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Meditation builds “brain muscles”

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Meditation can help retrain your brain, building resilience and well-being.

Meditation can actually change how your brain functions, building resilience and improving your performance. Much the same way you strengthen your muscles, when you exercise different parts of your brain, you make subtle changes to its structure. These physical changes lead to changes in your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Specifically, it can change those parts of the brain associated with anxiety, mind wandering, mood, fear, stress, empathy, emotion, and pain.

Meditation uses thinking strategies to better manage stress, using your mind to tune into sensations in your body, accept feelings, and observe thoughts without judgment. However, meditation is about much more than just relaxation. It actually creates a state of calm alertness. With the regular practice of meditation, you can bring about structural changes in your brain that make this condition last longer.

If you repeat the same thought or action many, many times, your brain forms new pathways—a process known as “neuroplasticity.” Whether you’re finding your way around a new base, or your children are learning their multiplication tables, skills become ingrained as the brain changes. Meditation helps by affecting the parts of your brain responsible for attention, the ability to think and act with flexibility, and managing emotions. In fact, the emotion regulation center of your brain can grow with meditation, the self-control center becomes more active, and as you become less stressed and fearful, the fear center in your brain can actually shrink in size.

You might not be aware of changes overnight, but persistence will yield rewards. And some meditation is better than none. Just as you get stronger with more time at the gym, the more you meditate, the better your brain becomes equipped to reach that state of calm alertness. To learn more about how to meditate, visit HPRC’s Mind-Body Techniques section.

Artfully working through trauma

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Filed under: Art, Mood, Therapy, Trauma
Art therapy can be a helpful tool in the recovery from trauma.

Art therapy is one more tool in the arsenal against PTSD and similar disorders. It uses various forms of artwork and creativity to explore feelings, confront emotional conflicts, improve self-awareness, manage behaviors and addictions, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem. Under the supervision of an experienced therapist, art therapy can improve general functioning, health, and well-being and can help in recovery from trauma.

Responses to traumatic experiences can include flashbacks and nightmares as your mind unconsciously tries to make sense of what happened. Art can be effective in helping your mind process, express, and even master traumatic experiences, because visual imagery can express what words can’t. Engaging in creative arts has been used specifically to help service members work through trauma. This kind of therapy involves working through your difficulties with a licensed therapist, but the same creative outlets can be great outside of therapy too. Find a craft or art that you find calming, enjoyable, and expressive. Engaging in the arts can be fun and therapeutic.


Improving mood with food

Mindful eating can help you make better decisions and transform your whole eating experience!

“You are what you eat” means that food affects your physical AND emotional health! A tip that also helps your mood is to stay away from “comfort foods.” Choose foods that give you more steady energy, such as an orange or raisins (not ice cream or fries). This might be old advice, but here’s a new twist: Eat that snack mindfully!

By practicing mindfulness before you eat, when you’re feeling a craving, and while you eat, you can overcome binge eating, eating to soothe emotional concerns, and impulses triggered by yummy sights, sounds, or smells. It helps you understand your motivation. Are you eating because you’re hungry and it’s time to eat? Or is it a “quick fix” for your stress or worries?

Once you’re eating, instead of analyzing why you’re eating or focusing on other tasks such as texting, be mindful of the eating experience, embracing the experiences of smell, taste, temperature, and texture. You may find yourself slowing down and enjoying your food more!

Before diving into your next snack or meal, think about what you’re eating and be mindful of why. Here’s a simple example of how you can weave mindful eating into your daily life: You might notice that it’s 3pm, and you’ve had nothing to eat since that healthy lunch, and you need a pick-me-up, so you reach for an orange. Now, mindfully enjoy each part of the experience as you peel the orange, noticing the textures inside and outside, the stickiness, the spray, and the smell. Notice how you salivate with the anticipation of citrus acids, and the moment when the piece of orange hits your tongue, followed by squirts of flavor, and changing texture. Enjoy!

Words to clear mental clutter

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Filed under: Mind, Mood, Stress
It may sound simple, but you can repeat a word or phrase to bring calmness and relaxation into any situation.

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.

How to combat depression

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The same activities that are good for your body can also help with feelings of depression!

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.

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.

Warm up and calm down with a jingle

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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.

Help stop bullying

Learn how to stop aggression in teens.

Roughly one in five teens is bullied at some point. It often involves hitting, pushing, or teasing, but gossip (both verbal and text) and being excluded are also forms of bullying.

The reasons for teen aggression are complex, but some school and home factors raise the chance of a teen being aggressive: rejection by peers, situations where aggression is socially acceptable, marital conflict and violence at home, feeling rejected by a parent, physical punishment by a parent, and/or parents who let their teens get away with any kind of behavior.

Since teens are still learning how to manage their emotions, aggressive behavior is a clue that they need more skills in this arena. Aggressive teens also are more likely to have problems at school that can follow them to adulthood, so it’s important to find solutions early. And of course, the victims of bullying suffer too.

Parents, schools, and communities can help stop aggressive behavior. Parents can reduce their teens’ exposure to aggression at home by controlling their own anger and outside the home by knowing where their teens are, who they’re with, and setting clear expectations for how to act when parents aren’t around. Teachers can learn to recognize aggression, communicate that it is unacceptable, and seek help/intervene. Schools can monitor areas where aggression is most likely to occur, such as playgrounds, restrooms, and hallways. (a website developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) offers lots of ideas for how to respond to bullying: Respond quickly and immediately to bullying behavior, find out what happened, and support the kids involved (both the bullies and those being bullied). In essence, don’t be a bystander. To learn more, visit this interactive page. The bottom line is that bullying is not acceptable, but it won’t stop unless you do something about it.

Enjoying the ordinary this holiday season

“Count your blessings” isn’t just a saying—it’s a good way to reduce stress and take your mind off the negatives in life. Take a look around for the things in your everyday life that you can be thankful for and take a moment to appreciate them.

Many of us have the habit of focusing on the negatives in life and expecting the worst outcome. This tendency can be compounded by military training that teaches you how to assess risks and plan for the worst outcome. If you tend to focus on the negatives in life, you’re shortchanging yourself. Try to appreciate the little things in your day that you may take for granted. Focus on appreciation and gratitude. Try breaking your habit of focusing on the negative for just one day; instead spend it acknowledging and appreciating the ordinary good things in your life.

  • When you wake up in the morning, stop and take a moment to say good morning to your day.
  • If you are in a relationship, take a few minutes to really look at and appreciate your significant other.
  • If you are deployed with your unit, pause to think about how your buddies support and help one another to get through a rough day.
  • Before you eat lunch, reflect for a moment and think about something that keeps you going everyday—maybe it’s as simple as the first cup of coffee in the morning, an easy commute, or your buddy’s positive attitude. Take a moment to be grateful for that.
  • At dinner, spend a moment thinking about your loved ones. Have you told them lately something you appreciate about them?
  • Finally, before you go to sleep, acknowledge something about yourself you’re proud of.

Start again tomorrow, reflecting back to today—did acknowledging the magic of the “everyday” help you have a better day?

For more information on mental strategies, visit HPRC’s Mind Tactics domain.

Pace your breathing to perform under stress

HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics, Total Force Fitness
Filed under: Breathing, Mind, Mood
Want to perform well under stress? Don’t just take a deep breath…take some long exhales. Learn more about paced breathing and get some resources to hone the skill.

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.

To learn to breathe at this rate, get some audiovisual guidance with the Breath2Relax app, or simply listen to the tutorial and guided breathing music provided by HPRC. 

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