Legendary U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis once said, “The most important six inches on the battlefield is between your ears.”
Service members who have deployed during today’s complex conflicts likely have a special appreciation for Mattis’ assertion that the mind matters most.
In an era where the military is heavily involved in both combat operations and nation-building, troops are often expected to simultaneously sustain focus, make nuanced, split-second decisions about the use of force, and reach back into their memories to draw on their training during high-stress situations.
These efforts require a high frontal cortex functional capacity. The frontal cortex helps us with both emotional regulation (being able to think and not just react) and upper level cognition (focus). These brain functions comprise our working memory capacity, and interestingly, we can improve that capacity with the use of some well-studied, relatively simple exercises.
Unfortunately, although the military emphasizes the importance of physical training and does a wonderful job creating developmental stress opportunities, it doesn’t do a great job training service members to rest, or do the restorative practices needed to maximize the mind’s growth opportunities.
Restorative practices move our bodies to a rested state between action and sleep. These practices matter because they increase our physical and mental performance, which are important both in and out of the military. The same things that make you a better warrior can also make you a better parent, partner, employee, and friend.
Why does mental fitness training matter?
For active duty servicemembers and veterans alike, mental fitness training should include stressors alongside very intentional mental recovery time. When both are combined, physical and mental performance increase, clarity of thought improves, and you’re able to slow your reaction times in the right contexts.
The good news is you don’t have to wait for the military to provide this training – you can train yourself.
But before we get to the training part, let’s take a quick look at what happens in your body during and after you encounter stressors.
Think about the last time you experienced stress. Maybe it was being stuck behind a slow driver in traffic or gearing up for a mandatory run with a wicked hangover. Maybe it was being in a firefight or being lost somewhere. Here’s a snapshot of what happens in your body in those scenarios: Your brain is operating in an active state, indicated by what researchers call Beta waves. This is a high-functioning mental space. As the stress is registered by your brain, a chain reaction fires. Your body releases cortisol (a stress hormone), adrenaline, and a host of other chemicals to help you cope. It also releases a hormone called DHEA into your bloodstream.
DHEA’s entire role is to help your brain grow from the stressor you just survived. The hormone increases synaptic firing and neural connectivity (you’ll think faster) and increases working memory capacity (emotional regulation and focus). DHEA is what makes stressful experiences worth your time, but there’s a catch: although the hormone is released when your body or brain are stressed, it only does its work during recovery time – when your body and brain consciously downshift.
One of the best, validated ways to move your brain to this state is through mindfulness-based stress reduction, or – as it is more commonly known – meditation.
Meditation takes your brain from Beta state (alert, on guard) to Theta space (at rest, but aware). When you sleep, your brain produces Delta waves (deep, dreamless sleep).
Mediation is one of the fastest ways to give your mind and body the space they need to turn stress into strength. Even if you only dedicate 15 minutes each day to it, you’re likely to see dramatic changes in your ability to focus and regulate emotions within a week or two of practice.
Every hurdle you jump over and every stress or trigger you encounter becomes more useful if you carve out recovery time. Meditation is performance enhancement – it trains us for mental fitness.
How can I train myself?
You don’t have to run to an island somewhere to start experiencing more calm – it’s something you can easily make part of your day.
Here’s how to get started:
- Learn the brain science basics. You’ll find your reason to practice as you understand more about how meditation helps your brain grow and recover. A great place to understand the basics is Chapter 3 in Brave Strong True: The Modern Warrior’s Battle For Balance: “The Upside of Stress.”
- Learn mindfulness meditation (takes about 10 minutes). It’s simple to teach, simple to learn, but not simple to practice – it may take some getting used to. I like iRest.us (it’s been validated specifically in military community). It’s simple and a great place to start.
- Ritualize your practice by making mindfulness a regular part of your day. Prioritize this opportunity for growth.
- Track your progress. How did you mentally feel week 1? Week 2? Write down wins so you can remember them. A great journal might work for you.
- Continue your practice daily.
Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas is a U.S. Marine veteran and wellness coach who writes about resilience building, creating strong communities, and the science of spirituality. You can find her new book, “Brave, Strong, True: The Modern Warrior’s Battle for Balance”, here.