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HPRC Fitness Arena: Family & Relationships
Mindfulness can help you feel better equipped to handle difficult emotions. It’s a process geared to help you tune into emotional experiences rather than try to escape from them. People can feel overcome by depression, anxiety, PTSD, addiction, or other mental health problems, which, ironically, can be exacerbated by trying to forget the cause. For example, a Warfighter afflicted with PTSD often relives difficult events through dreams, flashbacks, or unwanted memories, because he/she desperately wants to avoid experiencing those events. To illustrate this idea, right now, try NOT to think of weapons. You probably thought about them that much more.
Practicing mindfulness mediation means focusing on whatever you are experiencing in the present moment. It can be a structured meditation activity, but because mindfulness is about being present, you can purposefully engage in mindfulness anytime, anywhere. A common meditative approach is to focus on a physical experience such as your breathing, noticing where your attention wanders, and gently guiding it back to your breath; it allows you to experience sadness, anger, fear, and other unpleasant emotions, letting them pass without clinging to the idea of making them go away.”
If you have ever “white-knuckled” your way through an amusement park ride (or ridden in a car with a driver you didn’t trust), you may remember thinking, “When will this be over? Please let it be over…” This shows that focusing on how long something lasts can make it feel like an eternity. By engaging in mindfulness, you will feel less threatened by certain emotions, and you will be less likely to engage in problematic forms of escape (such as drinking, drugs, or simply spacing out).
When people experience difficult emotions, they often cope by engaging the language center of the brain, using words internally to wrestle with the experience. But when people have difficulty re-evaluating why they feel the way they do, this leads to a circular internal debate (such as “I shouldn’t feel this way, but I do, but I shouldn’t…”), which can be pointless and can actually cause more distress. Emotions can be dealt with not just through words but also by tapping into their physical elements (noticing how you feel in your body). When people engage in regular mindfulness practice, the parts of their brains tuned into physical sensations are activated while they experience hard emotions. And people who regularly have this part of their brain activated tend to be more emotionally steady.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to escape unwanted emotions. And more problems will probably pop up as you try to escape. But if you’re willing to face hard emotions, letting them come and go like waves on a beach, then mindfulness practice can help you have a different experience. Tune in to HPRC for more mindfulness resources, and take advantage of the fact that mindfulness is everywhere now, whether part of your martial arts or yoga class or filling the self-help shelves of your local bookstore. Become more mindful, and you can feel better equipped to handle tough emotions; your mind and body will engage them more productively.
Whether you know it or not, you’ve probably engaged in “triangulation,” and not just as a kid when you ran to Mom because Dad just said “no” (or vice versa). Similar triangles can also happen with leadership or any work group, committee, or organization (including military) where two people talk about a third.
On the surface, triangulation can look pretty harmless. You vent out of frustration because someone is not acting the way you’d like. Depending on where you are in the triangle, you either receive sympathy or provide it, possibly exerting any power you have to fix the situation. These triangles tend to consist of a “victim,” a “villain,” and a “rescuer.”
Because people are often uncomfortable with conflict, they figure out ways to maintain the status quo, even if it’s a bad one, instead of addressing what the core issue is. Triangulation is one way to avoid facing things, and it can feel like a fix, but it’s temporary at best. The rescuer provides a sympathetic ear so that the victim doesn’t feel a need to take action, or tries to take charge of the situation, but inevitably, the same problems pop up between the original two people.
Next time you feel like a victim and consider going to another person with your conflict, first be clear about your goals. Do you want to be rescued, or do you want to be coached? Before reaching out, ask yourself if you can possibly self-coach your way through whatever is popping up. Prepare yourself for whatever criticism might come your way if the “villain’s” defenses get triggered. And “preparing” does not mean bracing yourself or getting ammunition ready to fire back at that person. It means getting ready to really listen and validate how the other person feels, even if you don’t agree with the content of what that person says. If that person feels listened to, he/she will become more receptive to your position.
When a triangle does occur, the best scenario for the third person (the potential rescuer) is to be a good coach. Coaches don’t play the game for their players; they help them become more self-sufficient. Similarly, good leaders ask challenging questions of the people under their command, helping them to think through situations and become better equipped to face conflict directly. If you’re the potential rescuer, resist your own impulses to fix things and instead work on enabling the victim to fix the situation directly. Know that if you dive into this triangle, any other solution is probably temporary at best.
These strategies may seem simple, but they take practice. Try letting go of triangles and use some of the same kinds of communication strategies that work for couples.
PTSD was finally recognized as a medical condition when recent advances in neuroscience showed that the brain no longer works properly after trauma. Your brain has an alarm system to help ensure your survival; it’s useful as long as it works properly. When the alarm system malfunctions because traumatic events pushed it to its limits, the part of the brain responsible for thinking and memory can’t function properly. When this happens, a person with PTSD can’t compare what’s happening now with events in the past when they were safe. However, there are treatments to help “rewire” the brain, so it can work properly again. Learn more about this in “How post-traumatic stress affects your brain”.
Problem solving is a great resilience skill for families. All ages can learn or fine-tune their ability to solve problems. After all, life ensures there will be plenty of problems to solve! You can specifically help children learn how to problem solve with this easy-to-remember acronym—SNAP:
S: State the problem.
N: Name the goal.
A: Find All possible solutions.
P: Pick one option.
For example, if your child wakes up tired every morning, you can help him or her identify the problem (being tired), set the goal of getting more sleep, and discuss possible solutions (such as going to bed earlier, developing a bedtime routine, or learning a relaxation skill such as deep breathing). Then help your child pick one to try for a specific time period (such as a week) to see if it works. And instead of trying to solve the problem yourself, be a coach and help your child learn how to solve problems using SNAP.
Athletes have rituals they engage in to ensure their best performance. Warfighters have rituals around paroling, shooting, and other mission-specific tasks to create the right mindset for the situation. Families can benefit from rituals too.
Consider the types of rituals your family typically engages in. There are probably more than you think. Celebrating holidays, personal traditions such as pancakes on Saturday mornings or memorializing the death of a loved one, and simple everyday acts such as bedtime stories or morning tea are all rituals.
When a couple comes together and starts a family, each person brings along his/her own rituals. Consider it an opportunity to build something new together—a blending of histories. For example, let’s say you grew up celebrating Christmas with your family, but your partner’s family celebrated Hanukah. As a couple you can take the rituals that are meaningful to each of you personally and celebrate all of them to create a new combined holiday tradition for your own family.
Rituals certainly can help your own performance, but they also help deepen bonds and create a distinct family identity that can be supportive in both happy and stressful times.
Running provides an inexpensive and effective way to get your child or adolescent excited about physical fitness for a lifetime. Beyond the physical health benefits, running can also lead to improvements in classroom behavior, self-control, self-esteem, alertness, enthusiasm, creativity, and maturity.
For children of all ages, running is one of the most versatile and natural physical activities. In younger children, running should be encouraged through fun activities such as tag, capture the flag, the fox and the hound, and red light green light. By keeping running fun, your child may learn to enjoy exercise at an early age, helping him or her maintain those habits as he/she gets older.
For older children interested in the sport of running, there are some additional ways to help your child become a strong, healthy runner. Learn more about proper running form, training, hydration, diet, shoes, and safety, which may help your child’s performance and may also decrease his or her risk of injury.
Did you know that the nature of your family relationships can impact your children’s sleep? Children in home environments with verbal and/or physical conflict do not sleep as well as children in more nurturing home environments. Children exposed to negative family interactions are likely to wake up more, stay awake longer in the middle of the night, and/or sleep less overall.
The conflict can be between parents and children as well as children observing the interactions between their parents. The kinds of behavior include yelling, name-calling, making threats, and physical assault such as slapping or hitting with a closed fist. Behavior like this is often triggered by anger and/or stress, but you can learn to control your anger and reduce family stress, which will help your child’s sleep and a whole lot more. Thus, growing up around nurturing relationships can have multiple benefits.
Iodine is an essential nutrient. It plays a key role in how well your thyroid functions and is particularly important during pregnancy and breastfeeding for the development of your baby’s brain. The Recommended Dietary Allowance for iodine for most adults is 150 micrograms (mcg). But women who are pregnant or breastfeeding need slightly more: 220 mcg and 290 mcg daily, respectively.
Iodine is present in some foods such as fish, dairy products, fruits, vegetables, and grains. Iodine is also added to table salt—referred to as “iodized salt.” Although most Americans eat too much salt, much of it comes from processed foods and typically isn’t iodized. Consequently, many women who are pregnant are iodine-deficient. If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend taking a prenatal vitamin to ensure you’re getting enough of all your vitamins and minerals, including iodine. In addition, if you’re vegan or you don’t eat dairy products or fish, talk to your doctor about your iodine status.
Read all prenatal dietary supplement labels carefully—whether they’re prescription or over-the-counter—so you can be certain your prenatal vitamin contains sufficient iodine to meet your needs during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Also, be sure to look for one that is third-party certified. For more information about iodine, read this fact sheet from the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements.
Reconnecting with your family when you return from deployment presents unique challenges, especially with young children. Depending on how long you were deployed—a few months to a year or more—a lot could have happened in your child’s life while you were away. If you’re finding it hard to reconnect with your child, you’re not alone. Military Parenting’s website has tip sheets that describe typical behaviors for different stages: infant, toddler, preschooler, school-aged, and teen. Just knowing what’s typical for you child’s age can help you reestablish your relationship.
Reconnection can occur in small, everyday moments when you respond to your children’s needs and provide them with support and nurturing, such as holding them when they cry, playing games or sports together, being silly and laughing, taking a walk together, or eating dinner together and talking about your day.
For more tips on reconnecting, check out “Reestablishing Your Parental Role,” also from Military Parenting, a website devoted to parenting resources for Warfighters. For more tips on returning home, check out “Building Family Resilience...During and Following Deployment.”
Listening is half of communication. The other half is what you say and how you say it. The best way to express yourself is to be assertive. Assertive communication feels neither aggressive nor passive. It’s a balance between issuing a directive and being overly cooperative.
Communication between siblings can provide some good examples. Here’s the super directive approach: “You need to call me too. Don’t make me do all the work to keep up our relationship.” That may make sense, but the other person may not take it in because it triggers defensiveness. And here’s the overly cooperative approach: When your sibling says, “I hope you don’t mind that I never call,” you reply, “No, it’s okay, whatever you want is fine” (even if it isn’t). An assertive approach would be: “I’d really like to talk with you on the phone more, and I know you’re busy. What can we do to stay in better contact?”
The approach is basically a combination of “This is what I need” and “Can you join my team in figuring out a solution?” It’s straightforward and mutually empowering, opening the door for real communication. And for the other half of the communication equation, read last week’s article about how to be a good listener.