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Mental flexibility beats forced positivity

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Feeling anxious or down? Find out how awareness and mental flexibility is more important than thinking other, specific thoughts.

Forcing yourself to “just think positively,” especially if you’re feeling sad or anxious, typically doesn’t work. New perspectives can be wonderful, but they can’t be forced. Typically, it isn’t specific thoughts that can make you feel better; it’s the flexibility to recognize that there’s more than one way to look at a situation.

Remember: Thinking about something doesn’t always make it true. For instance, you might believe, “My NCO thinks I’m incompetent.” Instead, you might take comfort in thinking, “My NCO pushes hard, but he knows I’m good at what I do”—if you really believe it. Still, it could lead to an internal debate: “He thinks I stink. No, he knows I’m good. He thinks I’m a loser,” and so on. But recognizing there are many ways to interpret your NCO’s behavior can be helpful, as you simply move forward and do what’s needed.

You’re not burying your feelings and you aren’t fighting them: You’re using this mindfulness and acceptance-based approach to become aware of thoughts and feelings, let them fade into the background, and focus on what’s important. It’s tempting to fight negative emotions, but the fight itself often makes things worse. Picture someone saying, “Don’t be anxious/sad/mad/frustrated,” and you’ll likely feel the emotion that much more strongly as you either try to push it away or cling to it. Be present: Tune into your feelings and face what’s happening. Let the experience come and watch it go.

Mindfulness in daily life might seem simple, but it’s not. Practice the skill and enjoy slowly becoming better at it!

Overcome “imposter syndrome”

HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Body, Total Force Fitness
Ever feel like a phony on or off duty? Learn how to defeat self-doubt and keep “confidence gaps” from holding you back.

Even the most successful people wonder, at times, if they’re good workers, leaders, or parents. However, some can be overwhelmed by self-doubt. And they worry they’ll be exposed as fakes or frauds to others—otherwise known as “imposter syndrome.” Try these strategies to fight your fears and perform well.

  • Normalize it. Take some comfort in knowing that others experience self-doubt—and get through it. You’re not alone.
  • Try on different thoughts. When you treat your thoughts as facts, they can take on a life of their own. Don’t assume the worst and think, “I’m going to fail.” Instead, experiment with different thoughtssuch as, “This is going to be hard, but I can do this.”
  • Look to others for inspiration. You can feel even more inspired when you find similarities between other successful people and yourself. For instance, maybe he or she is hard-working, imaginative, or organized—just like you.
  • Chill out and breathe. If you’re too amped up, it’s hard to focus on the task at hand. Allow yourself some longer, slower exhales, and enjoy clearer thinking.
  • Remember your successes. Mental imagery is a powerful tool. Thinking about past times when you were successful—regardless of when they occurred—might help you feel more confident.
  • Know you don’t “need” confidence. Certainly you’d like to feel self-assured before you perform, but you don’t have to feel confident at first. People often perform well and then experience confidence.
  • Fake it ‘til you make it. "Acting" successful can help you actually become successful. And if you have some screw-ups along the way, own those mistakes and learn from them.

There’s no magic trick to overcoming imposter syndrome, but you can use these approaches to help defeat doubt, believe in yourself, and celebrate success!

How do I improve focus?

HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Body, Total Force Fitness
Filed under: Focus, Mind, Mind tactics
Break free from distractions and learn how to improve your focus.

When working to build your concentration on one task, consider fixing problems and/or embracing new techniques. Ask yourself whether you’re trying to restore a level of performance that you previously achieved—or if you’re trying to boost your performance. Physical injuries, pain, medications, sleep deprivation, and addiction could distract you from the task at hand. Mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can negatively impact your ability to focus too. Through successful treatment with a trained medical provider, your attention skills could likely be restored to previous levels.

If you’re aiming to enhance your focus capabilities and perform better than ever, you might want to try some mental performance techniques. These skills include goal-setting, self-talk habits, mental imagery, energy maximization, and organized routines to steer your attention. When developing a routine, you can become more aware of where your attention could go, and practice regularly guiding it to where you want it to go. As you develop practical habits, stay flexible and allow yourself to be spontaneous and adaptable when appropriate.

Face fears and imagine success

HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Body, Total Force Fitness
When fear of failure takes hold, explore it—and conquer it.

Fear of failure can prevent you from performing your best in many situations including combat, work, relationships, and daily life. Worry can take a bigger hold when you push it aside. For instance, while preparing to give a presentation and thinking, “I can’t be nervous,” you might actually feel more nervous!

As you face your fears, understand that fearing something will happen doesn't mean that it will happen. Ask yourself these kinds of questions:

  • Why do I think I can’t be nervous? If I’m nervous, I’ll give a horrible talk.
  • So if I’m nervous, I’m guaranteed to give a horrible talk? No, I’ve given good talks while nervous before.
  • If nervousness leads to giving an awful talk, what’s the worst thing about that? I’d be embarrassed and people would walk away without having learned important material.
  • What’s worse—embarrassment or people walking away without learning? I’d survive the embarrassment. People need to learn this stuff.
  • Is this their last opportunity to learn? No, I’d take more steps to make sure they got it, despite an initially awful talk.

Once you fully consider the failure scenarios, spend more time imagining a positive outcome and accomplishing smaller goals that lead to success.

Ways to quiet your mind

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Figure out your preferred approach to quieting your mind so that you’re ready to take on the next challenge!

You might have noticed that you can “turn off” your busy brain by watching TV, but did you know there are other techniques that could help quiet your mind? You can download several MP3 audio files in HPRC’s Mind-Body Apps, Tools, and Videos.

Remember it's okay if your busy brain turns on. But just as easily as racing thoughts creep in, let them creep out—while gently guiding your attention to something neutral such as your breath, or something important such as the task at hand. Whether it’s watching TV or using a mind-body technique, find ways to quiet your mind and be more focused when it matters.

Practicing optimism

HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics, Total Force Fitness
Optimism brings with it a number of health benefits. The good news is you can learn to increase your level of optimism and start enjoying these benefits today.

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 hold yourself back

HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics, Total Force Fitness
Filed under: Mind, Mind tactics
If you give 100% effort and fail, you could blame other factors, but then you’d miss out on a great learning opportunity.

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.

Get into the Zone

HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics, Total Force Fitness
In training, sports, or life, you’ve likely experienced times when “things just click”—when you’re in “the Zone” or experiencing “flow.” Learn more.

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.

Mental imagery works!

HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics, Total Force Fitness
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?

HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics, Total Force Fitness
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.

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