Marine Corps officials are testing a series of brain calming exercises called "Mindfulness-Based Mind Fitness Training,” reported the Associated Press yesterday. The Marine Corps “believes this training could enhance the performance of troops, who are under mounting pressures from long deployments and looming budget cuts expected to slim down forces.”
This sort of innovation is to be applauded (dare it be said, even, saluted?), because is a vital nod to paying attention to not only the physical fitness of soldiers but their mental health as well. It is especially impressive that the Marine Corps is stepping out of what might be its stereotypical comfort zone in order to learn from ancient Eastern methods of attaining wellness. After all, this is an urgent situation, for not only active-duty Marines, but for all military combat personnel. It might also be an important training and mental health resource for veterans. More than one million Americans served in the Iraq war alone.
Julie Watson of the Associated Press writes in her Jan. 19, 2013 article titled, “Marines studying mindfulness-based training:”
“Maj. Gen. Melvin Spiese said he was convinced after looking at the scientific research and then taking the course.
While teaching troops to shoot makes them a better warfighter, teaching mindfulness makes them a better person by helping them to decompress, which could have lasting effects, he said.”
What is mindfulness?
Examples of practices of mindfulness include yoga and meditation. However, one can also be fully present in the moment while taking a walk, exercising or even reading.
In their paper titled, “Mindfulness-Based Relationship Enhancement,” James Carson, Kimberly M. Carson, Karen M. Gil and Donald H. Baucom of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill suggest:
“Mindfulness meditation methods foster greater awareness, ease, and fresh discovery in all of life’s experiences, with the ultimate purpose of enhancing access to innate resources of joy, compassion, and connectedness. “Mindfulness” has been described as the ability to remain focused on the reality of the present moment, accepting and opening to it, without getting caught up in elaborative thoughts or emotional reactions to situations (Kabat-Zinn, 1990).
”Mindfulness techniques are used to develop a perspective on thoughts and feelings that cultivates recognition of them as passing events in the mind, rather than identifying with them or treating them as necessarily accurate reflections of reality. By practicing the skills of moment-to-moment awareness, people seek to gain insight into patterns in their thoughts, feelings, and interactions with others, and to skillfully choose helpful responses rather than automatically reacting in habitual, overlearned ways (Teasdale et al., 2000).”
Carol Schatz, Harvard Health Editor, explains in a 2011 article:
“Mindfulness meditation is a mental discipline. You start by focusing your attention on your breath, a sensation in the body, or a chosen word or phrase. You note the thoughts, emotions, and background sounds that arise from moment to moment, observing them without analyzing them or making judgments about what’s going on around you. If you drift into thoughts about the past or concerns about the future, you bring your attention back to the present, for example, by refocusing on your breathing. It takes practice.”
Yoga and meditation have been credited with being helpful in not only truly reducing high blood pressure, but also chronic pain, depression and anxiety. These kind of benefits make this latest news about developments at the Marine Corps all the more exciting to me, as a mental health advocate.
A 2011 study from Georgia State University and San Diego State University, “The Psychological Costs of War: Military Combat and Mental Health,” analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, focusing on the experiences and health outcomes of 1,100 young servicemen and women. The researchers examined the relationship between experiences of violence and direct combat in Iraq, Afghanistan and other theaters of the “global war on terrorism,” and rates of psychological counseling, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicide.
Among the findings, researchers cited:
"Experiencing an enemy firefight was associated with a 10.4 percentage point increase in the likelihood of suicidal thoughts and an 18.3 percentage point increase in the probability of PTSD. Additionally, for troops who believed they had killed someone there was a 12 percentage point increase in the probability of suicidal thoughts and a 22.2 percentage point increase in the likelihood of PTSD, compared to rates for service members who did not believe they had killed another person."
Seven percent of Marines are women, yet yoga practitioners to date have tended to be women
As of September 2011, of the 1.48 million active duty military personnel, 214,098 were women, according to the U.S. Dept. of Defense and the U.S. Coast Guard. Another 72,790 women were members of the National Guard and military reserves.
Yes, these are small percentages, which makes it all the more impressive that a male-dominated branch of the armed forces is adopting practices utilized by mostly women in this country. Most yoga practitioners are female. To be exact, according to a 2008 "Yoga in America" study, released by Yoga Journal, nearly ¾ of practitioners are women.
Also in interesting recent news about the Marine Corps and women, the Marines Corps has launched a new marketing campaign, according to Katie J.M. Baker in her Nov. 8, 2012 article titled, “The Marine Corps Hopes to Attract Women By Telling Them They Can Be Teachers,” on Jezebel.com.
“The campaign is called ‘Fighting With Purpose’ and features a black lieutenant and a female captain talking about how much they love serving their country. Their friends and coworkers also make an appearance to talk about how valued the two officers are. Here's the thing, though: while the male lieutenant talks about how it's always been ‘a part’ of him ‘to fight for those, who couldn't fight for themselves, whether on my block or around the world,’ the female Marine Corps captain talks about how she's a cross-fit trainer.”
While the campaign does not tout all of the combat opportunities a woman might experience, were she to join the Marine Corps, perhaps this is a step in the right direction. Combat is, indeed, a necessary and basic part of signing up to be a Marine, but there will hopefully be an expanded role in the Marine Corps for teachers in general and mindfulness counselors in particular. Bottom line: this could be an important development in mental health for veterans as well.