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HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics
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.
For some injured Warfighters, achieving total fitness may include assistive technology (AT). Assistive technology is any physical equipment or system used to improve or help maintain the functional abilities of an individual. There are assistive technologies for almost every disability or injury, such as communication boards, both manual and electronic; technology for vision and hearing impairments (magnifiers, talking watches, hearing aids); tools to assist daily tasks (shower chair, adapted eating utensils); adaptive sports equipment (sit-skis, sport wheelchairs, recumbent tricycles); and technologies that enable mobility (from a cane or walker to sophisticated prosthetic legs and powered wheelchairs). Driving aids and fully equipped vans are other important assistive mobile technologies. Mobile assistive technology can promote independence and increased quality of life. Even phones and apps can be used as memory aids and organization- and time-management tools for helping with traumatic brain injury and psychological health. If you’re an injured Warfighter looking at the possibility of AT (or if you just want to know more), there are many things to consider when choosing the right AT for you, including:
- First and foremost, understand your own goals, priorities, and preferences and discuss them with your healthcare team. A person’s reaction to AT is both personal and complex. You must be closely involved in the choice of your assistive technology to ensure a “good match.”
- Consider where you will be using your assistive technology (indoors or outdoors).
- Consider how you will feel about using your equipment. AT equipment shouldn’t be embarrassing, inconvenient, or cumbersome.
- Have you accepted your challenge, and are you ready to move forward? Finding a "new normal" to accomplish your goals may include using assistive technology, but you must first embrace this concept.
For those who can benefit, AT can be a big piece of Human Performance Optimization (HPO), part of HPRC’s Total Force Fitness mission.
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.