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Filed under: Mind

Got pain on your brain?

Pain is not just in your head, but your head plays a role. Holistic treatment that also addresses your mind may be your best bet in facing pain.

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.

Also be sure to check out HPRC’s mind-body techniques and resources for managing pain.

The battle with eating disorders

May is Mental Health Month. Eating disorders are nutrition-related mental health conditions with serious consequences for a service member, spouse, child, or an entire family.

An eating disorder can impact your performance, both physically and mentally. But you can take steps to overcome it.

Eating disorders are serious conditions involving a person’s attitudes and behaviors toward food, weight, and body image. People with eating disorders eat extremely small or excessive amounts of food and usually feel embarrassment, disgust, and depression.

Eating disorders can be triggered by a number of causes, including genetic, biologic, behavioral, emotional, psychological, and social factors. Service members must meet certain physical requirements and often set even higher expectations for themselves. Pressure to be at an ideal weight or have the best physique can contribute to an eating disorder.

Even the most resilient service members are not immune to these triggers, and female service members are affected more than males. In addition, the number of diagnosed eating disorders in the military seems to be increasing, and many military members with eating disorders may go undiagnosed.

Not getting enough food or not eating healthy, consistent amounts of food means that your body is not being optimally fueled. And even worse, eating disorders can take a serious toll on your physical and emotional health, and your relationships.

The key to overcoming an eating disorder is seeking help as soon as you can and putting in the time. (It doesn’t go away overnight.) Research shows that psychotherapy is often the most successful approach, but treatment is complex and draws on expertise from other fields such as nutrition and medicine.

For more information on eating disorders and links to other helpful resources, visit Military OneSource and HPRC’s Eating disorders: Know the symptoms and risks

Stressed out? It isn’t all in your head.

HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics, Total Force Fitness
The mind-body connection is incredibly powerful. Learn more about how this two-way interaction can work for and against you.

Stress affects your body, and the condition of your body can cause stress. If you have PTSD, you could be so chronically stressed that it contributes to a heart condition. Or if you had a heart attack, you could feel so traumatized that you become anxious. What’s more, stress could have contributed to your heart attack in the first place. This back-and-forth relationship also occurs between physical pain and depression. You physically hurt, so you feel down…you feel down, and so you hurt more.

This link between mind and body is amazing. Sometimes it can feel like it’s working against us, but you can also use the mind-body connection to your advantage! For instance, you can learn to push through strong emotions with mindfulness, reduce your blood pressure with a self-driven technique called autogenic training, or turn on your body’s relaxation response through deep breathing.

There are lots more ways you can put the mind-body connection to work to reduce your stress. Get more ideas by exploring HPRC’s Mind-Body Skills section.

Listen to your heart

With special equipment, you can manage your emotional stress as well as the timing and intensity of your physical training.

As your heart beats, the amount of time between these beats varies. In other words, your heart rate is constantly changing—speeding up and slowing down. Though it might seem counterintuitive, more of this “heart rate variability” (HRV) is better for both your physical health and how you cope with stress. And you can learn to listen and use it.

Some heart-rate monitors allow you to monitor your HRV and the effects of different training routines on it. Or you can check out biofeedback to help you master stress-management techniques such as paced breathing by giving you immediate feedback about your heart rate. Either way, HRV is a tool that can help you find the optimal timing for recovery or lighter training within your long-term workout regimen. In fact, HRV can even show when you’re at greatest risk for injury.

Pushing yourself is an important part of performance optimization, but you also need to regulate your emotional and physical stress. Biofeedback can help with your emotions, and heart-rate monitors that measure HRV can help optimize your physical training over months and years. Visit “Vary Your Heart Rate to Perform Your Best” to learn more about how you can use HRV.

Warm up and calm down with a jingle

HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics, Total Force Fitness
Did you know that your skin temperature changes, with changes in blood flow, because of stress? Learn to raise your skin temperature and enjoy positive emotions.

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.

Will nootropics help my brain?

If you’re looking for cognitive enhancers or “smart drugs,” you may want to think twice. Here’s the latest OPSS FAQ.

Nootropics—also referred to as “cognitive enhancers,” “smart drugs,” or “memory enhancers”—are substances intended to improve mental performance. They include drugs used to treat a variety of conditions that affect mental performance such as Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, epilepsy, schizophrenia, stroke, aging, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). For example, drugs in the racetam family—such as piracetam, aniracetam, oxiracetam, and pramiracetam —are considered nootropics. Some nootropics are marketed for use as dietary supplements to enhance the mental performance of healthy humans.

Nootropic products that contain any “racetam” or similar drugs are not legal dietary supplements as defined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), although many also contain vitamins and other natural or synthetic dietary supplement ingredients. In the U.S., piracetam, aniracetam, pramiracetam, and oxiracetam are currently neither controlled substances nor FDA-approved drugs. FDA has issued statements indicating that piracetam-containing “dietary supplement” products do not fit the legal definition of a dietary supplement, since “racetams” do not occur naturally and are not derivatives of any natural substance.

Although scientific study of nootropics is ongoing, there isn’t enough reliable information available to say with confidence whether any specific nootropic agents are safe or effective.  Studies that have examined the effects of these compounds on the mental performance of healthy humans have yielded mixed results, so further study is needed. In the absence of reliable research, we generally suggest extreme caution.

For more Frequently Asked Questions about dietary supplements, visit the Operation Supplement Safety (OPSS) FAQs.

Adapt and thrive: Emerge from trauma stronger

HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics, Total Force Fitness
Filed under: Mind, PTG, PTSD, Resilience
Nobody wants to experience trauma, but there may actually be an upside. Learn more.

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.

Use your mind to strengthen both brain and body

HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics, Total Force Fitness
Imagining how it feels to move can help you keep stronger brain connections and stronger muscles to recover faster from injury.

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.

Messed up? Own it.

HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics, Total Force Fitness
Filed under: Mind, Relationships
Facing your mistakes can improve your interpersonal relationships and enhance performance. Learn more.

You probably realize that learning from your mistakes can enhance your performance. But do you know it can also enhance your relationships? Acknowledging mistakes can be easier said than done. Before you can learn from your mistakes, you have to admit to them.

Admitting mistakes can be powerful. When you own up to your mistakes in relationships with other people, it makes it easier for the other person to really forgive you, allowing both of you to move forward. Whether in your interactions with others or in learning skills such as SOPs for handling a weapon, fully acknowledging your mistakes enables you to learn from them.

But sometimes you may have difficulty admitting that you screwed up. If you’re a perfectionist, for example, your identity can get wrapped up in being the person who always does things right. Admitting you screwed up can open the door to intense feelings such as shame and doubt. However, hiding from those feelings won’t work; they’ll eat at you in some way. Instead of hiding from them, try facing them.

Here are some tips for owning up to your mistakes and moving forward:

  • Face shame and doubt by simply being mindful of those feelings, letting them come and go.
  • Recognize when you’re falling into a thinking trap such as “I must be perfect,” and experiment with more helpful thoughts such as “I strive for excellence.”
  • Forgive yourself and others when mistakes happen, trusting that people really do learn from their mistakes.

Mistakes happen. Give yourself (and others) permission to label mistakes as changeable behaviors rather than reflections of who you are.

What’s in the way of your optimal performance?

Learning mental skills can help you meet greater demands, which sets you up to feel more prepared. It can even set the stage for optimal mindset and peak performance!

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. 

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