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Mental imagery works!

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Mental imagery isn’t a magic trick. It’s an essential training tool you can learn. Try these tips on how to make mind rehearsals productive for you.

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.

Are you tough enough…mentally?

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Are you mentally tough? See if you’ve got the 4 Cs. Develop these traits and maintain them.

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.

The best routines aren’t

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Routines help athletes and service members achieve their best, but rigid routines can get in the way. Flexibility and adaptation are keys to success.

Routines often can help your performance, but you need to be flexible too. Some of the world’s best athletes have scripted routines that begin with what time they wake up. Top performers find that routines can help shift them from stressful anticipation of how things are going to turn out to focus instead on what’s most important in that moment. In other words, routines can help you reduce anxiety.

But while rigid routines can be useful when the events are predictable, overly rigid routines can morph a helpful tool into a superstitious or obsessive ritual. The best athletes regard flexibility and adaptation as crucial to their own, often finely honed, routines. With service members for whom crises are part of the job, the best teams are able to go “off-script” when needed in order to work together most effectively.

For more information on mental aspects of performance, visit HPRC’s Mind Tactics domain.

Trapped by your thoughts?

The way we think often impacts what we do. This is particularly true in relationships.

How we interpret experiences has a big impact on how we react to them. Your personal relationships are especially prone to “thinking traps” that can lead you to draw false conclusions. For example, let’s say you’ve been married for some time now. But recently you find yourself thinking your partner doesn’t love you any more because she or he no longer says so.

One way to address this kind of thinking trap is to ask yourself—or have a friend ask you—questions that make you think about the reasoning or evidence behind what you’re thinking:

  • What specifically makes you think your spouse doesn’t love you any more?
  • What did he or she do in the past that made you feel loved?
  • Are there any other possible explanations that might explain your partner’s behavior, such as job stress, an ailing parent, children acting out, or recent return from deployment?
  • When you think back to the beginning of your relationship, how could you tell he or she loved you? Was it something said? Or done?
  • Has your behavior toward your spouse changed recently?

Questions such as these can help you gain perspective. Once you’ve gone through this self-questioning process, it’s possible you’ll interpret your partner’s behavior in a different way. Maybe you were just caught up in a thinking trap.

Can meditation boost your immune system?

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Meditation may improve your immune system, help you feel better, and help you use fewer sick days.

Not only can meditation help with stress, it may even boost your immune system and reduce inflammation. In fact, research has found that people who have been in a structured mindfulness program actually had fewer sick days compared to those who didn’t meditate. Even when you’re sick, meditation may actually help you feel better (and happier) in spite of lingering symptoms. And although meditation doesn’t seem to help the elderly to the same extent, it can still help some. 

Not sure how to get started or how to advance your practice? Check out HPRC’s A mindfulness meditation primer” and the MP3 audio files linked there.

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.

Use your mind to strengthen both brain and body

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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.

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. 

The mind-body ABCs: Three steps to awareness

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Learning to develop an awareness of your thoughts and how they interact with your emotions —for improved performance—may seem easy as ABC, but like other skills, it takes practice! Learn the ABCs of performance.

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. 

Depression—Don’t tackle it alone

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Depression isn’t just a lousy mood—it’s a serious illness that needs serious help. Check out some of the special resources for service members, whether it’s for you, a buddy, or a family member.

We’ve all heard of depression. If you’ve never experienced it, it’s easy to think that someone could just snap out of it if they wanted to. Depression doesn’t work like that. It can have an impact on a person in every way—physically, mentally, and emotionally, even extending to relationships—and can range from mild to severe. According to the American Psychological Association, “Depression is more than just sadness. People with depression may experience a lack of interest and pleasure in daily activities, significant weight loss or gain, insomnia or excessive sleeping, lack of energy, inability to concentrate, feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt and recurrent thoughts of death or suicide.” Depression is an illness considered to be treatable with professional help.

This factsheet from afterdeployment.org details the signs and symptoms of depression. They also have an anonymous online assessment, general information, personal stories shared by those who’ve experienced depression, an interactive workbook that can help you challenge negative thoughts and identify depression triggers, and information about the link between behaviors and mood. Also take a look at the factsheet on Taking Charge of Depression, which includes helpful strategies.

For more information about depression or other mental states that can influence your performance, check out the section of HPRC’s website on depression. However, if you feel you are in crisis, contact the Military Crisis Line—someone is available 24/7 for online chat or via phone at 1-800-273-TALK.

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