soldiers

After a While It Becomes Normal

Excerpt from "Meditation Fit for a Marine," by Vanessa Gregory, Men's Journal, Nov. 11, 2010:

[A 2008 research study, partly funded by the Department of Defense, tested a group of] Marines for something called “working memory capacity,” a term that brain scientists use to define a cognitive resource that is much more than simple recall. Working memory capacity powers complex thoughts. It’s what we call upon to figure out restaurant tips, break down spreadsheets, or even settle ethical dilemmas like whether or not to pull a trigger. The level of this resource can be depleted throughout the day. A morning disagreement with a co-worker — or a roadside bomb for that matter — can make it harder to solve a problem that requires math skills a few hours later in the day. In the battlefield low levels of working memory capacity might mean the difference between life and death.

The results of the Marines’ experiences, published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Emotion, showed that the men who embraced meditation walked out of pre-deployment training with minds that were more agile than those who didn’t. They also reported improved athletic performance, relief from anxiety, better sleep, and stronger memory. “I wasn’t scatterbrained anymore,” says Major Jeff Davis, a 39-year-old infantry officer. “I had no problem concentrating when I was upset.”

Meditation, of course, has made headlines for years for a range of health benefits, from reducing symptoms of depression to lowering blood pressure and speeding healing. One UCLA study found that meditation slows the progression of HIV by reducing stress that hurts immune function. But many of those studies involved experienced practitioners; some of these Marines had never meditated before but still made mental strides, suggesting the practice is more accessible to first-timers and faster-acting than commonly thought.

The Marines engaged in a form of secular meditation called mindfulness, which is characterized by paying attention to the present. A beginner exercise, for example, involved concentrating on an area of contact between the body and whatever it’s touching, like a chair, for about five minutes. Whenever their minds wandered, the Marines were instructed to refocus. “It doesn’t take you to some transcendental state,” Davis says. “It’s not as foofy as that.” Some of the men, accustomed to excelling at everything they did, were surprised at how much focus they had to muster. As the weeks passed, Elizabeth Stanley introduced more complicated exercises. The Marines practiced “shuttling” their attention between contact points and sounds like wind or the hum of electricity. That may seem remedial, but consciously switching between focal points exacerbates the mind’s natural tendency to wander, and focus can easily drift to a dozen thoughts instead of two.

Near the end of training, the Marines attended a mindfulness retreat at the mansion of John Kluge, a former television mogul whose foundation also partially funded the study. The men spent an entire day in silence, trying to be mindful about every move they made. But some men, like Hermes Oliva, a Navy medic assigned to the unit, still weren’t buying it. “We’re barefoot on this guy’s lawn doing yoga, and we’re supposed to be silent,” he says. “We’re like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ ”

However, once Oliva was stationed in Iraq’s Anbar province as the sole medic for 60 Marines and 200 Iraqi soldiers, he “did a 180.” He remembered Stanley’s lectures about how mindfulness could cultivate an ability to more easily endure racing thoughts and the body’s primal fight-or-flight responses — those physical manifestations of stress that include shaking and a knotted stomach. “In my tent at night all by myself, I started doing those exercises,” he says. “It would help me recognize the symptoms in my body before they got out of control.”

It doesn’t take a situation as intense as Iraq to trap people in unhealthy stress cycles. Everyday life has the potential to weaken the immune system and diminish psychological resilience, especially in the age of e-mail, text messaging, and nonstop multitasking. Davis, who remains on active duty in Quantico, continues to meditate every day. “I can’t think of any aspect of my life that this hasn’t helped me in — academically, as a dad,” he says. He compared mindfulness to a physical workout like running: At first it seems impossible to fit in your schedule, but after a while it becomes normal. What’s the minimum to get results? Scientists aren’t certain, but none of the Marines in the Emotion study actually stuck to the full 30-minutes-daily regimen — the high-practice group saw benefits with an average meditation time of just 15 minutes a day. What’s important, notes Stanley, is to be consistent on a day-to-day basis.

How You Can Benefit From Marine-Style Mindfulness

Meditation improves concentration, zaps stress, increases memory, and promotes restful sleep. Here are a few exercises to get you started.

Boost concentration (5 minutes)
While sitting, use your hands to find tension in your brow, jaw, neck, and shoulders. Spend half a minute or so trying to release it by rubbing the tension with your hands and relaxing the tightness with your mind. Then focus on the contact points between your body and the chair. Focus on the point where the pressure is greatest. Whenever your attention wanders, refocus it on that contact point, thinking about nothing else.

Relieve stress (10 minutes)
Again, start by focusing on a contact point between your body and the chair. Then switch your attention to a single sound. It could be the traffic outside or even something quiet like the hum of a computer. Alternate between the contact point and sound at a slow, steady pace. This will free your mind from stress. End the exercise by returning to the contact point, and then slowly widen your focus outward to the rest of your body.

Induce sleep (15 minutes)
This exercise should be done right before bedtime, either in a chair or lying down. Wiggle and flex your toes. Focus on the sensations in your feet. Pause and continue to observe any feeling in your feet. Continue this pattern of flexing and resting sequentially throughout your body: ankles, knees, hips, fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders, neck, jaw, and eye sockets. Soldiers found this exercise to greatly improve sleep.

Read the entire article...

Keeping the Button on Play

“We do have a rewind button. In fact, a lot of our life experience is actually not experienced. Our mind is in the past, ruminating, thinking back. Sometimes savoring, but in many occasions it’s thinking about the past and holding onto it. But our mind also has a fast forward where we’re thinking ahead and planning. Yet, what I want to suggest to you is that the most important thing we probably need to do in order to make sure our attention system is functioning fully, so that we’re able to actually experience the life we have, is probably to keep the button right on play. The question for me became: How do we cultivate our attention so that so that we’re actually paying attention to the present moment? And could there be a way we could train ourselves to be better able to pay attention to the present moment?

~ Dr. Amishi Jha, Associate Professor of Psychology, University of Miami

From the Schofield Barracks Training and Research on Neurobehavioral Growth (STRONG):

“Dr. Jha is a neuroscientist whose primary expertise is in understanding how the brain pays attention. Her team has been awarded grants from the Dept. of Defense, Medical Research and Material Command to conduct this project using computer-based experiments and brainwave recording to investigate if and how resilience training may improve the ways in which the brain can:

  • Pay attention

  • Be situationally aware (of one’s own immediate surroundings)

  • Be better able to manage and recover from stress

The U.S. Army realizes that body armor and physical exercise are necessary to protect soldiers’ bodies and keep them physically healthy. More recently, there has been great interest in understanding how soldiers’ brains and minds might also be best protected and kept healthy over the cycle(s) of military deployment.

The main purpose of the STRONG project is to understand if and how resilience training might provide soldiers with ‘mental armor.’

Just as daily physical exercise is important for physical fitness, neuroscientists are finding that regularly engaging in mental exercises may improve brain-fitness. The more ‘fit’ one’s brain, the better one may be at recovering from stress, solving complex problems in challenging circumstances, and handling high demands. Of course, making one’s body fit requires effort, discipline, and a commitment over a long period of time. So too does making one’s brain fit. This project aims to use cutting-edge neuroscience to measure how two different types of resilience training programs may help make soldiers’ brains and minds more fit so that they are best prepared for the upcoming challenges of deployment.”

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See also: “In New Military, Data Overload Can Be Deadly,” by Thom Shanker and Matt Richtel, New York Times, Jan. 16, 2001

Unprepared for Long Wars

"Suicides among active-duty soldiers in 2007 reached their highest level since the Army began keeping such records in 1980, according to a draft internal study obtained by The Washington Post. Last year, 121 soldiers took their own lives, nearly 20 percent more than in 2006."

"At the same time, the number of attempted suicides or self-inflicted injuries in the Army has jumped sixfold since the Iraq war began. Last year, about 2,100 soldiers injured themselves or attempted suicide, compared with about 350 in 2002, according to the U.S. Army Medical Command Suicide Prevention Action Plan."
...

"The Army was unprepared for the high number of suicides and cases of post-traumatic stress disorder among its troops, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have continued far longer than anticipated. Many Army posts still do not offer enough individual counseling and some soldiers suffering psychological problems complain that they are stigmatized by commanders. Over the past year, four high-level commissions have recommended reforms and Congress has given the military hundreds of millions of dollars to improve its mental health care, but critics charge that significant progress has not been made."

-- Dana Priest, "Soldier Suicides at Record Level," The Washington Post (1/31/08)