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HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics
Noticing whether your hands and feet are running hot or cold is one way to tune in to how stressed or relaxed you are. They’re also useful indicators to change—with the power of your mind—those feelings of stress.
There are many stress-reduction techniques to choose from. Here’s the simplest tool there is: Put on some relaxing music. Choose music that has repetitive rhythms, predictable patterns, a low pitch, and no vocals or percussion. This kind of music can help manage anxiety and pain, change brain activity, and increase skin temperature (similar to the hand-warming technique called autogenic training).
Combining approaches to stress reduction can also help. With this in mind (and simply because it sounds good), HPRC tweaked the autogenic training MP3 that we released earlier by adding music to the beginning and end. It’s a minor change, but we hope it will enhance your autogenic training experience.
Not everyone is affected the same way by exposure to injury and death. Many who do experience psychological wounds, however, come out stronger as a consequence, and so can you. If you’ve experience a traumatic event or experiences, there can be an upside: It’s called “post-traumatic growth” or PTG. It’s about finding a “new normal” that is even better than how things used to be. PTG can mean better relationships, openness to new possibilities, personal strength, spiritual change, or heightened appreciation of life. In addition (and researchers are still trying to understand why), if you get PTSD, you’re actually more likely to experience PTG. Nobody wants to experience PTSD, but if it happens, you may have an amazing opportunity to come out the other side with some unique strengths.
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.
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.
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.
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.