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Filed under: Mind

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.

Why forgiveness helps the forgiver

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Filed under: Forgiveness, Mind, Mood
Forgiveness helps both the forgiven and the forgiver. Learn more about how to forgive.

When you forgive others, you let go of feelings that can haunt you, such as anger, hurt, bitterness, and vengefulness. Through forgiveness you also can experience positive emotions toward the wrongdoer, such as wanting the best for that person despite whatever he or she has done.

It’s natural to resist to letting go, so why should you let someone off the hook? When you don’t forgive, you suffer negative feelings too. And what you feel after the fact doesn’t change what has already happened.

Forgiveness is letting go of hurt feelings. It isn’t forgetting, overlooking, or approving of what was done. And it doesn’t necessarily mean restoring a trusting relationship. But it’s hard to let go of feelings. Here are some tips to start the forgiving process:

1)    Remember the hurt. This doesn’t mean you dwell on it, but allow yourself to tune into how you really feel.

2)    Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. This is a tough one. But think about the wrongdoer as a human being capable of making mistakes just like anyone else. This doesn’t excuse his or her mistake, but maybe something contributed to being misguided.

3)    Consider your own past mistakes. Picture times when you made mistakes. You don’t need to compare your mistakes, but remember how it felt and how you benefitted or could have benefitted from forgiveness.

4)    Once you forgive, commit to it. You may feel tempted to give in to the negative emotions again, letting them rule your thinking and behavior. Instead, revisit all the ways in which forgiveness makes sense, and let your emotions catch up later.

Forgiveness probably won’t happen overnight, but if you commit to the process, you may find relief from your own pain.

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.

Get good: Practice like you mean it.

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Filed under: Emotions, Mind, Practice
There’s no easy path to becoming skilled in work or play. You need deliberate practice to consistently perform your best.

To be good at something, you can’t avoid hard work. It often requires 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” to become an expert in a profession, sport, game, or other skill. You can’t just go through the motions of practice sessions. You need to engage in “deliberate practice” in which you’re highly focused on mastering specific skills in complex conditions.

The most impressive performances require talent, but even the most talented people have to deliberately train skills to reach the highest level of capability and performance and then to maintain that level.

To develop and maintain your own talent, try the following:

  • Train your body, mind, and emotions with specific skills that are most related to what you want to achieve.
  • Have a sense that “I can do this.”
  • Cultivate the ability to cope with the emotions of disappointments and setbacks along the way.
  • Listen to feedback from others (a commanding officer, coach, or mentor) and put it into practice.

The video below (source) shows one example of where deliberate practice matters. Doctors who deal with a “Code Blue” heart failure situation hope for the best, but they consistently (and deliberately) prepare for the worst.

Got pain on your brain?

Pain is not just in your head, but your head plays a role. Holistic treatment that also addresses your mind may be your best bet in facing pain.

Pain can be unpredictable, uncontrollable, and unrelenting, so even the most resilient Warfighters can be vulnerable to it. Because of pain, you may experience symptoms of anxiety or depression; your mind may even exaggerate the intensity and awfulness of pain. Socially, you might experience criticism, rejection, and negative interactions with family, spouse, or peers. Even if interactions are generally positive, you may want to withdraw from people or difficult situations

Chronic pain, which lasts longer than three months and is unresponsive to treatment, can affect quality of life for many. At least 100 million adults in the U.S. suffer from chronic pain. Unfortunately, combat and other situations make Warfighters especially susceptible to experiencing injury and pain. One study of an infantry brigade found that three months after return from Afghanistan, 44% of the soldiers reported chronic pain.

The American Psychological Association has shared evidence that relief from pain is more likely when mind and body are both treated. The National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine has also indicated that continued study of non-drug approaches to pain management is a priority.

The latest trend in treating pain is the “biopsychosocial model,” which focuses on exercise and sleep (not just meds and surgery) as important biological influences. Important psychological factors include thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and attention. And impactful social factors involve healthcare, family, and work. All of these factors can contribute to understanding and mitigating the impacts of pain.

The American Psychological Association shares concrete advice to manage pain, including these tips:

  • Distract yourself.
  • Stay active and exercise.
  • Know your limits.
  • Follow prescriptions carefully.
  • Make social connections.
  • Don’t lose hope.

Also be sure to check out HPRC’s mind-body techniques and resources for managing pain.

The battle with eating disorders

May is Mental Health Month. Eating disorders are nutrition-related mental health conditions with serious consequences for a service member, spouse, child, or an entire family.

An eating disorder can impact your performance, both physically and mentally. But you can take steps to overcome it.

Eating disorders are serious conditions involving a person’s attitudes and behaviors toward food, weight, and body image. People with eating disorders eat extremely small or excessive amounts of food and usually feel embarrassment, disgust, and depression.

Eating disorders can be triggered by a number of causes, including genetic, biologic, behavioral, emotional, psychological, and social factors. Service members must meet certain physical requirements and often set even higher expectations for themselves. Pressure to be at an ideal weight or have the best physique can contribute to an eating disorder.

Even the most resilient service members are not immune to these triggers, and female service members are affected more than males. In addition, the number of diagnosed eating disorders in the military seems to be increasing, and many military members with eating disorders may go undiagnosed.

Not getting enough food or not eating healthy, consistent amounts of food means that your body is not being optimally fueled. And even worse, eating disorders can take a serious toll on your physical and emotional health, and your relationships.

The key to overcoming an eating disorder is seeking help as soon as you can and putting in the time. (It doesn’t go away overnight.) Research shows that psychotherapy is often the most successful approach, but treatment is complex and draws on expertise from other fields such as nutrition and medicine.

For more information on eating disorders and links to other helpful resources, visit Military OneSource and HPRC’s Eating disorders: Know the symptoms and risks

Stressed out? It isn’t all in your head.

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The mind-body connection is incredibly powerful. Learn more about how this two-way interaction can work for and against you.

Stress affects your body, and the condition of your body can cause stress. If you have PTSD, you could be so chronically stressed that it contributes to a heart condition. Or if you had a heart attack, you could feel so traumatized that you become anxious. What’s more, stress could have contributed to your heart attack in the first place. This back-and-forth relationship also occurs between physical pain and depression. You physically hurt, so you feel down…you feel down, and so you hurt more.

This link between mind and body is amazing. Sometimes it can feel like it’s working against us, but you can also use the mind-body connection to your advantage! For instance, you can learn to push through strong emotions with mindfulness, reduce your blood pressure with a self-driven technique called autogenic training, or turn on your body’s relaxation response through deep breathing.

There are lots more ways you can put the mind-body connection to work to reduce your stress. Get more ideas by exploring HPRC’s Mind-Body Skills section.

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.

Warm up and calm down with a jingle

HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics, Total Force Fitness
Did you know that your skin temperature changes, with changes in blood flow, because of stress? Learn to raise your skin temperature and enjoy positive emotions.

Noticing whether your hands and feet are running hot or cold is one way to tune in to how stressed or relaxed you are. They’re also useful indicators to change—with the power of your mind—those feelings of stress.

There are many stress-reduction techniques to choose from. Here’s the simplest tool there is: Put on some relaxing music. Choose music that has repetitive rhythms, predictable patterns, a low pitch, and no vocals or percussion. This kind of music can help manage anxiety and pain, change brain activity, and increase skin temperature (similar to the hand-warming technique called autogenic training).

Combining approaches to stress reduction can also help. With this in mind (and simply because it sounds good), HPRC tweaked the autogenic training MP3 that we released earlier by adding music to the beginning and end. It’s a minor change, but we hope it will enhance your autogenic training experience.

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