Deployment is a unique time in a service member’s life – long periods away from family, stressful situations and traumatic experiences can affect service members even after they return home. Studies show there are a number of techniques service members can use to manage thoughts, feelings and even actions during deployment and afterward.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a way of paying attention that increases awareness of the present by focusing on your breathing, body and thoughts. Simple techniques train the brain to focus on a chosen object of attention, which reduces attention to other things such as worrying or anxiety, which can help decrease stress. Mindfulness practices can help service members reduce stress and anxiety both during deployment and after returning home.
In times of stress, being mindful can help you be better able to respond wisely to a situation, rather than reacting impulsively. By increasing your ability to focus your attention where you choose to, you increase your problem solving abilities and can better deal with the tasks at hand.
Mindfulness techniques are easy to practice, but feeling the effects of them does take time. Like physical conditioning, regular practice is the best way to build your skills and work toward success.
One of the simplest mindfulness techniques is breath awareness. You don’t need any special equipment, all you need to do is breathe.
To practice simple breath awareness:
- Find a comfortable seated position. Allow yourself to feel the support of whatever you are sitting on. Feel yourself relax into your seat. Feel your feet on the floor. Feel your hands in your lap. If it is comfortable for you, close your eyes. If closing your eyes makes you feel anxious, leave them open and pick something to look at. Try to focus on it softly. Allow yourself to settle and relax, and just breathe in and out a few times.
- When you are ready, gently bring your attention to your breath. Usually, when you practice breath awareness you breathe in and out through your nose, but if that feels awkward or uncomfortable, just breathe whatever way is most relaxing for you.
- Notice where in your body you feel your breath most. It might be where the air enters your nose, or the back of your throat, or where your chest rises and falls. Allow yourself to simply notice how your breath moves your body as you breathe in and out.
- If you like, you can place your hands over your belly and feel the way your belly expands as you breathe in and contracts as you breathe out. Continue to be aware of just breathing in and breathing out.
- Whenever you notice that your attention has wandered, and you find yourself thinking about something other than your breath – maybe about something that is bothering you, or work that is pressing – simply bring your attention gently back to your breath. You might even think the words “breathing in” as you inhale, and “breathing out” as you exhale.
- See if you can follow your breath for 10 inhales and 10 exhales without getting distracted. If so, great. Maybe try to do 20 next time. If not, just try again. The more you practice, the better you will get.
- After 10 or 20 breaths, gently open your eyes and allow your attention to come back to the world around you. Take another breath. Notice how you feel. This is basic mindfulness.
A common misunderstanding is that to be “good” at mindfulness you should be able to empty your mind and relax. But that is not necessarily true. The most important part of mindfulness is learning to be aware of how you are paying attention. Whenever you realize you are not paying attention the way you want to, you can gently refocus your attention. Like lifting weights, each time you consciously focus your attention, you strengthen that ability. The point of mindfulness is to be able to focus your attention where you want it to go, rather than allowing your attention to go wherever it wants.
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Breath awareness is just one tool you can use to reduce stress, and there are a number of other techniques service members and their families can use to manage stressful situations. With regular practice, these techniques can increase your ability to deal with challenges and recover after a traumatic event. Other effective techniques include talking about your experiences with a professional or a trusted friend or family member.
Military OneSource and the Military Families Learning Network have a number of resources to help you develop your resilience skills and move toward a less stressful state of mind. Learn more in these articles:
You might also try these Department of Defense recommended wellness apps, and audio chill drills.
For more information about stress reduction, take advantage of Military OneSource free, confidential, non-medical counseling, or contact your installation Military and Family Support Center to inquire about available programs and services.