Editor’s Note: The following is a guest blog post provided courtesy of the Real Warriors Campaign. More information and tools are available at www.realwarriors.net.
Staying fit requires more than physical strength – it requires a comprehensive approach that focuses on the mind, body and spirit working together. Whether you are preparing to deploy, are currently deployed or are reintegrating, it’s important to consider how mind and body practices like breathing, meditation and relaxation techniques can assist you in staying resilient or coping with invisible wounds. Mind and body skills are part of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and integrative health practices that focus on the interactions among the brain, mind, body and behavior, in order to use the mind to strengthen physical functioning and promote health.1 CAM and integrative health are a diverse group of medical and non-medical health care practices that are not considered to be part of conventional medicine, or clinical care practiced by a health provider.[1 ]Note, CAM and integrative health practices are not currently covered under TRICARE military health care plans. For more information on TRICARE coverage, visit TRICARE Covered Services online.
Used on their own or as a supplement to your provider’s clinical care, mind and body practices may reduce the severity of combat stress, relax your mind, assist in your recovery, build resilience and help you maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Practice Breathing Exercises to Relax
Breathing exercises, a fundamental component of mind and body practices, have been proven to activate the body’s relaxation response. Additionally, breathing exercises can help control the body’s reaction to stress by balancing its “fight or flight” response and relaxation response. Incorporating breathing exercises such as the one below into your daily routine can improve physiological factors like blood pressure, heart rate and muscle relaxation, which in turn may help you manage anxiety, improve concentration, sleep sounder or improve your immune system.
The National Center for Telehealth and Technology’s Breathe2Relax mobile app can help you manage stress through proven diaphragmatic breathing exercises. Breathe2Relax can be used as a stand-alone stress reduction tool or it can be used in tandem with clinical care, as directed by your healthcare provider. The app is available for Apple iOS and Android operating systems. To download the app, search for “Breathe2Relax” in the App Store for iOS and in the Android Market from your smart mobile device.
To practice breathing on your own, sit in a comfortable position and be sure to inhale and exhale evenly and slowly. An alternate nostril breathing exercise is a good technique to start with because it brings balance to both sides of the brain and control the body’s reaction to stress:
- Close off your right nostril by placing the thumb of your right hand on your right nostril
- Inhale through your left nostril
- Close off your left nostril with the ring finger of your right hand
- Remove the thumb and exhale through your right nostril
- Inhale through your right nostril
- Close off your right nostril with your thumb
- Exhale through your left nostril
- Inhale through your left nostril
- Continue alternating five to 10 times
For more information on breathing exercises, download the Controlled Breathing Techniques fact sheet on our website and try incorporating breathing exercises into your daily routine.
Calm Your Mind with Meditation
Meditation is a technique that restores calm and inner peace and produces a deep state of relaxation by focusing attention. It is not yet fully known what changes occur in the body during meditation or whether or how they influence health, but research is ongoing. Meditation can be effective for building resilience and easing anxiety, depression or reintegration stress. Some forms of meditation instruct the practitioner to become mindful of thoughts, feelings and sensations and to observe them in a nonjudgmental way. Most types of meditation have four elements in common:
- A quiet location. Meditation is usually practiced in a quiet place with as few distractions as possible. This can be particularly helpful for beginners.
- A specific, comfortable posture. Depending on the type being practiced, meditation can be done while sitting, lying down, standing, walking or in other positions.
- A focus of attention. Focusing your attention is usually part of meditation. For example, you might focus on a mantra (a chosen word or set of words), an object, the sensations of breathing or whatever topic or thought is dominant in your consciousness.
- An open attitude. Having an open attitude during meditation means letting distractions come and go naturally without judging them. If your attention goes to a distracting or wandering thought, no need to suppress those thoughts. Instead, gently return your attention back to focus.
If you’re interested in learning more about meditation, check with your nearest military facility to inquire if they offer a meditation course. An increasing number of facilities offer meditation courses – and some offer a focus on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). You can also talk to your health care provider about meditation resources in your community. For information on choosing a CAM practitioner or program, check out the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine’s tips for selecting a CAM practitioner.
Relax Through Yoga
For a review and comparative summary of popular mind-body techniques, read “Mind-Body Skills for Regulating the Autonomic Nervous System” by the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.
The term “yoga” means to “unite” and typically involves a combination of exercise, breathing and meditation. Research indicates that benefits of yoga may include lowered blood pressure, reduced stress response, increased strength, flexibility endurance, immune response and improved concentration, among other benefits. Yoga is an important part of the Specialized Care Program at Defense Department’s Deployment Health Clinical Center (DHCC), which is designed to treat patients with deployment-related stress and PTSD. Before enrolling in a yoga class at the DHCC or at another military facility, you should consult with your healthcare provider to confirm yoga is suitable for you. For service members coping with trauma, a yoga class which focuses on trauma-sensitive meditation may be more appropriate than a more traditional class.
For those who wish to practice yoga at home, DHCC recommends a program called iRest, which offers voice-guided sessions on meditation and deep relaxation. Visit iRest’s military webpage to listen to a free download (short practice) of iRest Yoga Nidra or view a 15-minute introductory video of guided meditations for warriors.
1 “What is CAM?” National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, National Institutes of Health. Last accessed Feb. 26, 2014.
2 Mahoney, Louise. “Reduce Stress with 10 Minutes of Chair Yoga,” [PPT 889KB] Department of Veterans Affairs War Related Illness and Injury Study Center. Last accessed Feb. 26, 2014.
3 Carnes, Robin. “Holistic Therapies Help Manage Stress At Home,” Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury. Last accessed Feb. 26, 2014.
4 “Controlled Breathing Techniques,” [PDF 77KB] Department of Veterans Affairs War Related Illness and Injury Study Center. Last accessed Feb. 26, 2014.
5 “Meditation: An Introduction,” National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Last accessed Feb. 26, 2014.
6 Carnes, Robin. “Yoga and Yoga Nidra Meditation at the Deployment Health Clinical Center’s Specialized Care Program,” [PDF 1.1MB] Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury. Last accessed Feb. 26, 2014