Filed under: Mind
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.
In stressful situations, people often say, “Take a deep breath!” But perhaps they should be saying, “Take a long exhale!”
When your breathing is rhythmic, and your exhales are longer than your inhales, your heart rate will tend to follow: As you inhale, your heart rate increases, and as you exhale, your heart rate slows down. This more variable heart rate is associated with fewer physical and psychological problems over the long run, and lower stress and better situational awareness during the short-run. Better situational awareness means being aware of your changing environment, while also tuning into whatever is most important right here and right now. When you hold your breath or take short, shallow breaths, your heart rate varies less—which is a sign of stress. When you’re under stress, your attention can get stuck on a perceived threat. Instead, you need to allow your attention to shift from a broad focus (such as a landscape), to a narrow focus (such as the origin of a weapon firing), and back to a broad focus (such as the whole landscape, where there may be additional threats). Paced breathing can help you do this.
Optimal breathing rates vary slightly from person to person, but about six breaths per minute (with four-second inhales and six-second exhales) tends to be in the ballpark for most people to experience some benefits.
Being mindful means simply being extra aware, in a nonjudgmental way and in the present moment, of your physical and mental experiences, even during ordinary, everyday tasks. Mindfulness isn’t just a technique you can do or a skill you can learn. It can also refer to a way of being. In other words, some people work on becoming more mindful and others just are mindful.
Mind-body skills—including mindfulness—reduce stress and improve heart health. And mindfulness in particular (both the skills and the way of being) has become a hot topic. Much of mindfulness research has focused on medical problems, but scientists are just beginning to really understand its role in preventing heart disease.
One recent study looked at people who already tend to be mindful, so it’s hard to say that mindfulness causes the good things associated with it, but somehow they seem to be related. However, according to another study, when cardiac patients were trained to be more mindful, they made smarter decisions about nutrition and exercise.
People who already tend to be very mindful, also tend to:
- Not smoke
- Have less body fat
- Have less glucose (sugar) in their blood
- Exercise more frequently
There are a couple factors that impact how mindful you can be in the first place: 1) how in control you feel and 2) whether or not you feel depressed. When you feel in control of your life, you’re able to monitor your own behaviors and change what you’re doing. When you’re feeling down, you might run on “autopilot,” without tuning in to your body’s sensations or your thoughts.
Over time, research will tell us more about how mindfulness affects healthy behaviors and how healthy behaviors impacts mindfulness. In the meantime, there appear to be many benefits associated with training mindfulness if you don’t tend to be mindful already.
When performance matters, it’s common to feel amped up—your heart beats faster, for example. How you interpret these physical sensations can change how you feel emotionally, including your overall mindset, and ultimately make a difference in how you perform. Recent research into performance anxiety over tasks such as singing, public speaking, and math gives us some insights about performance anxiety in general.
It’s normal to interpret some physical signs as performance anxiety. When you feel amped up, it may be difficult—or even impossible—to simply “decide” to feel calmer, because it isn’t consistent with what is happening in your body. And trying to pretend you’re calm can actually make you feel more anxious. But because your body has some of the same reactions—increased heart rate, “butterflies,” etc.—when you’re excited, you can actually feel excitement and anxiety at the same time by simply saying “I’m excited!” or deciding to feel excited. This doesn’t make the anxiety go away, but adding a layer of excitement over it can be valuable to how you think and ultimately perform..
Excitement feels good and puts your mind on a different track. When you’re excited, it’s easier to become aware of opportunities instead of potential threats. And this “opportunity mindset” leads to better performance.
So when you feel anxious about performing on the PRT, with marksmanship, or for any other task, remember that it’s normal. Convince yourself to feel excited. Allow yourself to see the opportunities. And in turn, enjoy better performance.
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.
Whether on the playing field or on a mission, of course you want to succeed. Dreaming of positive outcomes can drive you to train hard. But you may have noticed that when you only focus on the outcome, you’re distracted from the important ingredients for success. Your successes will unfold more easily if you develop goals centered on what’s in your control rather than how you compare to others. Learn more about setting different kinds of goals in this HPRC article on sport psychology goals.
“Sport psychology” uses the principles of psychology to help optimize performance in athletics. These concepts can be applied to just about anybody (including Warfighters) in any setting where performance matters, so sport psychology often gets dubbed “performance psychology.” Regardless of the name, this focus on the mental aspect of performance fits into a holistic approach to Human Performance Optimization (HPO).
A major focus of sport or performance psychology is mental skills training, building a “toolbox” of mental skills based on sport science and clinical/counseling psychology techniques. These scientifically based methods can be applied to Warfighter performance too. Some basic tenets of performance enhancement within military and sport settings include maintaining high awareness, motivation, and self-control, either by reducing how “amped up” you get or by learning to interpret these feelings as either meaningless or helpful to performance. A well-trained Warfighter can either calm down and think, “I’ve got butterflies, but no big deal,” or “I am psyched up and ready!”
Mental skills are important, but they’re only part of a performance psychology package. Performance psychology looks to fix or improve performance by: 1) training skills to proactively address problems, 2) improving resilience to avoid problems in the first place, 3) enhancing performance, and 4) reducing stigma around getting help with problems after they’ve appeared. In applying performance psychology to Warfighters, training is customized to meet the needs of specific groups, focused on real-life applications, and taught in a way such that skills are learned for optimal functioning both at work and at home. HPRC endorses holistic training programs that include performance psychology, such as One Shot One Kill (OSOK), a platform that helps Warfighters to customize their own systematic training.
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.
Mindfulness can help you feel better equipped to handle difficult emotions. It’s a process geared to help you tune into emotional experiences rather than try to escape from them. People can feel overcome by depression, anxiety, PTSD, addiction, or other mental health problems, which, ironically, can be exacerbated by trying to forget the cause. For example, a Warfighter afflicted with PTSD often relives difficult events through dreams, flashbacks, or unwanted memories, because he/she desperately wants to avoid experiencing those events. To illustrate this idea, right now, try NOT to think of weapons. You probably thought about them that much more.
Practicing mindfulness mediation means focusing on whatever you are experiencing in the present moment. It can be a structured meditation activity, but because mindfulness is about being present, you can purposefully engage in mindfulness anytime, anywhere. A common meditative approach is to focus on a physical experience such as your breathing, noticing where your attention wanders, and gently guiding it back to your breath; it allows you to experience sadness, anger, fear, and other unpleasant emotions, letting them pass without clinging to the idea of making them go away.”
If you have ever “white-knuckled” your way through an amusement park ride (or ridden in a car with a driver you didn’t trust), you may remember thinking, “When will this be over? Please let it be over…” This shows that focusing on how long something lasts can make it feel like an eternity. By engaging in mindfulness, you will feel less threatened by certain emotions, and you will be less likely to engage in problematic forms of escape (such as drinking, drugs, or simply spacing out).
When people experience difficult emotions, they often cope by engaging the language center of the brain, using words internally to wrestle with the experience. But when people have difficulty re-evaluating why they feel the way they do, this leads to a circular internal debate (such as “I shouldn’t feel this way, but I do, but I shouldn’t…”), which can be pointless and can actually cause more distress. Emotions can be dealt with not just through words but also by tapping into their physical elements (noticing how you feel in your body). When people engage in regular mindfulness practice, the parts of their brains tuned into physical sensations are activated while they experience hard emotions. And people who regularly have this part of their brain activated tend to be more emotionally steady.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to escape unwanted emotions. And more problems will probably pop up as you try to escape. But if you’re willing to face hard emotions, letting them come and go like waves on a beach, then mindfulness practice can help you have a different experience. Tune in to HPRC for more mindfulness resources, and take advantage of the fact that mindfulness is everywhere now, whether part of your martial arts or yoga class or filling the self-help shelves of your local bookstore. Become more mindful, and you can feel better equipped to handle tough emotions; your mind and body will engage them more productively.
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?”