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Are you mentally fit enough?

Programs to prepare you for battle

Coping skills such as engaging in leisure activities, meditation and mindfulness, and practicing quality sleep habits can help improve mental fitness. Photo credit: Ryan Graham

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Flip off safety. Identify target. Aim weapon. Exhale. Think about late rent. Rehash tight budget. Tally up additional bills.


Learning the ability to focus completely on the present moment despite other distractions -- also known as mindfulness -- can help servicemembers be safer, train better, and be more effective downrange.

It can also aid in turning off work stress when they're with their families and friends, so they can be fully present in those moments, too. Teaching them to be truly present in both settings is one of the goals of Madigan Army Medical Center's Occupational Therapy Service, which coaches servicemembers on mental coping skills.

"We refer to it a lot of the times as mental fitness -- it's just one piece of the puzzle that you do regularly to take care of yourself," said 1st Lt. Jamie Beckett, an occupational therapist and Madigan's officer in charge of behavioral health programs for the OT Service.

Like exercise and nutrition, mental fitness is just one more way servicemembers can take care of themselves and be their best wherever they are. Whether the aim is to focus their mind or to relax it, being able to do both on command is something that can be learned through coping skills.

"Coping skills are literally anything that works to help you manage and solve problems," said Beckett.

While learning to better balance life and time can apply to anyone, the OT Service's behavioral health programs zero in on how to help servicemembers in particular function better, to include dealing with stress, understanding changes and transitions, and developing healthy coping strategies for deployment, pre-deployment and post-deployment.

This can start with identifying what coping skills servicemembers are already using, whether they are positive or negative.

"A lot of people will cope by smoking or drinking or even cutting, and we talk about what are you really getting out of that activity ... We try to come up with healthier alternatives that give the same effect," Beckett said.

If the real aim of smoking, for example, is to feel relaxed, or to get a social break outdoors, then they work to seek positive coping skills that can achieve the same effect. Positive coping skills can be anything that helps mental fitness, whether it's pounding out stress in the gym or relaxing with friends and family or getting lost (metaphorically) in nature.

"It literally can be anything, but if it works for you and there's no negative long-term consequences, then let's talk about how to make that a part of your routine," said Beckett.

With the high demands and long days of servicemembers, many can find it difficult to make time for mental fitness. The stress that comes along with being in the military and the inherent risk of the job, though, is just why servicemembers should make time to focus on keeping mentally sharp, according to Patrick Hogg.

A certified OT assistant with Madigan's OT Service, and a veteran infantryman, Hogg lived the stress many of his clients face day-to-day. He knows how important mental fitness is, and how mindfulness and other coping skills actually help servicemembers function better downrange.

"If you're on patrol, you should not be worried about what's going on at home. Using those skills of letting go of thoughts of other than what you're doing are incredibly important to the mission, and that's why we practice that here because it's very important to safety not just for you but for everyone around you, to your team," said Hogg.

Like mindfulness, quality sleep can also sharpen the mind. The OT Service runs a group that teaches how servicemembers can control their own quality of sleep.

"We develop sleep habits, sleep rituals, sleep schedules that are geared towards active-duty soldiers," Hogg said.

If a sleep routine won't translate to life downrange - such as playing video games or watching TV right before bed -- then clients are encouraged to change their routines now so they can sleep better later when they are deployed.

The OT Service teaches other useful skills as well such as how to better problem solve (focusing on what's in servicemembers' control), how to better regulate emotions (when reacting to situations outside of their control), and how to improve thought habits and interactions with others.

No matter where coping skills are used, Beckett and Hogg stressed that practicing them often is the key to honing them. Keeping that mental fitness sharp when deployed, just like any other skill, comes from practicing those skills in garrison first.

"If you wait until the moment you need them to use that coping skill, you just walked into the ring with Mike Tyson in his prime, not knowing how to box," said Hogg.

That's why they both encourage leaders to give servicemembers the time to focus on their mental fitness just as they would other fitness and training. Groups or individual appointments with the OT Service may only take an hour out of the day, while not being mentally fit could lead to training mistakes or injuries while deployed.

They emphasized that mental fitness starts with training the mind - at the range, in the field, off duty.

Ready. Aim. Exhale. Clear mind.


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