5 Scientifically Backed Ways that you can Benefit from Mindfulness

May is deemed “Mindful May” in order to bring awareness to mindfulness and the many mental and physical benefits that can be experienced by those who practice it. Simply put, mindfulness is moment-to-moment awareness. It is cultivated by purposefully paying attention to things we ordinarily do on "auto pilot".  Mindfulness is a systematic approach to our own inner capacities for relaxation, paying attention, awareness, and insight. These capacities not only help us change our behavior and habits, but can significantly enhance our quality of life. Let’s take a look at what science tells us.

  1. Mindfulness can improve resilience among active duty soldiers. The results of a University of Miami study demonstrated that just 8 hours of mindfulness training over an 8 week pre-deployment period, was effective at preventing mind-wandering and attentional lapses. The brief mindfulness meditation exercise practices were aimed at staying focused on the present moment. Soldiers who practiced mindfulness before being deployed performed better on attention and cognitive performance tests while downrange. These measures were tested using the Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART), a test that measures attentional lapses and mind wandering. Overall, the data from this study suggests that mindfulness training performed pre-deployment can help active-duty soldiers prepare for combat and improve performance and cognitive resilience.
  2. Mindfulness Meditation can help you fall asleep and stay asleep faster. The results of a University of Southern California study suggests that mindfulness meditation can improve sleep quality for older adults with sleep disturbances, including trouble falling or staying asleep, or feeling sleepy during the day. The study compared two groups.  One group did mindfulness awareness practices for 2 hours each week, for 6 weeks. The other group underwent a sleep hygiene education course for 2 hours each week, for 6 weeks. The results show that the mindfulness group showed significant improvements in their ability to fall and stay asleep relative to the group that underwent the sleep hygiene education course. The group that underwent the mindfulness intervention also experienced reductions in certain sleep-related daytime symptoms of sleep loss, including anxiety, stress, depression, and inflammatory markers often associated with sleep deprivation.
  3. Mindfulness meditation can help slow the signs of cognitive decline related to aging. According to a study from the UCLA Brain Mapping Center, meditation may help preserve gray matter in the brain (the tissue where cognition occurs and memories are stored) in participants ranging from 24-77 years old. The study compared brain scans of two groups of people:  one group who had mediated for an average of 20 years and the other group who did not meditate. The meditating group experience smaller reductions in gray matter than the non-meditating group. Although the correlation between preserved gray matter and meditation does not prove that meditating directly caused the gray matter preservation (other factors such as diet likely also play a role), meditation appears to be one factor that can help slow age related cognitive decline.  
  4. Mindfulness training can help children improve math and social skills. The results of a study done in British Columbia showed that 4th and 5th grade students who practiced mindfulness had 15% better math skills. The study compared two groups of children. One group completed a 4 month mindfulness program. The other group received 4 months of a social responsibility program (the standard for Canadian public schools). Compared to the social responsibility group, the mindfulness program group also showed 24% more social behaviors, were 24% less aggressive, and perceived themselves as 20% more prosocial. The results of this study suggest that mindfulness training can help school age children with cognitive control, stress levels, emotional control, optimism, empathy, mindfulness, and aggression.
  5. Mindful eating can help you reach and maintain a healthy weight. There is ample research on the positive effects of eating mindfully and weight. Research has not only shown that mindful eating can help reduce mindless eating (eating without paying attention), it can also help reduce the occurrence of over eating due to oversized portions. Research has also indicated that mindfulness can help reduce obesity and aid weight losstreat eating disorders, and type II diabetes, to name a few.

If you’re interested in learning more about mindfulness, check out the May edition of Army H.E.A.L.T.H. Arsenal, which is focused on mindfulness and offers more mindfulness resources.

 

Seeing the Glass as Half Full: It’s a Practice

Everyone wants to be happy, especially around the holidays. While the holiday season can be a time of good food and good times with family and friends, for many, it’s a time of increased financial burdens, unwanted guests,  and increased stress overall. Luckily, being a happier person is largely within our control. According to Psychology Today, approximately 40% of our happiness comes from perspective. Since happiness is relative to perspective, there are ways you can change your behaviors in order to see the glass as half full instead of half empty. Here is what is known about the practices of generally happy folks:

Practice Curbing Gossip & Negative Chatter

Gossip almost never has a good outcome. Usually, ill-willed statements about others are rooted from some form of jealousy or insecurity. Talking negatively about someone else may seem like it could make you feel better, but in reality, it does the opposite. Ultimately, you end up internalizing your own bad mojo. Try this. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. It is as true for adults as it is for children. If you have a problem with someone, try to work it out in a constructive way with that person directly, not behind their back. Blowing negative steam basically only puts more negative mojo out there...it actually solves nothing. As far as conversation in general, instead, try to think of something you are happy about or proud of and talk about that. Happy people are always lifting others up or talking about their own dreams and passions. Their positive energy often emerges from within and can be seen easily from the outside. It’s genuine.

Practice Letting Go of Self-Comparison 

Comparing yourself to others will almost always result in negative feelings. As Theodore Roosevelt said “Comparing yourself to others is the thief of joy”. Everyone comes from a different background, has different life experiences, looks different, and is presently enduring a different set of circumstances. Comparing yourself to others is not a measure of success, but is often a measure of your own insecurities, and the practice of continual self-comparison is a way to continue to cultivate those insecurities.

 

 

Try this. Think of your most proud accomplishments. The only person you should compare yourself to is your past self. Think of all the things you have accomplished instead of all the things your friends have accomplished. Be grateful for how far you have come and your many endeavors. Celebrate and honor your own success in accomplishing milestones, no matter how great or small, towards your long term goals. When it comes to others, take pleasure in their success and celebrate their successes with them.

Practice Letting Go of Complaints 

When you’re unhappy, it seems that nothing can go your way and you want everyone to know it. Whether you complain about traffic, your in-laws, being sick, or your terrible job… it’s always something. It’s a slippery path to go down once you get used to complaining a lot. Unfortunately, complaining does not bring you any closer to a solution for what ails you, but creates a way of being that perpetuates constant negativity. As Buddha said, as we speak, so we become. 

 

 

Try this. Everyone has something they could complain about. The choice is yours. Once you make the decision to complain less, you will find your happiness increasing because you are cultivating something positive every time you speak- it’s a practice. Try setting some stipulations that you only verbally express a complaint if it is followed directly by a suggestion to mediate the situation. For example, “My coworker was in a bad mood today ….maybe she is having a hard time with something. I will ask her if she needs help with anything tomorrow”.

Practice Giving Thanks

It’s easy to think the word is an unfair place and nothing goes in your favor. If you are not this person, you probably know someone like this. Being ungrateful causes you to miss out on many opportunities for happiness because you are focusing on what you want or don’t have rather than what you already have. It’s not that happy people have so much more than unhappy people; it’s that they are able to recognize, acknowledge, and be thankful for what they already have on a daily basis…a continual practice. Try this. Start a gratitude journal or get in the habit of beginning or ending each day acknowledging (bringing into your mind) several things you are grateful for. Gratitude puts situations into perspective. It helps you realize what you have and, therefore, lessens our need for wanting more all the time- more of anything, e.g. physical needs, emotional needs, material desires. Gratitude strengthens relationships, improves health, reduces stress, and, in general, makes people happier.

On this thanksgiving, we should all shift our gratitude to the forefront of our minds and hearts.  We, at Army H.E.A.L.T.H., are particularly grateful for all our troops both at home and overseas. We are grateful to be able to spend time with our friends and family and are thinking of those who are deployed and will not be able to do the same. We encourage you to embrace the spirit of true thanksgiving and let yourself be a happier person this holiday season and beyond.  

 

 

 

 

Overweight & Obesity Stigma: Shaming Helps No One

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Fat shaming is a form of public humiliation aimed at evoking a change in the name of “health”. It occurs every day to people of all ages, races, sizes, educational and socio-economic backgrounds. It happens at home, school, and work. At its most detrimental level, it’s precipitated by those whom we trust the most: our family members and health care providers. Often, these shameful thoughts and generalizations are internalized and eventually we become our own bullies.

The stigma associated with being overweight and obese often manifests into discrimination-which can be just as damaging as other forms of discrimination. The consequences bear devastating mental and physical health outcomes. In the past decade, the prevalence of weight discrimination in the United States has increased by 66% and is still climbing. This issue is something we can no longer avoid as a society.

The Impact of the Media

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Fat shaming can be seen just about everywhere you look. Take for example a recent Scooby-Doo movie that “cursed” Daphne with being overweight, emphasizing to children that being overweight is something to be ashamed of…a “curse”.

The “fitspo” aka “fitness inspiration” community has no doubt reinforced this message. With mantras like “if you just run 5 miles a day or do this specific workout…you will look like this” [insert picture of extremely lean and toned, shirtless guy/girl in spandex],

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the focus is often skewed toward appearance rather than health. What the fitspo community fails to mention is that the model in the picture doesn’t do that particular workout at all. Everyone’s body is different and will respond to a workout in its own unique way.

The idea that reaching and maintaining a healthy weight is a matter of trying hard enough is apparent in almost any infomercial and/or print media for an exercise routine, diet, or supplement. Advertisements emphasize the idea that weight loss and being healthy is a matter of calories in and out, using the right products, or engaging in the right exercise routine (which you too can partake in for the right price) and that people must be lazy if they are overweight. The diet and fitness industry capitalize off the belief that being overweight is a character flaw, evoking a demand for their product by those in need of gaining back lost virtue.

A 2008 study revealed the tendency of the media to selectively report on scientific article findings and to frame weight and health related news stories in a way that dramatizes the content and fosters individual blame. However, recent research has shown that this is not a good strategy to evoke positive public health change. For example, studies have shown that fat shaming actually has the potential to lead individuals already struggling with weight management to gain more weight in some cases, thus, the original intention of the shaming backfires. As it should- bullying, shaming and discrimination overall, have never been shown to be beneficial to anyone.

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So much of what we see in the news and in product advertisements conveys that body weight is a direct indicator of health. Although we agree that weight is an important factor in assessing health, it’s much more complicated than that and additional factors must be considered for a complete picture. Recent research indicates thin people too, can be “fat”. This is a direct message to not judge a book by its cover. Research has more than established at this point that thin does not necessarily equal healthy, and overweight does not necessarily equal unhealthy. What we see on the surface is only a small representation of what going on below the surface.

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Missing the Mark

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Take for example, the 2012 Strong4Life ad campaign which is part of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Pediatric Hospital’s five-year, $25 million initiative designed to curb childhood obesity in Georgia. The campaign features pictures of seemingly overweight children with a “warning” that states “it’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not” and “fat prevention begins at home…And the buffet line”. Their newest video demonstrates how a fat child, enabled by “bad” parenting, is led to have a heart attack through a series of lifelong bad habits.

It’s hard to understand why people say and do the things they do in relation to overweight people. A concerned parent of an obese child may think they are helping their child by saying something like “a minute of the lips, forever on the hips”. But in reality, these types of comments are embarrassing and will not encourage the child to make healthier choices. Instead, a more likely outcome is they’ll learn to eat alone and in shame during their next meal.

By the same token, health care providers are often uncomfortable approaching the subject and may not realize that simply telling someone to eat less and exercise more will not always help. In a recent interview, Dr. Rebecca Puhl, Deputy Director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale, spoke about the issue of weight related bias in the health care system. “Women with obesity report that doctors are one of the most common sources of weight bias in their lives – 69% of women reported these experiences with doctors. Negative weight related attitudes and stereotypes toward patients with obesity have been documented among physicians, nurses, medical students, dietitians, psychologists, and even health professionals who specialize in obesity. Stereotypes include assumptions that patients with obesity are non-compliant with treatment, lazy, and lack willpower and motivation to improve their health.” said Puhl. This brings to light the complexity of the issue. Oftentimes health care providers may think they are helping a patient lose weight by “encouraging” them, but in all actuality, that’s not what happens. Simply put: you can’t shame people into being “healthier”.

Adverse effects

People that are exposed to more weight based discrimination are more likely to experience shame, gain weight, stop seeking medical treatment, and avoid exercise. Depression, emotional eating, and low self-esteem also play a role. Research has shown that overweight people who reported discrimination based on weight were more than twice as likely to be obese four years later than people who didn't experience such discrimination. As research has more than established, making someone feel bad about themselves does not encourage healthy behavior change.

The Need for a Shift

It’s time for a shift in the conversation- from body size, numbers, and shaming to a positive focus on individual health behavior change. As a community, we need to encourage and enable everyone to make healthier lifestyle choices. Shame does not have a place in health promotion and is not an effective motivator of change.

 

Image Sources: Daphne; Glacier; Strong4life;

Depression

 

Mental health and well-being in the military are critical areas that must be addressed with understanding and compassion. Today, our focus is depression.

Some Facts

Suicide rates among the military population used to be less prevalent than in the civilian population. However, in 2005 suicide within the military, particularly the Army, steadily began increasing to record levels every year, until in 2008 it exceeded the civilian matched population rates. Defense Department officials are hopeful those rates are in a state of decline.

Contrary to the popular belief that mental illness and suicide in the military is largely attributed to stressors from deployment, the largest study of mental health risk and resilience ever conducted among U.S. military personnel found that approximately one-third of post-enlistment suicide attempts tied back to pre-enlistment mental disorders.

The results of the same research study also indicated that pre- and post-enlistment mental disorders accounted for 60% of first suicide attempts in the Army. This further highlights the importance of addressing the current status of mental health present in today’s military service member population.

Active Duty: Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among U.S. military personnel, according to data from the Department of Defense. In 2012, a record 350 service members took their own lives. That total was twice as many as the decade before and surpassed not only the number of American troops killed in Afghanistan but also the number who died in transportation accidents in the same year.

Veterans: Every day, 22 veterans take their own lives. That’s 1 suicide every 65 minutes, and that’s not including deaths that occurred in several states such as California and Texas.

National Guard: Suicide rates in the National Guard are higher than for full time troops. In 2012, 34.2 per 100,000 Guard soldiers took their own lives in comparison to 22.7 per 100,000 full time soldiers. At any given time, troops on active-duty rolls include not only full-time soldiers, sailors, Marines and Airmen; but also include National Guard or reservists who are temporarily called up to full duty status. So- while the exact numbers are hard to decipher, more than likely, the numbers are higher.

 

 

As we move toward a better understanding of emotional health, we must remain in compassionate space, refrain from judgment, and never assume that we can adequately contemplate the intensity of the battle that individuals are fighting within themselves.

 

The environment for the Soldier and their family members can be stressful at times. Soldiers are being deployed, leaving their spouse at home to take care of their family and the home.  Soldiers are placed in a situation that can increase rates of anxiety and result in symptoms of depression once they have completed deployment and are trying to reintegrate with their family and adjust to being home.  The family is placed in a situation where they often feel overwhelmed with demands and possibly guilty for feeling any sense of resentment towards the situation. Symptoms of depression are common. Recognizing these symptoms and whether they are interfering with daily life is important in this vulnerable population. It wasn’t too long ago that the Department of Veterans Affairs released data suggesting that rates of veterans taking their own lives are increasing. Learning the symptoms of depression and treating them early is the best way to prevent tragedy from occurring.

Depression is one of the most common and most treatable mental disorders. The problem lies in not knowing how to recognize depression and/or not taking action to treat the depression. At times, there may be perceived stigma associated with being “labeled” with a “mental” problem, and/or with seeking treatment for that problem. This is even more prevalent in the military population. Soldiers may feel that they just need to “be strong” and deal with issues themselves or feel they will be judged for getting mental health treatment. Failing to take appropriate action can result in a downward spiral with symptoms getting worse. A movement towards empowering soldiers to take action on symptoms of depression without repercussion will result in more of those needing help actually getting it. This movement includes family members, peers, and friends getting on board to support individuals seeking appropriate treatment.

What To Look For

Depression includes a variety of symptoms that can vary from one person to the next that continue day to day. If you notice some of these symptoms continuing for more than just a few days, it may be time to think about seeking help. Common symptoms can include but are not limited to:

1) Feeling fatigued or having no energy almost every day

2) Inability to start or finish daily tasks (cleaning the house, basic hygiene, running errands)

3) A feeling of hopelessness…like there is no reason to live, nothing to look forward to

4) Loss of concentration or inability to remember things

5) Changes in sleep patterns (sleeping too much or not enough)

6) Significant changes in weight (weight gain or loss)

7) Thoughts of death or suicide

It is not advised that you or someone you know use this checklist as a way to “diagnose” depression. This checklist should be used as a tool in recognizing when outside help is needed. We have also included several resources for further information on depression and depression in the military.

Resources

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Service members, including members of the National Guard and Reserves, along with their loved ones can call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online at www.MilitaryCrisisLine.net, or send a text message to 838255 to receive free, confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.  

A hotline has been established specifically for the military called the “Let’s Talk” Deployment Health Helpline: 1-800-796-9699. Available from 7:30-4:30 p.m. EST. 

For additional information, check out Recovery.org, which provides further resources for suicidal thought treatment and recovery.