Stress & resilience
Dr. Elizabeth A. Stanley speaks at the Brain Health Consortium, held at the Office of the Army Surgeon General in Falls, Church, Va., Apr. 11, 2014.

FALLS CHURCH, Va. (Army News Service, April 15, 2014) -- Repeated deployments into harm's way can accumulate unresolved tensions and stress, resulting in post-traumatic stress. On the other hand, Soldiers can learn adaptive techniques that inoculate them against it.

That's what Dr. Elizabeth A. Stanley concludes after years of pre- and post-deployment research with neuroscience and stress researchers and studies on Soldiers and Marines. Stanley pioneered the development of Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training, or MMFT, to optimize the performance of Soldiers during high-stress missions.

The associate professor of Security Studies, Georgetown University, was a featured speaker at the Brain Health Consortium, held at the Office of the Army Surgeon General here, April 11.

FIGHT, RUN OR FREEZE

The culprit of the body's "fight or flight" response, she said, is a small structure of the brain known as the amygdala. It's wired that way to increase the chances of survival. For example, if the enemy is closing in with fixed bayonets, the amygdala could send an attack signal to the body, or activate the call to retreat. Those signals are relayed to various regions through the body's autonomic nervous system and via hormonal messengers.

Sometimes the panic signal can be so strong that a person's palms become sweaty, heart rate and breathing increase wildly and stomach churns.

There are three basic things that can magnify a stressful event, causing the amygdala to shoot into overdrive. They are, if the person perceives the stressor to be novel, unpredictable or uncontrollable.

DEALING WITH STRESS

Stanley said the amygdala is adaptive and malleable and its response to stress can be modified with training.

Her training incorporates the incremental use of stress in a controlled way, since not enough stress during training can weaken adaptation to later experiences like intense combat, but too much stress can flood the body's mental and physical capacity to respond appropriately.

"Stress inoculation training" exposes Soldiers to the kinds of stressors that they will likely face in combat. The aim is to get Soldiers familiar with the stress so they feel more comfortable with it and in control.

However, stress inoculation training alone isn't enough, she said, because without follow-on training, it can cause cognitive degradation like lack of concentration, forgetfulness and loss of problem-solving skills.

MMFT complements stress inoculation training by conditioning the body and mind to complete the stress activation cycle and return the body's stress response to normal following a stressful event. If the stress activation cycle is not shut off, she said resilience is compromised and a subsequent stressful event elevates risk even further.

Participants in MMFT learn to differentiate between their ideas about an experience and the direct physical sensations of that experience. In this way, they can limit the negative appraisal of their experiences and decrease stress.

A different way of putting it, she said, is teaching the brain to turn off its "autopilot" and go into the "mindful" mode. In the mindful mode, one is able to perceive what is happening without hearing voices inside one's head giving judgments or preconceptions. A person's perception of stress is often greater than the reality of it.

It takes practice to switch from autopilot to mindfulness, she said. It's all about mind over matter.

PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

Stanley admitted that she herself has had a post-traumatic stress disorder, known as PTSD, diagnosis. Although she served in the Army in Bosnia, Macedonia and elsewhere, she said the stressors of the deployments and combat environments were not the cause. Rather, it was the accumulation of adverse childhood experiences, followed by the deployments that led to the "tipping point."

Her case is fairly typical, she pointed out.

She said many who are attracted to the military have had prior stressors in life. In her research, she found that two-thirds of the Marines she studied and three-fourths of Soldiers had "dysregulations" below the clinical level of PTSD before they even put on their uniforms.

Multiple deployments elevate those pre-existing conditions, she said. And it's not just deployments that worry service members, but also concern about family members back home.

SWEAT THERAPY

Another component to building resilience that isn't necessarily part of MMFT, is physical fitness, she said, tipping her hat to the Army surgeon general's emphasis on sleep, activity and nutrition, known as the Performance Triad.

She said the Army has been good at teaching physical fitness beginning at the U.S. Military Academy, which formalized a fitness regimen around 1900. From there, she said, it spread out to American society through the public school system.

Someday, she predicted, mindful mode training like hers will become popular and accepted throughout society just as fitness is today.

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Page last updated Tue April 15th, 2014 at 00:00