Filed under: Mind
Meditation can actually change how your brain functions, building resilience and improving your performance. Much the same way you strengthen your muscles, when you exercise different parts of your brain, you make subtle changes to its structure. These physical changes lead to changes in your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Specifically, it can change those parts of the brain associated with anxiety, mind wandering, mood, fear, stress, empathy, emotion, and pain.
Meditation uses thinking strategies to better manage stress, using your mind to tune into sensations in your body, accept feelings, and observe thoughts without judgment. However, meditation is about much more than just relaxation. It actually creates a state of calm alertness. With the regular practice of meditation, you can bring about structural changes in your brain that make this condition last longer.
If you repeat the same thought or action many, many times, your brain forms new pathways—a process known as “neuroplasticity.” Whether you’re finding your way around a new base, or your children are learning their multiplication tables, skills become ingrained as the brain changes. Meditation helps by affecting the parts of your brain responsible for attention, the ability to think and act with flexibility, and managing emotions. In fact, the emotion regulation center of your brain can grow with meditation, the self-control center becomes more active, and as you become less stressed and fearful, the fear center in your brain can actually shrink in size.
You might not be aware of changes overnight, but persistence will yield rewards. And some meditation is better than none. Just as you get stronger with more time at the gym, the more you meditate, the better your brain becomes equipped to reach that state of calm alertness. To learn more about how to meditate, visit HPRC’s Mind-Body Techniques section.
No matter what triggers your stress, from deployment to late daycare pickup, you can manage your emotions, stress, and focus by repeating a word or phrase that clears your mind. This simple approach can reduce mental clutter and provide a sense of calm. You also may find you can focus better and more easily track your big priorities.
Good news! You can immediately begin learning this skill simply by trying it. Whether you know stress is coming or already feel stressed, or if you’re recovering after stress, repeat your chosen word or phrase to calm your mind. There’s no magic to this. By occupying your mind with a word or phrase, you put to rest distressing or distracting thoughts. Some people prefer to use words or phrases they find spiritually meaningful, while others choose something as simple as the word “one.” Other examples may include “breathe” or “let go.” The exact word or phrase doesn’t necessarily matter. See what works for you. As with other stress management techniques, the challenge is often transforming an interesting experiment into a healthy daily habit.
Taking an active role in keeping your mind healthy and happy can keep you from feeling down or depressed. Staying on top of your mood can help maintain healthy relationships with your family and loved ones. If you’re not sure whether or not you might be depressed, here are some things to look out for:
- lack of interest and pleasure in daily activities;
- significant weight loss or gain;
- insomnia or excessive sleeping;
- lack of energy;
- inability to concentrate; and
- symptoms such as feelings of worthlessness, excessive guilt, and recurrent thoughts of death or suicide.
Getting the support of a mental health professional is generally a good idea in dealing with symptoms of depression, but even if you’re in therapy, you can play an active role in improving your situation. Try following some of our simple tips found here.
There are exercises you can do to improve your mindset and your optimism, the belief that things will go well for you in a given situation. This is important because optimism is associated with health benefits such as:
- less risk of death from heart attack;
- lower risk of depression following events such as the death or illness of someone close; and
- better personal relationships.
Military training for contingency planning can help you identify what can or did go wrong as part of your important risk-assessment skills. However, when you transfer these strategies to noncombat life you may find focusing on potential problems hurts more than it helps. Balancing optimism and contingency planning can be difficult, but the good news is that you can learn optimism too. Here are some strategies to get you started.
Don’t make things harder for yourself by making excuses or creating excuses in advance. When you set a goal and the stakes feel high, it can be easy to make excuses when you fail in order to avoid negative feelings such as regret, shame, or guilt. Without thinking about why you do it, you may sometimes make tasks harder than they need to be so that ready-made excuses “protect” you from feeling bad. The downside is that you miss opportunities to learn from your experiences and test your “true” skills. This is called “self-handicapping.” Learn how to set yourself up for success instead. Read more here.
The ultimate performance mind state is often referred to as “the Zone,” which scientists refer to as “flow.” It isn’t something you can decide to suddenly experience, but you can remove obstacles and learn mental skills that help pave the way. This experience of being completely immersed in an activity involves:
- Clear goals and immediate understanding of whether actions are helping or hurting your progress towards goals.
- Being intense and focused on the present moment.
- A merging together—in the moment—of what you do and what you are aware of.
- Not feeling self-consciousness or anxious.
- Time slowing down or speeding up.
- Your attention focused on exactly where you need it to be.
- Feeling challenged yet taking opportunities even when they’re a slight stretch.
- Feeling in control and prepared to face whatever happens next.
You can experience the Zone in many ways, whether you’re engaged in combat, playing competitive sports, or raising children. It can’t be forced, but you can set the stage for it by doing many hours of deliberate practice and by honing good mental skills.
Take plenty of 30-second microbreaks to ease computer-related physical discomfort. Do you spend hours in front of your computer? Then you’ve probably noticed that your neck, low back, shoulders, and wrists can feel tired and sore afterwards. A great strategy that can help these discomforts is to take “microbreaks”—30-second breaks from your computer. They can help even if you’re just working for 3 hours at a computer—much less a full workday! Some tips to consider:
- Take a microbreak every 20 minutes when working in front of a computer.
- Don’t wait until you feel the need for a break. It’s more helpful to create a specific break schedule than to wait until it feels like time to take one.
- Don’t worry about taking micro breaks and getting less done. For most tasks, microbreaks actually don’t negatively impact productivity.
You can learn to use the same mental imagery skills that elite athletes use to achieve peak performance. Mental imagery is the practice of seeing (and feeling) in your mind’s eye how you want to perform a skill, as if you were actually doing it. It’s a popular sport psychology technique that service members can take advantage of. You can enhance your usual training to help maintain—or even surpass—your current skill level, even when you’re sidelined.
Some of the benefits of mental imagery include:
- Better decision-making
- Fewer errors
- Improved attention
- Increased confidence
- Reduced stress and anxiety
You can create imagery in your mind for just about any task, such as improving your running time or marksmanship. Good mental imagery uses all of the senses, but it often helps to listen to a scripted audio recording. Use HPRC’s Building an Imagery Script worksheet to guide you through the steps of creating your own imagery script.
Watching others can also help. In fact, being a spectator can boost learning even more than mental imagery by itself because you’re viewing what you’d like to accomplish rather than conjuring up images with your own mind. Both methods of learning are effective. Observing can be in person or by video, but you can also combine video/imagery approaches and potentially get even more bang for your buck.
With any of these approaches, it’s important to “feel” yourself executing the skill, even though you might be sitting or lying down. Of course, you don’t have to be sitting still to use mental imagery. Try using it in the setting where you’ll actually perform the skill. You can even incorporate it into existing training protocols.
Mindfulness can help you feel better equipped to handle difficult emotions. It’s a process geared to help you tune in to emotional experiences rather than try to escape from them. It’s easy to be overcome by depression, anxiety, PTSD, addiction, or other mental health problems. And you can make it worse by trying to forget the cause. For example, a service member afflicted with PTSD desperately wants to avoid experiencing certain traumatic events. Ironically, the actual effort to forget can cause him to relive difficult events through dreams, flashbacks, or memories. To illustrate this idea, right now, try NOT to think of weapons. You probably thought about them that much more. Read more here.
Mental toughness is a psychological edge that some are born with and others develop. It’s a mixture of traits that are important for all who want to overcome adversity and be successful. These traits include a strong belief in yourself and an unshakable faith that you control your own destiny. It allows you to consistently cope with training and lifestyle demands better than those who don’t have it.
If you have these 4 Cs, you’re mentally tough:
- Control: You feel in control of your emotions and are influential with the people in your life.
- Commitment: You embrace difficulty rather than running from it.
- Challenge: You believe that life is full of opportunities, not threats.
- Confidence: You know you have what it takes to be successful.
How to get it? You can gain mental toughness through a long-term process of developing mental skills. Leaders can specifically promote mental toughness by creating a learning environment centered on the mastery of the 4 Cs. They also can help by generally supporting and encouraging service members to maintain positive relationships. Over the long haul, to maintain and improve your mental toughness, you need to constantly hone your mental skills. And finally, you need a self-driven, insatiable desire to succeed.