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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. 

Laughter: Great for mind, body, and relationships

Heard any good jokes lately? If so, just remembering them probably has you smiling and feeling better. Did you know there is scientific evidence to support those feelings?

Laughing can be more than just fun in the moment. It also can also have positive mental, physical, and social benefits. The research into the effects of positive mood, or happiness, includes how laughter and humor affect our well-being. The results show that positive emotions aren’t just superficial feelings. Brain imaging, for example, shows that reward areas in the brain “light up” during positive emotional experiences such as laughter. 

A positive mood also can impact your physical health, specifically your heart. It’s been established that long-term negative emotions can damage your physical health. Positive moods, on the other hand, can protect your cardiovascular system. One 10-year study found that those who express more positive emotions (either in words or in actions such as smiling or laughing) have a lower risk of coronary heart disease. Other studies have found that positive emotions, including optimism and a sense of humor, can enhance your immunity and might even help you live longer.

But these positive benefits aren’t just limited to your body. Humor and positive emotions can strengthen relationships, foster communication, and reduce feelings of isolation. However, the key to these social effects is to use humor appropriately. For example, laughing in the middle of a funeral ceremony may not be appropriate, but laughing at a funny movie is.

Share a joke or a smile with someone today.

Make some new “friends with benefits”

Heard the term “friends with benefits”? There’s more than one kind!

Having good social support is beneficial in many ways and can come in a furry package! Pets are wonderful companions, and you benefit by having one (or more) in so many ways: They get you out exercising, increase your self-esteem, decrease a sense of isolation, and help you through tough times. If that’s not enough, there’s a growing amount of research on the use of dogs providing therapeutic benefits to individuals coping with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. Dog owners are also more likely than those who don’t have dogs to meet physical activity guidelines. So if you have a furry creature at home, remember to give them  a big pat for enhancing your life. Indeed, one researcher described these relationships as truly “friends with benefits.”

For Warfighters about to be deployed, pets also can come with the added stress of needing to find a temporary home. To get some tips about what to do with your pet while you’re on deployment, check out this article from HPRC and/or this Department of Defense blog.

Depression—Don’t tackle it alone

HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics, Total Force Fitness
Depression isn’t just a lousy mood—it’s a serious illness that needs serious help. Check out some of the special resources for service members, whether it’s for you, a buddy, or a family member.

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.

How am I doing? Ask my computer…

Technology can help us be more aware of how we think and even how we feel. It is all still evolving, but these advances are promising for optimal Warfighter training and health.

Good decision-making is crucial to mission success for any Warfighter. Advancements in technology can help build awareness of how people think (that is, how they remember and evaluate information) and even how they feel (recognizing “gut feelings” and what drives them). “Affective computing” and “wearable sensing” are no longer science fiction. Special bracelets or other articles of clothing can sense one’s needs in terms of exercise, diet, and sleep and can even be programmed to communicate physical or emotional needs to others. Optimal training can occur when emotions facilitate learning rather than impede it. And it doesn’t stop with training; “e-health” applications for mental health, delivered via smart phones or other small mobile devices, are promising, especially as the technology continues to advance.

Happiness leads to success

HPRC Fitness Arena: Mind Tactics, Total Force Fitness
Happiness leads to success, and vice versa! Learn why.

You have probably noticed that people tend to be happy when they’re successful. But did you know that it can also work the other way—that happiness can lead to success? Happier people tend to get more excited about chasing after opportunities. Happy people tend to interpret, remember, and even experience life events differently than unhappy people. For example, happy people tend to like other people more readily (leading to positive interactions). And when they are faced with adversity, they tend to use humor and focus on what has gone well recently. Across studies, researchers have found evidence that in marriage, friendship, income, work performance, and health, there is a two-way street: Success leads to happiness and happiness leads to success! Want to experience the successes of a happy person? One strategy is to be sure to somehow experience positive emotions frequently. Check out HPRC’s series highlighting research-based tips for making this happen.

Keep the happy in holidays: Wrapping up

Wrapping up our series on keeping the happy in holidays, mix and match the tips we’ve presented each week during the upcoming new year, as well.

Over the last 7 weeks, HPRC has run a series on tips for keeping the happy in the holidays this season for you and your family. We highlighted many strategies like being a gratitude hunter, how to be more optimistic, and how to accept things you can’t control. We also highlighted tips for your relationships, such as setting appropriate expectations, identifying possible friction points ahead of time, and celebrating your family and friends. Look back over the last 7 weeks to read more.

In wrapping up, our last tip is to remember that you know yourself best. Try a combination of the tips we highlighted each week to see which ones work for you, the ones that fit your strengths and where you are right now in life. Ups and downs are common during the holiday season, but if you keep your perspective, stay realistic, make time for fitness, and foster new memories with your loved ones, this just might be your best new year yet!

Keep the happy in the holidays: If you’re feeling pulled, try stretching

As you work on your happiness this holiday season, remember that it’s not just a mind thing; incorporate the physical activity of stretching too.

HPRC continues it series on keeping the happy in holidays, as last week we focused on practicing acceptance. This week, a simple tip: If you’re feeling pulled in a hundred different directions or have been too busy to simply sit and relax, find five minutes to stretch—both your body and your mind. In addition to being an important component of fitness, stretching can also help quiet your mind from the stress of the holidays. Try this basic stretching routine from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). While you’re at it, practice some of the other skills described in this series to foster happiness: examining your thoughts and practicing gratitude, acceptance, and optimism. Your body and mind will thank you.

HPRC’s website has more ideas on mind-body skills you can try this holiday season and New Year.

Keep the happy in holidays: Be aware of depression in those around you

If you or a loved one is feeling less than joyful this holiday season, reach out and get help.

Continuing HPRC’s series on keeping the happy in the holidays, last week we “focused on the positive.” This week, learn what the signs of depression are, and make sure you know how everyone in your family is doing.

Depression is not something that you can just snap out of. It can impact a person in many ways and can range from mild to severe. According to the American Psychological Association, “Depression is more than just sadness.” Symptoms can range from lack of interest to thoughts of suicide, so learn what to watch for. Check out this factsheet that details the signs and symptoms of depression and another on “Taking Charge of Depression” that includes helpful strategies. Depression is treatable with professional help; don’t isolate yourself and don’t let others do so.

For more information on depression, check out the suicide prevention section of HPRC’s website.

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.

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