Filed under: Mind
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.
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.