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Learn how to stretch mindfully

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Learn how to do stretches in a mindful way using yoga poses to get the benefits of both stretching and mindfulness.

Mindfulness isn’t something you have to do sitting still. You can apply mindfulness to activities such as stretching. A great way to do this is by using yoga poses. When stretching in a mindful way, you bring your attention to your breath as you stretch your muscles.

Mindful stretching can help you in a number of ways:

  • To focus your attention before or after a workout
  • To focus on and relax knotted areas within your muscles
  • To provide closure to something you’re working on (such as the transition from work to weekend)
  • As a routine before you go to bed to prime your body for sleep

In mindful stretching, the focus is not on doing repetitions or certain times, but rather going with what your body needs in the moment. To learn how, see HPRC’s “Mindful Stretching Exercises Using Yoga Poses” for a step-by-step guide with pictures. 

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.

Is perfectionism the perfect way to train?

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Are you a perfectionist? Learn why striving for excellence is a better move than demanding perfection.

Perfectionists are driven to do well. And if you’re one yourself, you may have found that it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. Perfectionism is a problem when you can’t accept your mistakes, and you either miss chances to fix things or miss other more important opportunities. But being a perfectionist isn’t entirely bad, if accepting mistakes as you aim high is part of what you do.

Taking a test can be a “perfect” example of how to accept that you’ll occasionally make mistakes while still striving for excellence. Let’s say you scored 99% on a test. If your inner critic gets caught up in the 1% you missed, you might lose sight of where you need improvement. Try acknowledging the mistake, trust you’ve learned from it, and focus on what is most important as you move forward.

Don’t let your critical, perfectionist inner voice cause you to lose focus on what you need to succeed. It’s easy to get stuck on what you can’t control, such as the past or thoughts of the future. Perfectionism is a problem when it affects everything you do and becomes core to who you are. If your self-worth is caught up so much in being perfect, failures can feel catastrophic. If everything you do feels like a reflection of your character, the stakes are high!

Remember: Let your actions be what you do, not who you are. Don’t take failures personally; instead, trust them as learning opportunities for how to approach future events.

Healthy perfectionism is striving for your best performance by doing everything in your power to make it happen. Have high standards, accept imperfections, and enjoy (realistically) better performances.

Mindfulness meditation: a primer

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Mindfulness meditation is a take-anywhere tool that can impact your mind, body, and performance. Learn what it is and how to do it.

Mindfulness meditation is a mind-body practice that focuses on awareness and acceptance of the present moment. It’s a great tool to sharpen your concentration, deal with tough emotions such as anxiety and stress, and even give you physical benefits such as lowered blood pressure. Not sure how to do it? HPRC’s “A mindfulness meditation primer” describes what mindfulness meditation is and how to go about it, with an mp3 audio that takes you through five minutes of guided practice to get you started. 

Dare to face your fears

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Who wouldn’t want to feel confident in the face of whatever scares them?

Facing your fears with confidence looks easy in the movies. In reality, though, we often feel confident after we face the things that scare us. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a new form of “mindfulness” skills-based counseling that has been shaking up traditional therapy and self-help. With ACT, you face the hard stuff and then feel less anxious (not the other way around). ACT can help people move forward—both those with diagnoses and those dealing with more generalized anxiety. ACT teaches us that we can DARE to face our FEARs.

“FEAR” keeps us stuck:

  • Fusion is about letting thoughts rule behaviors (such as “I can’t do it”).
  • Extreme goals mean chasing impossible ideas (such as aiming to do a triathlon when you can’t run five miles yet and don’t have time to train).
  • Avoiding discomfort is waiting till the time “feels right” before you start moving forward.
  • Removed from values means you aren’t identifying what’s really important to you.

But we can “DARE” to move forward:

  • Defuse. Allow yourself to take thoughts less seriously; they’re just thoughts, not facts.
  • Accept discomfort. Let uncomfortable feelings exist while still doing what’s important.
  • Realistic goals. Set out to do things that are within your control (such as running three miles today and four by next week).
  • Embrace values. Ask yourself big-picture questions about what’s really important to you, and let your answers drive your behavior (such as “I finish what I start”).

HPRC’s articles about taking charge or accepting thoughts and SMART goal setting might give you more ideas about how you can DARE to face your FEARs.

Do mindful people have good hearts?

New research suggests that highly mindful people also engage in healthy habits that protect them from heart disease.

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. 

Anxious or excited?

Learning to transform anxiety into excitement helps you when performance matters. Learn how here!

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.

Cope with emotions through mindfulness

Mindfulness helps you to face hard emotions instead of running from them. Learn how here.

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.

Keep the happy in the holidays: Focus on the positive

Another tip in this holiday season’s quest for happiness: Learn to be optimistic by focusing on the opportunities and possibilities in life.

Last week we focused on being a gratitude-seeker this holiday season. This week’s tip is to focus on the positive. Optimistic Warfighters who “see the glass half-full” are less impacted by warzone stress, experience fewer mental health issues, and exhibit better health and resilience overall. The Defense Centers of Excellence (DCoE) defines optimism as “a set of beliefs that helps to focus your attention and behavior on the opportunities and possibilities of life.” Everyone falls victim to negative or “the grass is greener” thinking at times, but negative thoughts create more negative thoughts. Learn to stay realistically positive. Optimistic thoughts are contagious too, so you’ll be passing on positivity! The Comprehensive Soldier & Family Fitness program calls focusing on the positive a “hunt for the good stuff.”

You can learn optimism in a variety of ways, such as focusing on what’s positive and possible, taking advantage of opportunities that arise, and developing realistic expectations about outcomes. DCoE has specific suggestions on how to accomplish realistic optimism. And for more Mind Tactics to promote resilience, check out HPRC’s Mental Resilience section.

Keep the happy in the holidays: Be a gratitude-seeker

Developing a sense of gratitude can enhance your happiness. Learn more about this skill for promoting happiness this holiday season.

Happy Thanksgiving! In HPRC’s series on “Keeping the Happy in the Holidays,” this week we focus on being a gratitude-seeker. Gratitude is a state of mind that that can be hard to foster in our busy lives, particularly during the holidays. This holiday season set some time aside for gratitude.

The Defense Centers of Excellence suggests some tips for cultivating this skill, including:

• Spend two minutes a day thinking about what you are grateful for,

• Write five things daily in a gratitude journal

• Look for things to be grateful for in your everyday life.

For more ideas on fostering happiness, check out HPRC’s section on Mental Resilience.

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