The Mindful Soldier

When you think of the fitness level of our military troops, most likely you are thinking of physical fitness. But, what about the other type of fitness? So called “mental fitness” has become a hot topic in recent years, and for good reason.

Mental health-related difficulties amongst troops, such as Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and sleeping disorders, have been on the rise in recent years. Consequentially, the military has a vested interest in techniques that can help prevent and treat such mental health related diagnoses by strengthening “mental fitness”. Cue mindfulness. 

 

 

What’s Mindfulness?

Mindfulness expert, Jon Kabat Zinn says that mindfulness is “The awareness that emerges through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”

Simply put, mindfulness is moment-to-moment awareness. It is cultivated by purposefully paying attention to things we ordinarily do on auto pilot. It 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 and our ability to process difficult situations.

According to the National Center for PTSD,

“Awareness and acceptance of trauma-related thoughts and feelings may serve as an indirect mechanism of cognitive-affective exposure. This may be especially useful for individuals with PTSD, as it may help decrease experiential avoidance, reduce arousal, and foster emotion regulation. For instance, among trauma-exposed individuals evaluated at a single time point, greater levels of acting with awareness and accepting without judgment were associated with lower levels of posttraumatic stress symptoms.”

Mindfulness and the Military

There have been many studies that have examined the effects of using mindfulness-based training techniques in a variety of ways that can benefit troops. One study, conducted by the University of Miami, found that 8 hours of mindfulness training completed over an 8 week period of time, helped prevent mind-wandering and attentional lapses in pre-deployment training groups. The focus of the mindfulness training was to help Soldiers learn how to stay focused on the present moment. Focusing on “awareness”, it is theorized, would help Soldiers prepare for combat and improve personal performance and cognitive resilience. The results indicated that pre-deployment mindfulness training could be beneficial in helping strengthen cognitive resilience before deployment, and in turn, help reduce the number of Soldiers diagnosed with PTSD, during and post-deployment.

Another study, also involving Marines, looked at the effectiveness of mindfulness-based fitness training (MMFT) on resilience mechanisms in Marines preparing for deployment.  Two groups of Marines were assigned either the MMFT program or the usual training program (control group). The MMFT program consisted of 20 hours of classroom instruction and homework, delivered over the span of 8 weeks. The MMFT program emphasized introspective awareness, attentional control, and tolerance of present-moment experiences. Several metrics, such as heart rate, breathing rate, score on the Response to Stressful Experiences Scale, and brain activation as measured by functional MRI, were measured pre and post training. These metrics were also measured after a traumatic event happened. The results indicated that Marines who completed the MMFT program had greater reactivity and enhanced recovery (as demonstrated by heart rate), improved breathing rate after stressful training, and improved blood-oxygen-levels. These results indicate that stress recovery can be improved for individuals who undergo the MMFT program.

A third study, conducted at the Veterans Affairs Salt Lake City Health Care System, examined the effects of mindfulness training on self-reported sleep quality and PTSD among veterans. The results of the study indicated that just 2 mindfulness based sessions, called “mind-body bridging” or “MBB”, were effective in helping reduce the number of sleep disturbances as well as improve PTSD symptoms. Since the symptoms were self-reported, more research is needed in clinical and empirical settings.  However, the results are promising.  

Taking it one step further, a fourth study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, examined the effectiveness of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on treating symptoms of PTSD and depression among veterans. The results showed that 47% of Veterans that underwent MSBR training for 6 months showed improvement in PTSD symptoms, including depression.

Implications

Mindfulness based training has shown positive results for helping prevent and treat many mental health-related diagnoses, such as PTSD and sleep disorders. However, more clinical and empirical research is needed in order to fully understand the amount and type of mindfulness based training that is most beneficial to veterans.

Many non-profit organizations offer free or reduced mindfulness training or mindfulness based exercise, such as yoga, for veterans. Pop-up yoga practices are also starting to show up for Soldiers that are deployed in the Middle East.

What’s in it for me?

There are many benefits to practicing mindfulness, including many features that impact quality of life.  Mindfulness based stress reduction techniques have been shown to help reduce depression, anxiety, and overall psychological distress.  Practicing mindfulness has also been linked with increased happiness and resilience.  The more that mindfulness is practiced, the stronger the benefits. This is because practicing mindfulness helps refine and strengthen innate internal resources and emotions, such as gratitude, compassion, and acceptance. 

 

 

In addition to the mental health benefits, some physical health benefits of practicing mindfulness include better sleep and maintaining a healthy weight. As mentioned previously, mindfulness has been linked with improved sleep for Veteran’s with Post Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD).  According to a study from the University of Utah, mindfulness can also help civilians sleep better at night.  Mindful eating, the practice of a slower, more thoughtful way of eating may help support weight loss goals by decreasing inattentive eating and instead focusing on the more sensual experience of eating (color, taste, flavor, etc.). 

Try it. Tips to help get you started  

Mindfulness meditation practice is one way to get started.  Take a good seat, pay attention to your breath, and when your attention wanders, return. Mindful.org offers some great tips when starting to practice mindfulness. 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. 

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