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HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics
If you’ve ever gotten up to speak in front of a crowd or waited to take a test, you’re already aware of how your thoughts, bodily sensations, and emotions can overcome you if you’re not aware of them or if you try to erase them. These are obvious examples, but this “mind-body interaction” is at work all the time, often in subtle ways. Thoughts can impact your emotions, how you feel physically, and even how you behave.
Here’s an example: You test for the APRT on a day when you’re sick and score worse than your previous time. You could possibly think, “I stink,” and feel defeated and worse than you did before the test, subsequently putting less effort into the next one. Or you could think, “Not bad for being sick; let’s see what I’m made of next time!” and likely feel excited and more energized to put in necessary training. The list of possible thoughts in response to this event is endless, and each thought has a different emotion, body feeling, and behavior attached to it.
When you’re not aware of what your internal experiences are to begin with, thoughts, moods, signals from your body, and your behavior can come together to form the “perfect storm” of stress, which can impact immediate and future performances. By being aware of each thought, mood, sensation, and behavior, you can slow the storm down and have more influence over what you do and how you perform. Avoid running on autopilot.
The “Mind-Body ABCs” is a technique that can help. Pay attention to some situations where performance matters, and log the following:
“A” stands for Activating Event—the event or situation you’re currently in (or looking at afterwards) that triggers subtle responses from your mind and body.
“B” represents Belief—your thoughts about that situation. Imagine yourself as a cartoon in the Sunday comics with a thought bubble over your head. Your “belief” about the situation you’re in is represented by what’s written or drawn in the bubble.
“C” is for Consequences—how your thoughts affect your mood, body sensations, and behaviors. Notice the specific emotion you’re feeling (such as fear, anger, or even happiness), what’s happening in your body (such as butterflies, tensing up, or letting go), and what you feel pulled to do (such as hiding from the situation, arguing, or giving your best effort).
For each ABC, try to tune into one Activating event, one Belief, and a short list of Consequences (emotions, body feelings, and behaviors). Rather than trying to log all this in your head, use HPRC’s new Mind-Body ABCs Worksheet or make a similar chart in a journal and practice tracking your own ABCs (and alternative responses to the same A) every day.
The holiday season is in full swing, which means an abundance of family feasts and holiday parties. But you can keep your nutrition in check and still eat balanced meals and snacks by practicing “mindful eating,” a form of mindfulness.
Mindful eating allows you to embrace food, nourish your body, and feel satisfied without overindulging. It means being more aware of your eating habits, eating cues, and sensations. When you eat mindfully, you learn to savor every aspect of your meal with all of your senses and become more conscious of your feelings of fullness. And while mindful eating isn’t a diet, it has been found to help with portion control and weight loss.
Try these mindful eating exercises before, during, and after your holiday get-togethers:
1) Recognize your feelings of hunger and fullness. Try to understand the reason you want to eat. Is it true physical hunger? Or do you tend to eat when your emotions are running high, such as when you’re stressed? Perhaps you saw or smelled something delicious, and all of a sudden your stomach is rumbling. Eat when you’re hungry. Don’t skip a meal just because you have a holiday party later in the day. If you wait until you’re starving, you might end up eating more than two meals’ worth. After you’ve had your first helping of food, wait about 10–20 minutes to determine if you’re still hungry or if you feel satisfied.
2) Savor your food. You can have your pumpkin pie and eat it too. Even calorie-rich foods can be eaten mindfully. First choose a sensible portion size. Then eat slowly, chew your food thoroughly, and put your fork down between each bite. Enjoy every taste, texture, smell, and sight of your food. Mindful eating also teaches us not to be judgmental about our food choices—there is no right or wrong way to eat!
3) Anticipate distractions and come prepared. People tend to eat more during social gatherings because there are more distractions and a greater number of food options. Be mindful of how your food choices nourish your body and support your health and well-being.
You can achieve healthy holidays by sticking to your eating plan and enjoying it too. All you have to do is retrain your brain!
Facing your fears with confidence looks easy in the movies. In reality, though, we often feel confident after we face the things that scare us. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a new form of “mindfulness” skills-based counseling that has been shaking up traditional therapy and self-help. With ACT, you face the hard stuff and then feel less anxious (not the other way around). ACT can help people move forward—both those with diagnoses and those dealing with more generalized anxiety. ACT teaches us that we can DARE to face our FEARs.
“FEAR” keeps us stuck:
- Fusion is about letting thoughts rule behaviors (such as “I can’t do it”).
- Extreme goals mean chasing impossible ideas (such as aiming to do a triathlon when you can’t run five miles yet and don’t have time to train).
- Avoiding discomfort is waiting till the time “feels right” before you start moving forward.
- Removed from values means you aren’t identifying what’s really important to you.
But we can “DARE” to move forward:
- Defuse. Allow yourself to take thoughts less seriously; they’re just thoughts, not facts.
- Accept discomfort. Let uncomfortable feelings exist while still doing what’s important.
- Realistic goals. Set out to do things that are within your control (such as running three miles today and four by next week).
- Embrace values. Ask yourself big-picture questions about what’s really important to you, and let your answers drive your behavior (such as “I finish what I start”).
With the holidays, sales, and gift-giving (and receiving) upon us, material items may be on your radar more than usual. Thinking about what to get for your significant other, parents, children, friends, and/or coworkers is on many people’s to-do lists. But where should we draw the line with materialism—that focus on the status symbols of money and possessions? And does having more really make us happier?
Ironically, some research has shown that materialism actually relates to feelings of lower well-being. Being more focused on material things can lead to greater feelings of insecurity and “neediness.” Interestingly, this doesn’t depend on personal or household income (though few studies included multimillionaires or the homeless). But it does suggest that materialism is an effect not of wealth but of one’s attitude towards material things.
This isn’t the same as the desire for money or financial success. Believing that money is important can actually improve your well-being. But your sense of well-being can suffer if you link your desire for money with status, image, success, and happiness.
So this holiday season, strike the balance that works for you and your family as to how much you should focus on material items versus other (spiritual, mental, and physical) ways to meet individual and family needs.
In stressful situations, people often say, “Take a deep breath!” But perhaps they should be saying, “Take a long exhale!”
When your breathing is rhythmic, and your exhales are longer than your inhales, your heart rate will tend to follow: As you inhale, your heart rate increases, and as you exhale, your heart rate slows down. This more variable heart rate is associated with fewer physical and psychological problems over the long run, and lower stress and better situational awareness during the short-run. Better situational awareness means being aware of your changing environment, while also tuning into whatever is most important right here and right now. When you hold your breath or take short, shallow breaths, your heart rate varies less—which is a sign of stress. When you’re under stress, your attention can get stuck on a perceived threat. Instead, you need to allow your attention to shift from a broad focus (such as a landscape), to a narrow focus (such as the origin of a weapon firing), and back to a broad focus (such as the whole landscape, where there may be additional threats). Paced breathing can help you do this.
Optimal breathing rates vary slightly from person to person, but about six breaths per minute (with four-second inhales and six-second exhales) tends to be in the ballpark for most people to experience some benefits.
Laughing can be more than just fun in the moment. It also can also have positive mental, physical, and social benefits. The research into the effects of positive mood, or happiness, includes how laughter and humor affect our well-being. The results show that positive emotions aren’t just superficial feelings. Brain imaging, for example, shows that reward areas in the brain “light up” during positive emotional experiences such as laughter.
A positive mood also can impact your physical health, specifically your heart. It’s been established that long-term negative emotions can damage your physical health. Positive moods, on the other hand, can protect your cardiovascular system. One 10-year study found that those who express more positive emotions (either in words or in actions such as smiling or laughing) have a lower risk of coronary heart disease. Other studies have found that positive emotions, including optimism and a sense of humor, can enhance your immunity and might even help you live longer.
But these positive benefits aren’t just limited to your body. Humor and positive emotions can strengthen relationships, foster communication, and reduce feelings of isolation. However, the key to these social effects is to use humor appropriately. For example, laughing in the middle of a funeral ceremony may not be appropriate, but laughing at a funny movie is.
Share a joke or a smile with someone today.
Being mindful means simply being extra aware, in a nonjudgmental way and in the present moment, of your physical and mental experiences, even during ordinary, everyday tasks. Mindfulness isn’t just a technique you can do or a skill you can learn. It can also refer to a way of being. In other words, some people work on becoming more mindful and others just are mindful.
Mind-body skills—including mindfulness—reduce stress and improve heart health. And mindfulness in particular (both the skills and the way of being) has become a hot topic. Much of mindfulness research has focused on medical problems, but scientists are just beginning to really understand its role in preventing heart disease.
One recent study looked at people who already tend to be mindful, so it’s hard to say that mindfulness causes the good things associated with it, but somehow they seem to be related. However, according to another study, when cardiac patients were trained to be more mindful, they made smarter decisions about nutrition and exercise.
People who already tend to be very mindful, also tend to:
- Not smoke
- Have less body fat
- Have less glucose (sugar) in their blood
- Exercise more frequently
There are a couple factors that impact how mindful you can be in the first place: 1) how in control you feel and 2) whether or not you feel depressed. When you feel in control of your life, you’re able to monitor your own behaviors and change what you’re doing. When you’re feeling down, you might run on “autopilot,” without tuning in to your body’s sensations or your thoughts.
Over time, research will tell us more about how mindfulness affects healthy behaviors and how healthy behaviors impacts mindfulness. In the meantime, there appear to be many benefits associated with training mindfulness if you don’t tend to be mindful already.
When performance matters, it’s common to feel amped up—your heart beats faster, for example. How you interpret these physical sensations can change how you feel emotionally, including your overall mindset, and ultimately make a difference in how you perform. Recent research into performance anxiety over tasks such as singing, public speaking, and math gives us some insights about performance anxiety in general.
It’s normal to interpret some physical signs as performance anxiety. When you feel amped up, it may be difficult—or even impossible—to simply “decide” to feel calmer, because it isn’t consistent with what is happening in your body. And trying to pretend you’re calm can actually make you feel more anxious. But because your body has some of the same reactions—increased heart rate, “butterflies,” etc.—when you’re excited, you can actually feel excitement and anxiety at the same time by simply saying “I’m excited!” or deciding to feel excited. This doesn’t make the anxiety go away, but adding a layer of excitement over it can be valuable to how you think and ultimately perform..
Excitement feels good and puts your mind on a different track. When you’re excited, it’s easier to become aware of opportunities instead of potential threats. And this “opportunity mindset” leads to better performance.
So when you feel anxious about performing on the PRT, with marksmanship, or for any other task, remember that it’s normal. Convince yourself to feel excited. Allow yourself to see the opportunities. And in turn, enjoy better performance.
Think of mental health treatment as a blend of science and art: scientifically proven treatment from a skilled psychotherapist who engages each patient as an individual. In standardized treatment, practitioners follow a specific protocol dictated by research studies. But even standardized approaches need wiggle room for the differences between human beings, both patients and practitioners. A lot of successful psychotherapy comes down to the relationship between the practitioner and the patient rather than the techniques, so there has to be some flexibility to it.
Evidence-based practice blends the best research evidence available (studies that have met certain criteria) with practitioners’ own clinical expertise, while also considering the patient’s values and preferences. Thus, good healthcare practitioners ask questions of their patients and pay attention to their perspectives. While it can feel vulnerable to lay it all out there, it is important to give honest responses. On the flip side, it is reasonable (and empowering!) for patients to ask providers why they are doing what they are doing. When the process is evidence-based, the provider will be able to describe his or her rationale while tuning into what makes sense for you as an individual.
Money issues tend to be a major source of stress for Americans, and military families are no exception. Financial stress can increase your risk for poor health and have a negative impact on productivity and mood. Stress over money can reverberate through your relationships too. For example, couples who are under financial stress are more likely to be hostile and aggressive with each other and less secure and happy in their relationships. So what can you do to reduce your stress over money?
Here are some tips from Building Resilience in the Military Family:
- Have each family member discuss his/her financial dreams, how to make money decisions, and who will manage the money. (If there are differences, try the tips on HPRC’s “Making Decisions” card)
- Save at least $1,000 for unexpected expenses and, ideally, six months of your total monthly expenses.
- Work on paying off debt. Figure out a plan to pay off your debts, no matter how long it will take to get rid of them.
- Create and use a budget. This planning tool from Military OneSource can help you make a financial management plan.
- Save for retirement. A good rule is to save 10–15% of your gross income in retirement accounts annually.
- Check your credit. Knowing your credit history and credit number can help you spot identity theft and/or motivate you to stay (or become) responsible.
- Create a will. Setting up a will is important no matter your age.
Think about whether you have the insurance your family needs. Do you have health insurance, auto insurance, home/renters insurance, and life insurance?