Filed under: Mind tactics
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.
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.
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.
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.
PTSD was finally recognized as a medical condition when recent advances in neuroscience showed that the brain no longer works properly after trauma. Your brain has an alarm system to help ensure your survival; it’s useful as long as it works properly. When the alarm system malfunctions because traumatic events pushed it to its limits, the part of the brain responsible for thinking and memory can’t function properly. When this happens, a person with PTSD can’t compare what’s happening now with events in the past when they were safe. However, there are treatments to help “rewire” the brain, so it can work properly again. Learn more about this in “How is your brain’s circuitry affected by PTSD?”
No single mental technique can do the job for you, just as no single tool is the only one in a construction project. You can’t hammer a nail with a wrench! HPRC offers nine rules and strategies for your mind’s toolbox to help you perform your best. Check out HPRC’s Performance Strategies on “Mental skills for optimal performance” to learn more.
The term “mental toughness” is often tossed about, but what is it really? And do you have it? Mental toughness is important to the success of Warfighters, athletes, business people, and others who have to overcome adversity to be successful.
Sport psychologists and others interested in optimal performance talk a lot about mental toughness, but it’s a bit complex, so it’s often misunderstood. Mental toughness is not just one trait; it’s a mixture of them.
Boiling it down, mental toughness is a strong belief in yourself and an unshakable faith that you control your own destiny. If you’re mentally tough, you can remain undaunted by adversity.
If you have these 4 Cs, you’re mentally tough:
1) Control: You feel in control of your emotions and influential with the people in your life.
2) Commitment: You embrace difficulty rather than running from it.
3) Challenge: You believe that life is full of opportunities, not threats.
4) Confidence: You know you have what it takes to be successful.
Mental toughness is a psychological edge that some are born with and others develop. It allows you to consistently cope with training and lifestyle demands better than those who don’t have it.
You can develop mental toughness through a long-term process of developing mental skills. Leaders can promote mental toughness by creating a learning environment centered on the mastery of those skills (listed above) and by being generally supportive, encouraging Warfighters to maintain positive relationships. Over the long haul, to maintain your mental toughness, you need to continue honing mental skills, and you need a self-driven, insatiable desire to succeed.
Bad things happen. Unfortunately, you can count on experiencing different traumas, deaths, illnesses, and injuries. As a Warfighter (or military family), you can probably expect to face these kinds of situations more often than other people. That doesn’t make these experiences any more pleasant, and often it doesn’t make them any less surprising. After a major trauma, illness, or life-changing event, it is often necessary to adapt and create a “new normal.”
Studies of “post-traumatic growth” have found that trauma survivors can grow mentally, emotionally, and spiritually after horrendous experiences such as cancer, terrorism, sexual assault, plane crashes, and even combat. It’s common to react with an emotional roller coaster of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Your natural instinct might be to run from these feelings. However, post-traumatic growth can be accomplished better by taking steps to approach them. The people who support you (including but not limited to therapists and family members) can do the following:
- Listen empathically, accepting and encouraging full expression of feelings.
- Avoid clichés and easy answers. Hearing “there will be brighter days” is not helpful.
- Be patient. Changing perspective won’t happen overnight.
- Offer a helpful relationship, recognizing there is no “magic technique” or “quick fix.”
You can also be an active agent in your own healing. One technique that can be useful to you is to tell and retell versions of your story in order to become more immune to the hard parts and to reach a point where you can find new meaning in it. People of any age, including Warfighters, can benefit from actively embracing a “new normal” through taking advantage of your relationships and developing a new twist on their story, even when this initially might seem far-fetched.
Whether training for a mission, an athletic event, or simply to maintain your edge, there are strategies you use to enhance your chance of success, including “rules” such as figuring out where you are before you start and setting up an environment that supports your new plan. Check out HPRC’s new card, “Peak Performance: Rules of Engagement,” to learn all of them. And for even more information, check out the accompanying Performance Strategies.
Hypnosis is a trance-like state produced from a heightened sense of focus and concentration. Like other mind-body strategies, hypnosis can sometimes provide temporary pain relief for many pain conditions. Learn more about what hypnosis is, the research on what pain conditions it can help, things to be aware of, and its relevance to the military in HPRC’s “Hypnosis for Pain.”