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The Mind-Body Balance of a Warrior

November 16, 2009 –When it comes to preparing for battle, mental fitness in a soldier is as paramount as physical fitness. Yet, too many come into war ill-prepared for the stress of combat, deployment and transitioning back home, according to Elizabeth Stanley, assistant professor of security studies. She has created a new training program, Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT), which Stanley says increases a capacity to process stress among members of the military. Stanley teamed up with a neuroscientist from the University of Pennsylvania to study MMFT's effects on 31 Marines preparing for deployment to Iraq this past summer, and early results are encouraging. Now the pair plans on conducting a larger study with the U.S. Army. Stanley sat down with the Blue & Gray to talk about stress thresholds, helping the military cope with counterinsurgency combat and how one Marine drew on MMFT after an attack in Iraq.

Q. Please explain what MMFT is and the concepts behind it.
A. MMFT has three components. The first is mindfulness skills training. Mindfulness is a natural ability we all have, but we don’t have much training in it. We have the capacity to pay attention moment-by-moment to what’s happening without judging, changing or fixing it. Part of the training is helping people to cultivate the skills to do that.

The second component is stress resilience skills training. By that, I mean an understanding of the way the body and mind react to stressors and how the stress activation cycle works. Resilience is actually the process of being able to get stressed and recover from it.

The stress resilience training piece interacts with the first component by taking the ability to hold focused attention to see what’s happening around you and to use that capacity to help the body reset itself.

The third component is helping them see how the skills of the first two parts have applications to what they’re doing -- in terms of fighting a counterinsurgency and in operations.

Q. What were some of the findings from your pilot MMFT study with the Marines?
A. Working memory is the capacity to keep your attention controlled over time. What’s amazing about it is that working memory is a capacity that can be built. At the beginning of the training, all of the Marines were about the same with their working memory. At the end of the eight-week training, there was a direct correlation to the amount of time they practiced and the improvement or decline of working memory capacity.

The men who practiced more actually saw an improvement in their memory capacity during their pre-deployment training, even though they were facing all kinds of stressors. They were training seven days a week, sometimes for 16 hours at a time, and preparing to leave their families.

There was a real objective increase in the number of stressors, and yet the men who practiced the exercises had more capacity to handle that stress. The men who didn’t practice saw a decrease.

Q. Has it been difficult to convince the military this kind of training is needed when troops are already stretched thin preparing for combat?
A. No, and that’s because the benefits have become more clear. In fighting a counterinsurgency, soldiers have to deal with this constantly changing, morally ambiguous, complex environment -- where they have to know if a child standing there is innocent or about to detonate a grenade while also knowing what others in the environment are doing and how they are feeling inside. Without that clarity, soldiers can fire that weapon from a reactive place.

If that child is not a threat, but we’re constantly ramped up on stress and we misread the situation and kill the child, there are cascading consequences -- ones that undermine the mission, convince more people to join the insurgency and put our troops in harm’s way for long periods. It creates a vicious cycle.

Q. What skills are the troops gaining from MMFT?
A. If you imagine a stress threshold -- where at the bottom, we’re centered and balanced and at the top, it’s the tipping point for stress where it’s too much. Clearly, the moment of combat can be one of those points. But, we’ll have a lot more capacity to deal with the stress if we’re hitting that moment from the bottom of the threshold. This training helps the men and women begin to see how the body and mind deal with stress, so they can see the warning signs of stress building up, and so they can recover and reset.

MMFT may be a new packaging, but the idea of a balanced warrior, who balances mind and body, has a long history and tradition. Just think back to the samurai or the Spartan warriors. I see as helping our troops do what we ask them to do better.

Q. How have the Marines in the pilot program used their training in combat, thus far?
A. The pilot group of Marines was in Iraq working with another Marine unit that hadn’t received the training and a group of Iraqi counterparts. One of the Iraqi soldiers was actually an insurgent, and he turned on the Americans, and killed some of them -- including the captain. It was incredibly traumatic for them to watch the leader’s remains being carried by.

One of the Marines I trained saw another Marine struggling to light a cigarette because his hands were shaking so badly. The first marine recognized that as a sign of the parasympathetic nervous system resetting itself and knew his colleague needed help. He walked the other Marine through a couple of the exercises we did in MMFT.

Later that night, the first Marine went to check on the other, who said he felt noticeably calmer. That’s one place where MMFT was very mission-critical.

Q. The military community is still coming to grips with the mass killing at Ft. Hood. Could a program such as MMFT help?
A. Culturally there has been a stigma about mental health issues, and that interacts with ‘I can suck it up. I don’t need help.’ And that’s one of the ways of the military-warrior culture. There’s less appreciation for mental health needs, and the resources that exist are stretched very thin. The care providers are facing a lot of secondary trauma, both because of the workload and because of the things they are hearing. It naturally will affect you, too. I think that could be an active part of what was going on with that Army psychiatrist [who has been charged with killing 13 people on the Texas Army base.]

Q. Do you see a role for MMFT beyond the military?
A. Yes. Over the summer, I established a nonprofit center, the Mind Fitness Training Institute, with the idea that it will be the home of the trainers in order to spread the program more widely. We see the mission of the institute as providing this training for individuals and organizations in high-stress positions. We’ve been approached by the U.S. Forest Service to bring it to those fighting wildfires out west, and we’ve been approached by law enforcement and parts of the intelligence community.

Editor's Note: The diverse views presented in the Focal Point section are not intended to imply institutional endorsement and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or official policies of the university.

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