information to take action. For example, when you take your temperature and find you have a fever, you might call the doctor."

Quiet space away from the daily grind

Iowa State's Biofeedback Center is a compact room with three massage recliners, each facing its own wall-mounted computer monitor.
ISU staff psychologist Todd Pietruszka (left) teaches colleague Jeffrey Ellens how the biofeedback equipment works. Photo by Bob Elbert.
Students start with an orientation session that explains how to check out and use the equipment, and how to navigate the computer programs. The equipment fits into a case about the size of a portable CD player and consists of finger sensors, mouse pad and earphones.

During a biofeedback session, the room is quiet and darkened. Sitting in the recliners, the students wear noise-cancelling headphones and fingertip sensors, which measure skin conductance and heart rate. Three choices of computer software offer a variety of self-guided, interactive programs.

As students practice the relaxation techniques presented, they can watch real-time graphs of their physiological responses. This information helps them identify the activities that work best for them. Once mastered, they can use the techniques whenever needed--before taking a test or giving a class presentation, for example. Sessions can last from 15 minutes to an hour or more,

"The training module teaches how to become aware of your body, how to use breathing, how to become mindful of your thoughts," Pietruszka said. "As you practice and use the tools and get feedback, you can see what works for you.

"Biofeedback is really a way to have a coach. It basically lets you know when relaxation techniques are working," he said.

Some relaxation tools taught in the computer programs include meditation techniques, mindfulness (a calm awareness of one's physical and emotional state) deep breathing exercises, visualization and guided recitations. Two of the programs use fantasy-based game environments to present guided activities for meditation and emotional control.

"Once you learn the processes, you don't need to come to the center to practice them in your life," Pietruszka said. "In fact, the tools are really meant to be used all across your life. These are things you can do in a public crowd, no one would know you're doing them."

In addition to addressing anxiety issues, biofeedback can help students who struggle with concentration, or have difficulty with negative or self-critical thoughts.

"And, it can help those who are unmotivated, apathetic or down. You can use the techniques to invigorate yourself. You can use visualization and mindfulness to increase your energy. The ultimate goal is emotional control," Pietruszka said.

"The process of quieting the mind has a lot of benefit beyond calming anxiety," he said. "Being able to practice mindfulness, in which you stop in the moment and take an assessment of where you are, can help students break an unproductive cycle and get out of a rut."

Pietruszka said that some people might find the on-screen heart rate monitoring to be anxiety- producing while others find it motivating. The monitoring isn't required for students to benefit from the relaxation activities.

The Biofeedback Center also has an audio library with self-help books, guided meditation and mindful activities that students can listen to in a quiet, relaxing setting.

The Center was funded by a 2008-09 grant for $4,654 from Iowa State's Information Technology Services' Computation Advisory Committee, with additional support from the Student Counseling Service.

The Biofeedback Center at 3062 Student Services Building is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Appointments are required for the orientation session only; walk ins are welcome for subsequent sessions. To schedule an orientation session, call (515) 294-5056. It is not necessary to be a client of the Student Counseling Service to use The Biofeedback Center.