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HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics
If you’ve ever worn a cast, you know that the muscles in that area are weak when your cast comes off. Or maybe you’ve experienced this feeling after being bedridden with other injuries. Muscles lose strength from not being used, but there’s more to it than that: Your brain also “forgets” how to send the signals needed to move parts of your body.
Mental imagery helps your brain “remember” how to move your body. When you use imagery that focuses on the physical (not just visual) sensations associated with moving specific muscles, your brain sends the same kinds of signals actually used to move those muscles. Doing imagery while you’re injured may reduce strength loss.
Does this mean that if your elbow is in a cast, or if you simply prefer couch time to working out, you can get bigger biceps just by thinking about doing curls? No, but it does mean that during any stage of recovery from an injury, even before you are able to move, you can play an active role in making rehab go more smoothly. And it reinforces what earlier research tells us: Mental imagery can augment physical practice, helping your body to learn physical skills.
Drinking a lot of alcohol in a short amount of time—“binge drinking”—can lead to alcohol poisoning. It’s very serious and can even be deadly. Binge drinking involves more than four drinks for women and more than five for men over a relatively short period. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that an average of six people die from alcohol poisoning every day, with the majority being men between 35 and 64 years of age. Life-threatening signs of alcohol poisoning include seizures, not being able to wake up, fewer than eight breaths per minute, 10 seconds or more between breaths, and low body temperature. If you’re with someone who shows any of these signs, seek help immediately. That Guy, an alcohol education campaign from the Department of Defense, recommends that if you’re ever worried about someone’s alcohol intake, never let them “sleep it off.” To learn more, visit this web page from CDC on “Alcohol Poisoning Deaths.” Not sure how much is too much? Read HPRC’s article, “Had enough to drink?”
You probably realize that learning from your mistakes can enhance your performance. But do you know it can also enhance your relationships? Acknowledging mistakes can be easier said than done. Before you can learn from your mistakes, you have to admit to them.
Admitting mistakes can be powerful. When you own up to your mistakes in relationships with other people, it makes it easier for the other person to really forgive you, allowing both of you to move forward. Whether in your interactions with others or in learning skills such as SOPs for handling a weapon, fully acknowledging your mistakes enables you to learn from them.
But sometimes you may have difficulty admitting that you screwed up. If you’re a perfectionist, for example, your identity can get wrapped up in being the person who always does things right. Admitting you screwed up can open the door to intense feelings such as shame and doubt. However, hiding from those feelings won’t work; they’ll eat at you in some way. Instead of hiding from them, try facing them.
Here are some tips for owning up to your mistakes and moving forward:
- Face shame and doubt by simply being mindful of those feelings, letting them come and go.
- Recognize when you’re falling into a thinking trap such as “I must be perfect,” and experiment with more helpful thoughts such as “I strive for excellence.”
- Forgive yourself and others when mistakes happen, trusting that people really do learn from their mistakes.
Mistakes happen. Give yourself (and others) permission to label mistakes as changeable behaviors rather than reflections of who you are.
Think of a goal that you’ve been working for lately or that you’re about to go after. How about all those New Year’s resolutions? Do you know why you want it? In other words, what’s your motivation? Do you simply love what you’re doing, or is there a reward you are pursuing?
Being clear about what motivates you can help fuel your motivation with intention. For example, if you’re a runner, maybe you love the feeling of pushing yourself hard with training runs. On the other hand, maybe it’s the end result—the accomplishment—associated with completing another marathon that’s the fuel to keep you going or even push you to the next level.
There isn’t one right form of motivation, and your motivators might be a mix of little steps and big outcomes. Remember to enjoy the steps along the way; they can make the experience more enjoyable. But sometimes remembering your ultimate goal can help you persist on days when you’re just not feeling it.
Often when you’re pursuing a goal, you’re part of a larger community, and you may find that just being involved is motivation itself because of the people you meet, the places you see, or the experiences you have along the way! It’s true what they say: The journey matters.
Have you ever wondered how different people’s perceptions of the same thing can be so drastically different? Take exercise, for example. You know it’s good for you, and most people should be doing more of it. Yet when asked, some people will say they love to exercise, while others see it as an overwhelming and impossible task. Our perceptions say a lot about what we value, how we’re feeling, and what we desire, which in turn affects motivations, actions, and even physical performance.
You probably find that the goals that seem more in reach are more desirable (for example, money, food, or a finish line) than the ones that seem further away. For example, when you’re at the end of a race, and you can see the finish line in front of you, you’ll probably estimate that the finish line is closer to you than it really is. Whether or not the goal is actually closer, believing that it is triggers excitement and effort towards achieving these goals.
That’s all well and good if you’re already out running that race, but sometimes getting off the couch is the hardest thing to do when you’re out of shape. Runners who are less fit and less motivated estimate distance to a finish line as being farther than do runners who are fit and more highly motivated. So even if you want to get in shape, sometimes your poor fitness can affect your perception of being able to achieve your fitness goals.
While negative perceptions might make it harder to get in shape, this doesn’t mean you can’t get in shape just because you’re less fit. Keep your eye on the prize! Exercisers who focus on an end goal and ignore the distractions around them perceive their goal as being nearer and actually perform better; most importantly, they don’t consider the exercise as difficult.
So, if you see your goals as being closer to you in your mind, you will have something to look forward to. This “prize” could be anything. It could literally be the finish line; it could be the next milestone on your route, such as the building at the end of the block; or it could even be a post-race reward, such as a healthy post-workout smoothie. Remember, some goals are harder to achieve than others, but you can stay the course by imagining what is coming and keeping the self-talk positive. This will help keep your motivation high and the prize within reach.
What do you value? It’s an important question to ask yourself—often.
When you figure out what matters most to you, it can help guide what you do, even when you’re at your lowest. Values help you make big things happen—and little things along the way too.
In identifying what you value, consider aspects of your life now or how you’d like it to be in terms of family, independence, adventure, stability, compassion, financial security, integrity, health, outdoors, and so on. Sometimes a key word or group of words says it all. Sometimes the essence is best expressed in a statement such as, “I am a healthy family man.”
Warfighters know the importance of values. Values are embedded in military life and center on excellence. The Warrior Ethos, for instance, helps Airmen reach and maintain an optimal state of readiness and survive the rigors of operational demands and life in the military.
When you know what you value, and you act in line with that, you experience a sense of clarity. When there’s a disconnect between what really matters to you and your behavior, however, you can either ignore it (through distractions such as drinking, drugs, video games, and reckless behaviors) or you can give yourself a gut-check and take action.
Try asking yourself these questions:
- What do I value most?
- Do I view each day as a chance to better myself and learn from my successes and failures?
- Do I pursue excellence (not perfection) but act with compassion towards myself and others?
- Do I maintain balance and perspective between work and the rest of my life?
- Do I respect other people in my day-to-day life?
- Are my actions in line with my values?
There is no one right set of values, and there is no one right set of answers to these questions. Whether you call it a “New Year’s resolution,” or use a different name, launch 2015 by giving yourself honest answers to these questions and staying on target with what really matters to you.
The holidays are often a flurry of festivities, a time when we interact with more people than usual while at the same time feeling more stressed than usual. When you feel stress, often one of the first outward signs is how you communicate with others. Watch for an edgy tone to your voice and notice if you stop using a lot of eye contact with people who are talking to you. You may even start forgetting what someone just said. These are common signs of stress. This holiday season, go back to the basics: When someone is talking to you, use eye contact; when someone asks you to do something, repeat it back (it’ll help you remember); and think about your tone of voice and body posture (think open and non-defensive). But if you do slip up from time to time, own up to it, ask for forgiveness, have a good laugh, and focus on moving forward and looking at the bright side.
Different people react differently to stress, especially when it comes to food, and depending on the cause, intensity, and duration of stress. Whereas some people lose their appetite and skip meals in response to stress, others either overeat or eat unhealthy foods. Under stress, people tend to choose snack-type foods that are high in fat and sugar instead of meal-type foods such as meats, fruits, and vegetables.
Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s essential to survival and part of being a Warfighter. The key is learning how to manage your stress. December is the Military Health System’s Stress Management Month, which is especially appropriate for most of us during the holiday season. Here are some tips to help you reduce your stress and the likelihood of overeating:
- Engage in physical activity most days of the week, and try stress-relieving exercises such as yoga and meditation. Or find other hobbies that you enjoy and that help you feel relaxed.
- If you’re finding it difficult to stop reaching for the kitchen cupboard or refrigerator, make sure you stock your shelves with healthy snacks such as fresh fruit, cut-up veggie sticks, and air-popped popcorn (without the butter).
- Try to keep a food diary to understand the connection between your mood and your food. Keep track of what you eat, when you eat, and your emotions at the times you want to eat.
Learning how to manage your stress can be beneficial in more ways than one. For more information on stress and your health, read the National Institute of Mental Health’s factsheet on adult stress and HPRC’s resources for stress management.
That mental state dubbed “the zone” by the media is what scientists call “flow.” It happens when you perform at your best easily because you’re performing automatically, without overthinking, focusing only on what’s happening right now.
To help yourself perform better more consistently and possibly even experience flow, consider these typical blocks and how to overcome them:
- Personal demands: It’s hard to focus on the task at hand when there’s personal stuff on your brain. Do what you can in advance, and shift to the present moment with self-talk such as “focus.”
- Mission complexity and ambiguity: If it feels as if there are too many “moving parts” in a task, try to gain clarity up front. Ask questions and use mental imagery to see in your mind’s eye what needs to be done.
- Interpersonal conflict: Everyone replays arguments mentally. Resolve them at the front end or put them on hold during a mission. Routines can help you bring your attention to the here and now.
- Paralysis by analysis: Thinking too hard is another way that people sometimes get stuck. Trust your training and let your best performances unfold.
- Limited control or resources: Deciding what is in your control and what isn’t can help you focus on what’s most important in the present moment.
- Isolation: We all need other people. Be active in seeking support.
- Intense workload: If anxiety about what’s in front of you is getting in the way, try embracing excitement about whatever you’re facing.
- Boredom or underutilization: When you know you need more challenge, ask for it.
Big demands require big resources. Overcome mental blocks to performance by continuing to develop your mental resources.
Many of us have the habit of focusing on the negatives in life and expecting the worst outcome. This tendency can be compounded by military training that teaches you how to assess risks and plan for the worst outcome. If you tend to focus on the negatives in life, you’re shortchanging yourself. Try to appreciate the little things in your day that you may take for granted. Focus on appreciation and gratitude. Try breaking your habit of focusing on the negative for just one day; instead spend it acknowledging and appreciating the ordinary good things in your life.
- When you wake up in the morning, stop and take a moment to say good morning to your day.
- If you are in a relationship, take a few minutes to really look at and appreciate your significant other.
- If you are deployed with your unit, pause to think about how your buddies support and help one another to get through a rough day.
- Before you eat lunch, reflect for a moment and think about something that keeps you going everyday—maybe it’s as simple as the first cup of coffee in the morning, an easy commute, or your buddy’s positive attitude. Take a moment to be grateful for that.
- At dinner, spend a moment thinking about your loved ones. Have you told them lately something you appreciate about them?
- Finally, before you go to sleep, acknowledge something about yourself you’re proud of.
Start again tomorrow, reflecting back to today—did acknowledging the magic of the “everyday” help you have a better day?
For more information on mental strategies, visit HPRC’s Mind Tactics domain.