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HPRC Fitness Arena: Family & Relationships
When stress threatens to overload you, be careful it doesn’t spill over into your relationships. Stress can make you less patient with your loved ones, less able to solve problems well, and more disagreeable.
When you’re under a lot of stress, you’re also more likely to feel negative about your relationships. This generally leads to more fighting, which can be especially tough for military families if one of you deploys or leaves for training before you’re able to rebalance your relationship and de-stress. While you’re apart, negative feelings can fester and further damage your relationship.
But just knowing about how stress can impact your relationships is the first step. Next time you feel stressed out, don’t let it fester. Instead, do something about it. To ease your stress, you can try:
- Deep breathing or another mind-body skill that can switch you from your body’s stress response to its relaxation response.
- Exercise, which can make you feel better and lower your stress.
- Something just for fun, which can take your mind off your stress.
- Connecting with a loved one. Feeling loved and supported can also reduce stress.
Finally, if you’re apart from your loved one, set aside time regularly to connect to him or her, regardless of the last fight you had. Try to give each other benefit of the doubt and move past the argument. You can always finish discussing it when he or she returns.
Deployment and other military-related separations can be tough on families, but many families can (and do) learn how to adapt to them. The regular rounds of separations that come with military life require constant adaptation. Naturally, when a partner is away from the family for a certain period of time (such as during deployment or training), those at home have to shift their roles and responsibilities to cover for the person who’s away, especially with regard to childcare. When the service member returns home, then the family must shift roles again. These “accordion families” continuously contract and expand as members of the family are physically present or absent. Some families handle this smoothly, but others find it to be one additional hurdle to overcome again and again.
There are two important things you can do to help manage these repeat transitions:
- Work on everyone in the family communicating well.
- Try to stay as emotionally connected as you can while apart.
Of course, these tips are easier said than done. Think about how you usually handle separations: Do you emotionally distance yourself from your partner? Do you become more “needy”? How does your partner respond? Do you both do the same things, or do you have opposing emotional needs when apart? If you have children, how do your children respond?
If you have different emotional needs, this can create instant conflict and feelings of distance. One way around this is to talk about what you each need, figure out where there’s common ground, and make a game plan that can fulfill each person’s needs as much as possible while at home and when apart.
You can use the strategy on HPRC's card on communication skills to help better navigate these kinds of conversations. Plus, remember to not fall prey to these common thinking traps that create misunderstandings in relationships.
Helping your kids limit their screen time can be difficult, but it could be the key to keeping your kids healthy. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting the total amount of entertainment screen time to only 1–2 hours a day, with no screen time for kids under the age of two. Yet the average 8-year-old spends 8 hours a day in front of a screen, and teenagers can even exceed 11 hours a day. That’s a lot of sitting around! The more time kids sit in front of a screen, the less time they spend being active, and the more likely they are to become overweight.
Here are some tips to help reduce screen time and, in turn, promote fitness:
- Keep the TV and Internet-enabled devices out of bedrooms.
- Stay informed: Monitor what media your kids are using, such as websites or social media applications.
- Watch movies and shows with your children. As a bonus you can use the entertainment as a way of discussing important family values and finding out what they think about certain scenarios.
- Make a family home-use plan for your media. For example, set a mealtime and bedtime curfew for cell phones and other devices. Establish some reasonable but firm rules.
- Be a role model. Encourage and join your kids in different outdoor activities.
Caring for elderly parents, even in the best of situations, can be difficult, especially if you’re a military service member. Trying to make long-term care and emergency decisions for elderly parents while you carry a lot of responsibility at work can cause a lot of worry. And if you’re deployed overseas, it’s even more difficult to monitor your parents’ well-being. As they age, your parents may need help with daily activities such as home maintenance, personal hygiene, and meals. And if a medical emergency occurs without a contingency plan in place, it adds to your burden of guilt and anxiety over what could happen in the your absence.
As your parents age, your worry grows, especially if they have had any prior illnesses. But you are likely to worry less if you have other siblings and you have a solid parent-care plan in place.
Here are some preemptive steps that you can take to make sure your parents are well cared for, even if you’re on different continents:
- Find out what community and government resources there are for information and support services in your parents’ neighborhood.
- Ask siblings, extended family members, neighbors, and friends to help with your parent-care responsibilities.
- Schedule regular phone calls or Skype chats for updates on your parents’ well-being and health.
- Develop a care plan together with your parents before a medical emergency occurs.
With so many people counting on you, it’s important to be organized, mentally solid, and in control of every situation no matter what happens. Strategic planning and communication can make all the difference in caring for your elderly parents from afar and maintaining your own performance as you cope with these additional stress loads. For more information on caregiver support and eldercare, please visit the National Resource Directory.
One of the best ways to express yourself is to be assertive. Assertive communication is 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 a too 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 to you, but the other person may not take it the way you want 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).
The best approach would sound something like this: “I’d really like to talk with you, but I know you’re busy. What can we do to stay more in touch?” This approach is basically a combination of “This is what I need” and “Can you join my team to figure out a solution?” It’s straightforward and mutually empowering, opening the door for real communication. Try it and see how it works for you. But once you’ve delivered your message, don’t forget to listen: Read HPRC’s Conflict and Communication FAQ#3.
How we interpret experiences has a big impact on how we react to them. Your personal relationships are especially prone to “thinking traps” that can lead you to draw false conclusions. For example, let’s say you’ve been married for some time now. But recently you find yourself thinking your partner doesn’t love you any more because she or he no longer says so.
One way to address this kind of thinking trap is to ask yourself—or have a friend ask you—questions that make you think about the reasoning or evidence behind what you’re thinking:
- What specifically makes you think your spouse doesn’t love you any more?
- What did he or she do in the past that made you feel loved?
- Are there any other possible explanations that might explain your partner’s behavior, such as job stress, an ailing parent, children acting out, or recent return from deployment?
- When you think back to the beginning of your relationship, how could you tell he or she loved you? Was it something said? Or done?
- Has your behavior toward your spouse changed recently?
Questions such as these can help you gain perspective. Once you’ve gone through this self-questioning process, it’s possible you’ll interpret your partner’s behavior in a different way. Maybe you were just caught up in a thinking trap.
One key ingredient of trust is dependability—being able to depend on those around you. And trust is essential in all your close relationships, whether with your commanding officer, your spouse, or your coworker. You can strengthen your own dependability through the following:
- Be there for others consistently. This can be as simple as returning calls or emails in a timely manner. Or it can be, for example, having your buddy’s back in a training exercise, “saving” his life.
- Always act out of concern for another. For example, if a coworker is being badmouthed would you speak up to clear his or her name?
- Share common interests or missions. If someone feels that you have similar goals and values, he or she is more likely to rely on you. For example, are you more likely to accept your supervisor’s influence if you know he or she values the same mission you do? The same goes at home: If your spouse feels that you both put the needs of your family over your individual interests, he or she is more likely to listen to you and trust you.
When you build trust by being dependable, you may find that those around you become more trustworthy and dependable too.”
Have you heard the terms “resilience” and “Total Force Fitness,” but you’re not quite sure what they mean or where they fit into the health and performance picture? Read on.
Your health is the foundation. The 2010 article "Why Total Force Fitness?" states, “nothing works without health.” Health is not just physical and not just something to worry about when you’re sick. Health is a combination of physical, mental, spiritual, and social well-being and includes practices that promote wellness in addition to those that help you recover from sickness or injury.
Resilience is next. Resilience is the ability to bounce back—or even better, forward—and thrive after experiencing hardship. It is not the ability to completely withstand hardship but rather the ability to come back from it and grow stronger through the experience.
Next is human performance optimization (HPO). Unlike resilience, which typically requires the experience of hardship, HPO involves performing at your best for whatever goal or mission you have (whether that is your PT test, a combat mission, or raising children). It goes beyond simply resisting challenges; it means functioning at a new optimal level to face new challenges.
Health, resilience, and optimal performance are the foundations of Total Force Fitness, which is defined in the “Physical Fitness” chapter of “Total Force Fitness for the 21st Century” (see link above) as a “state in which the individual, family, and organization can sustain optimal well-being and performance under all conditions.” Being totally fit requires a holistic approach—that is, an approach that doesn’t focus on just one aspect alone such as nutrition or physical fitness, but on multiple domains of fitness. It means attending to your mind (including psychological, behavioral, spiritual, and social components) and your body (including physical, nutritional, medical and environmental components). In order to achieve Total Force Fitness, these factors come together to enhance your resilience and/or performance.
This is where HPRC can help you on your quest for total fitness. By visiting each of our domains—Physical Fitness, Environments, Nutrition, Dietary Supplements, Family & Relationships, and Mind Tactics—you can get evidence-based information on a variety of holistic topics to help you achieve and sustain total fitness. But remember that total fitness is a life-long process that will ebb and flow. And it isn’t just about you; your loved ones are an important piece of the picture, too.
Want to see your children equipped to persevere in the face of challenges? To instill “grit” in your kids, the trick is challenging with care, not just pushing harder.
Here are some tips to help your children develop grit:
- Praise your children for working hard and using their talents, not for already having talent. Calling them “gifted” or “talented” doesn’t help if these labels become an excuse not to work hard.
- Reward commitment by giving your children more chances to develop their interests. For example, if your child is always painting, try to encourage it by sending him or her to art camp.
- Big goals usually require a lot of sustained effort for a child—more like a marathon than a sprint. Encourage persistence with words such as “Hang in there!” or “You can do it!” But remember that children have a much shorter attention span than adults.
- Teach your children that failures and setbacks are an essential part of learning. Remind them that excellence comes from both triumphs and mistakes.
- Give your children some space to become independent, so they can be self-reliant and self-motivated and learn from their own choices.
Grit doesn’t develop overnight. It takes time. But remember that children are children and need lots of free time and play time to develop optimally. For more insight into specific parenting styles, check out HPRC’s article about how to be a warm leader, not a drill sergeant.
Pain can be unpredictable, uncontrollable, and unrelenting, so even the most resilient Warfighters can be vulnerable to it. Because of pain, you may experience symptoms of anxiety or depression; your mind may even exaggerate the intensity and awfulness of pain. Socially, you might experience criticism, rejection, and negative interactions with family, spouse, or peers. Even if interactions are generally positive, you may want to withdraw from people or difficult situations
Chronic pain, which lasts longer than three months and is unresponsive to treatment, can affect quality of life for many. At least 100 million adults in the U.S. suffer from chronic pain. Unfortunately, combat and other situations make Warfighters especially susceptible to experiencing injury and pain. One study of an infantry brigade found that three months after return from Afghanistan, 44% of the soldiers reported chronic pain.
The American Psychological Association has shared evidence that relief from pain is more likely when mind and body are both treated. The National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine has also indicated that continued study of non-drug approaches to pain management is a priority.
The latest trend in treating pain is the “biopsychosocial model,” which focuses on exercise and sleep (not just meds and surgery) as important biological influences. Important psychological factors include thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and attention. And impactful social factors involve healthcare, family, and work. All of these factors can contribute to understanding and mitigating the impacts of pain.
The American Psychological Association shares concrete advice to manage pain, including these tips:
- Distract yourself.
- Stay active and exercise.
- Know your limits.
- Follow prescriptions carefully.
- Make social connections.
- Don’t lose hope.