Welcome to the HPRC Blog. We've got lots of information here, from quick tips to in-depth posts about detailed human performance optimization topics.
HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics
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.
“Sport psychology” uses the principles of psychology to help optimize performance in athletics. These concepts can be applied to just about anybody (including Warfighters) in any setting where performance matters, so sport psychology often gets dubbed “performance psychology.” Regardless of the name, this focus on the mental aspect of performance fits into a holistic approach to Human Performance Optimization (HPO).
A major focus of sport or performance psychology is mental skills training, building a “toolbox” of mental skills based on sport science and clinical/counseling psychology techniques. These scientifically based methods can be applied to Warfighter performance too. Some basic tenets of performance enhancement within military and sport settings include maintaining high awareness, motivation, and self-control, either by reducing how “amped up” you get or by learning to interpret these feelings as either meaningless or helpful to performance. A well-trained Warfighter can either calm down and think, “I’ve got butterflies, but no big deal,” or “I am psyched up and ready!”
Mental skills are important, but they’re only part of a performance psychology package. Performance psychology looks to fix or improve performance by: 1) training skills to proactively address problems, 2) improving resilience to avoid problems in the first place, 3) enhancing performance, and 4) reducing stigma around getting help with problems after they’ve appeared. In applying performance psychology to Warfighters, training is customized to meet the needs of specific groups, focused on real-life applications, and taught in a way such that skills are learned for optimal functioning both at work and at home. HPRC endorses holistic training programs that include performance psychology, such as One Shot One Kill (OSOK), a platform that helps Warfighters to customize their own systematic training.
Why do some people with devastating injuries do well in their recoveries and others do not? People often focus on the negative fallout, but there can be positive consequences called post-traumatic growth. Scientists use the term “disability paradox” to refer to how some people with devastating illness or injuries are still able to enjoy a good quality of life. The characteristics of these folks describe someone with a “survivor mentality.” Characteristics include:
- Subscribing meaning to one’s disability or lot in life and sharing this meaning with others.
- Not choosing to live as a victim but instead to feel empowered and motivated to deal with struggles and come out as a victor.
- Being flexible, adaptable, resilient, and rolling with the punches.
Many factors play into developing a survivor mentality. Here are some tips to help:
- Create a strong support system: family, church, community, fellow Warfighters, healthcare providers, etc. A support system should be just that—supportive, encouraging, and a promoter of independence, not an enabler for being or feeling like a victim.
- Maintain a “can do” attitude. See challenges or setbacks as an opportunity to learn and grow. Focus on strengths and abilities, not on limitations. Survivors exhibit the 4 Cs of mental toughness.
- Maintain hope and optimism; focus on the future and move from thinking about the negative aspects of injury/illness to focusing on the positives or possibilities.