Filed under: Mind
When you have to focus continuously for long periods of time, your brain does, in fact, become tired. Take a break: The symptoms of being mentally burned out can include irritability, lashing out at others, inability to plan, problems with decision-making, lack of drive, and performance errors. Mental fatigue can set in before you’re even aware you need a break, leading to the types of attention problems that ultimately lead to poor performance.
Mental fatigue can also include:
- Lack of clarity in your own head
- Conflict between what you’re thinking and what you are actually doing
- Feeling like you are in over your head
Mental fatigue can also make you feel tired physically, which is why it can be a greater risk for those who must sustain both focus and physical alertness. A brain busy with non-relevant matters also can be tied to feeling “spent.” You not only lose your mental edge and feel more exhausted, but you probably won’t push yourself physically as hard as you need to.
Fortunately, there are ways to combat mental fatigue. The best way is take a break and escape to a place you find relaxing or inspiring. However, if you’re in an office or on a mission, there are various mind-body strategies you can try. Mindfulness techniques are “mental push-ups” that strengthen as well as refresh your brain, so give them a try and give your brain a break.
Whether you’re falling asleep or too “amped up,” you probably aren’t performing your best. Depending on who you are and what the task is, some middle ground is generally going to be best.
With simple tasks that require little conscious thinking, your reaction time is probably at its best around 60-70% of maximum heart rate (see HPRC’s article on aerobic conditioning), but response times for bigger bursts of movement improve if you’re more amped up. For example, you may be able to pull the trigger of your weapon fastest when you’re at 60-70%, but reaching for your weapon in the first place may be quickest if you’re at 90%. Keep in mind that this may not apply to more complicated tasks that involve rapid thinking, such as distinguishing a “friendly” from a “non-friendly” when someone is disguised.
There are two basic ways to get yourself amped up: physical activity and anxiety. Physical activity can happen through an intentional warm-up or even on its own because of the demands you are facing. If anything, you might find yourself needing to calm your body down. The same goes for anxiety. There’s the “butterflies-in-your-stomach” kind of anxiety and the more panicky “Darn! What do I do now?” kind. A little bit of the butterflies kind can be helpful, but again, it’s good to learn how to calm down and find middle ground!
To learn more about being in the right “zone” for what you are doing, check out HPRC’s “Performance Strategies: Optimize Your Body’s Response.”
Making it into a Special Operations Force (SOF) is challenging, to say the least; it requires intense physical and mental stamina. A keynote presentation at the 2013 Association for Applied Sport Psychology Conference highlighted what it takes to be an SOF “Tactical Athlete.” It focused on the ability to “embrace the ‘suck’” (grueling experiences) and remain alert during periods of extreme discomfort—hot, cold, wet, or dry—along with heavy gear, noise, and fatigue.
Unlike most athletes, there is no “season,” so SOFs are required to always be on. This means intense training is part of the SOF experience—a selection process where “survival of the fittest” is the rule. Some of the physical characteristics that can help a person withstand the training are endurance, strength, coordination, and flexibility. Those selected to be SOF personnel also tend to possess the following mental characteristics:
- Above-average IQ: Most are brighter than most other people, and those of average intelligence optimize what they have.
- Complex reasoning: They can grasp and reason through abstract concepts.
- Tolerance of ambiguity: SOFs accept when they are not in control and do their best under those circumstances.
- Situational awareness: They can usually remain aware of their surroundings while tuning into what is most relevant.
- Good decision-making: They have good judgment, even in uncomfortable conditions.
- Mental flexibility: SOFs are able to adapt rather than get stuck on certain beliefs.
And in terms of personality, SOFs generally are:
- Emotionally stable: They do not usually experience extreme highs or lows.
- Stress-tolerant: SOFs accept and cope with stress rather than try to escape it.
- In control of their behavior: They act in accordance with their values, keeping their creed in mind.
- Self-confident: They are not consumed with self-doubt or rigidly confined by other people’s rules but possess their own strong moral compass.
- In control of aggression: SOFs are able to use their aggression in a targeted manner.
- Self-reliant: While they can work well with a team, they are also highly independent.
- Motivated: SOFs tend to have a very strong work ethic.
Finally, success with SOF training begins in part with an attitude. Anyone who yearns to be an SOF must above all cultivate an ability to turn attention outwards amidst “the suck.” Grueling conditions become a cue to remember that your comrades are also hurting and that each of you depends on the others to work hard. Taken together, SOFs embrace their membership in this elite group as an identity.
For more information on mental resilience —or what it takes to overcome adversity and grow stronger—check out HPRC’s Mental Resilience section.
When you find yourself in an argument with a loved one, it’s important to be able to move on afterwards without being burdened by negative feelings. But sometimes the negativity can hang on after the argument itself is over, and can make interacting with the other person difficult. It’s important to work out those negative feelings so that they don’t fester and wreak more havoc in your relationships.
Here’s how: When you find yourself in the middle of an argument, take a time-out before you become too worked up. It’s easier to shake off negativity at this stage. Stay levelheaded enough to stop the argument, walk away, focus on something else, and make yourself focus on positive thoughts about yourself, something else, or your loved one. While you are doing this, also engage in some stress-management techniques such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation; you can learn about them in the Mind-Body Skills section of HPRC’s website. By refocusing your thoughts and letting go of stress in your body, you’re more likely to feel calmer, slow your heart rate, and be less reactive to the other person. Once you’re calmer, you’ll probably find it easier to interact more positively with the other person and do or say things that can enhance your relationship.
For more ideas on strengthening your relationships, check out HPRC’s Relationship Enhancement section or this article on “Basic Training for Couples Communication.” And for more information on handling stress, check out HPRC’s Stress Management section.
There is a structured technique to setting goals called “SMART.” It stands for “Specific, Measurable, Action-oriented, Relevant, and Time-sensitive.” Using the SMART technique can help you to jump in to a goal now, fuel your motivation, and help you follow through. Check out HPRC’s Answer “Set SMART goals” to learn how you can put this method to work for you.
HPRC’s Performance Strategies “For single Warfighters coming home” gives you helpful tips for returning home after deployment if you are single. It highlights suggestions that manage your expectations (as well as those of your family and friends), as well as ideas for easing back into “normal” life, establishing an at-home schedule, increasing your support system, and other important aspects to consider.
The state in which athletes perform at their best is often referred to as “the zone,” but researchers refer to it as “flow.” This experience of being completely immersed in an activity involves:
- Clear goals and immediate understanding of whether actions are helping or hurting progress towards goals.
- Intense and focused concentration on the present moment.
- Merging of action and awareness.
- Absence of self-consciousness and anxiety.
- Time seems distorted (slow in the moment and fast retrospectively).
- Targeting of your attention where it is most needed.
- Challenges or opportunities feel like a stretch but still match your skill level.
- Feeling in control and prepared to face whatever happens next.
You can experience flow in myriad ways, whether you’re engaged in combat, playing competitive sports, or raising children. Flow can’t be forced, but you can set the stage for it by learning good stress management and practicing key skills through repetition.
At the Warrior Resilience Conference V in August 2013, representatives of the Comprehensive Soldier & Family Fitness (CSF2) program discussed one of the resilience-promoting skills that they teach for strengthening relationships: Active Constructive Responding.
Active Constructive Responding shows “authentic interest” where sharing creates a deeper experience for both individuals. For example, when someone shares a positive event with you, the best response is to show interest or excitement about what he or she is telling you, followed by a positive conversation about it. By doing this you can be a “Joy Multiplier.” By comparison, it’s important not to do any of these:
- Kill the joy by focusing on possible negatives about the event (being a “Joy Thief”).
- Bring up something that happened to you, turning the attention away from the other person, or completely ignore what you were told (being a “Conversation Hijacker”).
- Respond to the other person as if distracted and/or with limited interest (being a “Conversation Killer”).
There may be times in your life when you feel isolated or all alone. Connecting with people can help you find meaning in life, feel better, improve your mood, and beat boredom. Afterdeployment.org has a tip sheet—“Beating Isolation”—with ideas for how to overcome loneliness that include making plans to hang out with someone, reaching out to people you know, and getting involved in your community.
The “relaxation response” is your body’s counterpart to the stress response you feel during critical situations. As the name suggests, the relaxation response has a calming effect on your mental and physical state, with benefits that include less anxiety, a more positive mood, a sense of calmness and well-being, and reduced heart rate, breathing and metabolic rates, blood pressure, and muscle tension.
Sound good? You can learn how to use your body’s relaxation response for health and well-being. Various mind-body techniques such as deep-breathing exercises, guided imagery, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, tai-chi, and qigong all train you to turn this response on. Practicing these mind-body techniques has been found to help with anxiety and depression, as well as physical conditions such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and types of cancer that are exacerbated by stress.
To learn more about mind-body techniques, check out HPRC’s Mind-Body Skills section.