Defining Resilience: The US Army and Mindfulness

How mindfulness techniques are being used in elite military forces to build resilience and mental health

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For better or worse, we can learn a lot from the military. For example, the GPS we all enjoy on our smartphones was developed originally to facilitate the pinpoint delivery of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Military forces also give us largely controlled and statistically significant data sets with which to study. For example, much of what we know regarding post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and associated stress-induced psychological conditions was learned during – and especially after – WW2. These irreplicable large scale events served to provide insight into the resilience of human beings in the face of setbacks and trauma.

The American Psychological Association defines resilience as:

“ the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.” 

These insights continue to this day. The United States Army in conjunction with the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania has developed and delivered a course called Master Resilience Training (MRT). This 10-day program of study teaches resilience skills to army personnel. MRT is a component of the United States Army’s broader Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program delivered to over 300,000 Army personnel.

Whilst the benefits of this program are many, army psychologists were interested in fostering a proactive approach to PTSD, rather than waiting for soldiers to return following service with PTSD – and then beginning to treat it. It’s worth noting, the US Army also invested in teaching MRT skills to families of soldiers as well as non-combat members of the army, no doubt in recognition that strong social networks serve to strengthen one’s personal resilience.

The first module of the MRT program is called “Hunt for the good stuff” in which participants are encouraged to search for and focus on what they can be grateful for. This exercise is designed to promote personal optimism and fight the negativity bias we all possess. This makes perfect sense and relates well as to what we know; an optimistic outlook is essential to the development of one’s resilience. So important is it that it is the first of ‘The 7 Pillars of Resilience model’ developed by German psychotherapist Micheline Rampe (2010). 

In 2014 The American Journal of Psychiatry released a study called “ A Controlled Study of Mindfulness Training in Marines Preparing for Deployment”. This study showed that after 8 weeks of mindfulness training, ( which focuses heavily on meditation ) that “Subsequent magnetic resonance imaging scans revealed that the mindfulness-trained Marines had reduced activity patterns in regions of the brain responsible for integrating emotional reactivity, cognition and interoception” The author and senior psychiatric professor Dr Martin Paulus said that “we think ( mindfulness training ) can help Marines recover from stress and return to baseline functioning more quickly.” 

The ability to bounce back is a hallmark of resilience.

In another study funded by the US military – just four weeks of mindfulness training was found to enhance cognitive performance in its elite military forces. And the US Army is not alone. Mindfulness training is being delivered to the British Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force. The New Zealand Defence Force recently adopted mindfulness into their training, and NATO is reviewing the evidence behind the use of mindfulness with a view to incorporate it into their greater military alliance. 

This shift in attitudes points to a growing realisation of the importance of proactively developing resilience, and whilst there are several ways to do so – one of the most effective methods is certainly mindfulness training. So what is one of the most effective techniques to develop one’s mindfulness? Meditation. 

There are many different types of meditation. In the military, they utilise a form of ‘focused attention’ meditation. As the name suggests – focused attention involves focusing your attention deliberately on another process, thought, sound or object. This could be a mantra ( which is a word, phrase or sound that is repeated over and over again ), visualisation – for example a place or even a goal – or the sound of a bell. 

In the US Army, the technique being used involves breathing focused meditation. Whilst relatively new to the US army – this type of focused meditation has been used in India since before the time of the Buddha – and is known as Anapanasati.Simply defined, Anapanasati is to feel the sensation caused by the movements of the breath in the body as is practiced. The intention of this type of meditation is that by zoning in on something, you are focusing on nothing else.  

The merits of meditation are extensive, and increasingly research is showing a diverse range of benefits that are so extensive that they fall beyond the scope of this article. 

How does meditation specifically improve one’s personal resilience? Mindfulness directly – and indirectly – serves to promote resilience in many ways.

  1. Mindfulness promotes better emotional control.  The emotional rollercoaster that follows a stressful event can amplify negative stories about yourself or others that goes on and on, beyond being of any service to you. If practiced regularly, mindfulness reduces this rumination and over time changes your brain so that you’re more resilient to future stressful events. This new resilience, in turn, is likely to make us more optimistic, which is a positive feedback loop making us more resilient.  
  2. Meditation develops and supports more informed decision making. It has been shown to improve focus and creativity – resulting in us being presented with more options. 
  3. Meditation improves perspective which in turn allows us to become better at reframing stressful events more productively.
  4. The combination of the above correlates strongly to the enhancement and preservation of stronger social networks. 

In case you’re wondering whether Mindfulness has a place within military organisations, Major General Piatt of the US Army notes ( following direct discussions he had with Tribal leaders in Iraq ) that “mindfulness allowed him to reduce conflict by better understanding.” and that it allowed him to better “understand how compassion and empathy can be used for real advantages because – peace takes a lot of hard work.”  


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