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HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics
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?
Anger can be helpful in combat situations, and it can help individuals engage in quick, decisive action. It also can help keep emotions such as guilt and sadness at bay so you can accomplish things you need to do. Anger has its place. In relationships, anger is bound to make its way into interactions sometimes. When regulated, it can help you solve problems or motivate you to talk about important things, including hurt feelings. When unregulated, however, it can damage your relationship and increase your unhappiness with your loved one. Increased levels of anger can even increase your risk for physical health problems, especially coronary heart disease. It isn’t possible to avoid anger completley, but you can learn how to manage it well. Read more in HPRC’s “Performance Strategies: Five Steps to Managing Anger.”
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.
Whether on the playing field or on a mission, of course you want to succeed. Dreaming of positive outcomes can drive you to train hard. But you may have noticed that when you only focus on the outcome, you’re distracted from the important ingredients for success. Your successes will unfold more easily if you develop goals centered on what’s in your control rather than how you compare to others. Learn more about setting different kinds of goals in this HPRC article on sport psychology goals.