Mindfulness for the military

Mindfulness training, the practice of training your brain to stay in the present moment, offers many benefits. Practicing mindfulness can help you relax, lower your blood pressure, sleep better, become more focused and alert, “tune in” to your body to perform better, and improve your relationships. In military environments, mindfulness training can enhance your ability to perform at your best in garrison, during training, and in theater. It also can help reduce pain and stress related to post-deployment and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and improve your impulse control.

How does mindfulness work?

Mindfulness training helps you develop your ability to focus on the present moment, while accepting your emotions, thoughts, and sensations calmly and without judgment. Mind-wandering, worrying, and trying to evaluate the past can keep you from attending to important details of the present.

Benefits of Mindfulness
  • Improves relaxation
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Improves sleep
  • Helps ability to focus
  • Strengthens relationships
  • Reduces pain and stress
  • Improves impulse control

If you’ve ever been driving and realized you missed your turn or drove in the wrong direction, your attention was likely on replaying a memory or planning for something in the future. Mindfulness happens when you focus your full attention on the present. A mindfulness practice encourages you to experience a situation without judgment (“This is neither good nor bad”) and with acceptance (“This is happening right now”). 

Mindfulness is a skill, and like any skill, the more you practice the better you’ll be able to focus your attention on the present moment. Regular mindfulness practice can help to decrease activity in the fight-or-flight parts of your brain (amygdala) that can cause you to be impulsive. Meanwhile, the part of your brain (pre-frontal cortex) that controls awareness, concentration, and decision-making increases in activity. This can help you to make better decisions, and be less reactive and more in control.

Practice using a mindfulness meditation.

If you’re new to mindfulness, start by trying out this simple 5-minute meditation you can do almost anywhere.

For best results, set aside at least 10 minutes of uninterrupted time in a quiet space every day to practice mindfulness. Just after you wake up is a good time since your mind is probably quiet already. Or practice before bedtime and see if it helps you sleep better. Find a time that works for you and stay with it every day for one week. As the days pass, notice how this practice affects your day. Over time, many people report feeling a sense of inner calm and relaxation with regular practice. If you find mindfulness works well for you, continue at least once a day—or any time you are stressed and need to relax and center yourself.

How do I know if I am doing mindfulness right?

Throughout the meditation, you might have wondered if you did it correctly. Or perhaps you caught thoughts about the future or past popping into your awareness despite your best efforts. The good news is that this is OK and completely normal. As long as you’re aware of these thoughts and let them pass without judgement, then you’re doing it right! The more you practice, the more you’ll be able to let unwanted thoughts pass by without judgement. This will help you to lower stress and gain the full rewards from practicing mindfulness.

How mindfulness can help in military environments

You can also use mindfulness tactically throughout your military experiences.

Mindfulness during training: In training environments, mindfulness helps Warfighters stay safe while learning new skills and tactics. It also aids with memory and recall on difficult tests and qualifications. For example, Warfighters need to be able to block out distractions and tune into their physiology to do their best in shooting tasks for weapons qualifications. Managing your mind-body experience of performance anxiety during the stages of your evaluations is crucial for being able to fire a weapon accurately and consistently.

Mindfulness in theater: Your situational awareness is enhanced by mindfulness in a combat environment too. Mind-wandering and judging an experience can create unnecessary stimuli that interfere with your ability to connect with the resources you need to accomplish tasks, avert disaster, or respond to crisis. Warfighters are less lethal and less resourceful in combat when their minds wander and they’re unable to fully focus on a situation. Mindfulness training for even relatively short periods of time (for example, 8 hours over 8 weeks) can improve focus in Military Service Members. That is, they’re able to keep their minds from wandering and have fewer lapses in performance during a given task.

Combat environments are often characterized as Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA), which can easily lead to sensory overload. Developing mindfulness can help increase your tolerance of these environments, allowing you to hone your skills of attending to the right stimuli at the right time. In one pain-threshold study, some participants who used mindfulness training were able to tolerate higher temperatures before they reported feeling pain. They were also able to endure heat stimuli for longer durations.

Mindfulness during garrison: In garrison or during dwell times, mindfulness can help you build stronger relationships with friends and family and make the most of your time to recover and restore your energy. Any of the mindfulness practices that promote relaxation and reduce stress can help you sleep. In addition to mindful meditation are tactical breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and autogenic training. Warfighters lead busy lives, and time with loved ones can feel limited. Mindfulness helps you maximize those precious moments and cope with difficult emotions that can get in the way of communication and intimacy.

Transition from military life to home life: You wouldn’t be alone if you noticed that some of the stress that comes with military life at times spills over into how you communicate with and focus your attention on family and friends. Mindfulness can help you to be more present with family—and help you to notice—and reengage when you’re not communicating in the best way. Watch the video below to learn more about how you can use mindfulness to improve your relationships at home.

Debrief

One of the first steps in mindfulness involves pausing, taking a deep breath, and bringing your attention inward for a moment. If you’re new to mindfulness, it might take some time before you start to see the benefits in your military career and personal life. Visit HPRC’s Performance Psychology section to learn ways to practice mindfulness during everyday activities you’re already doing for peak performance at work and home.


Note: Mindfulness meditation is not a replacement for medical treatment or advice.

 


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References

Ben Hamed, S., Jha, A. P., Morrison, A. B., Dainer-Best, J., Parker, S., Rostrup, N., & Stanley, E. A. (2015). Minds “At attention”: Mindfulness training curbs attentional lapses in military cohorts. Plos One, 10(2). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0116889

Büssing, A., Walach, H., Kohls, N., Zimmermann, F., & Trousselard, M. (2013). Conscious presence and self control as a measure of situational awareness in soldiers – A validation study. International Journal of Mental Health Systems, 7(1). doi:10.1186/1752-4458-7-1

Reiner, K., Granot, M., Soffer, E., & Lipsitz, J. D. (2016). A brief mindfulness meditation training increases pain threshold and accelerates modulation of response to tonic pain in an experimental study. Pain Medicine. doi:10.1111/pme.12883

Siegel, A., Taren, A. A., Creswell, J. D., & Gianaros, P. J. (2013). Dispositional mindfulness co-varies with smaller amygdala and caudate volumes in community adults. Plos One, 8(5). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064574

Zeidan, F., Grant, J. A., Brown, C. A., McHaffie, J. G., & Coghill, R. C. (2012). Mindfulness meditation-related pain relief: Evidence for unique brain mechanisms in the regulation of pain. Neuroscience Letters, 520(2), 165–173. doi:10.1016/j.neulet.2012.03.082