The Army launched the Master Resilience Trainer (MRT) program around 2009 in recognition of the psychological toll years of fighting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were taking on Soldiers and their Families. However, the training is intended to not only help Soldiers cope with the trauma of war, but also to boost their everyday well-being.
Meg Helf, a Master Resilience Trainer-Performance Expert (MRT-PE) contractor working out of the Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, R2 Performance Center said she thinks of resilience in four ways: overcoming childhood experiences that can’t be changed but had a lasting impact; steering through everyday adversities; getting through and growing from traumatic events in our lives that “take our legs out from under us;” and reaching outward to find purpose or meaning in our lives.
MRT training focuses on teaching six core skills—or competencies— that experts believe are the foundation of resilience: Self-awareness, self-regulation, optimism, mental agility, strengths of character, and connection.
“These (competencies) have the ability to make one’s life richer, their connections to others deeper, and to really just broaden the scope of their world, finding more meaning and purpose,” Helf said.
The MRT skills are based on the work of renowned psychologist Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman, the Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Seligman, considered the founder of positive psychology, helped the Army develop the MRT program.
At the core of the MRT program is the idea that even if people are not naturally resilient, they can learn the skills to become so, Helf said. Below, she shares some insight into the skills and how Soldiers can apply them daily.
Self-Awareness is about identifying both the heat-of-the-moment thoughts and the deep-seated beliefs and values people have that drives their thinking patterns, Helf said.
Develop the skill: Every day think about one productive and one unproductive interaction you had with someone. Reflect on those interactions by writing in a journal what you were thinking, and paying attention to, in the moment. Then identify what emotions and reactions your thoughts produced. “Ask yourself ‘Were those emotions and reactions helpful, productive, for whatever my goal was? If it was productive, what led me there? If it was unproductive, what thought led to that?’” Helf said.
Self-regulation refers to managing emotions and behaviors. Helf said that when people are having strong emotional reactions, their ability to think clearly is hijacked, causing them to misinterpret situations and look for threats. Highly emotional states, like anger or anxiety, cloud accurate thinking.
Develop the skill: Start off with deep diaphragmatic breathing to clear your mind, then take a moment to properly label the emotion you are feeling. For example, if you get defensive when receiving feedback, just saying “I’m feeling defensive right now,” helps the emotion actually subside, Helf said. She recommends that when people are experiencing anger, to home in on labeling the emotion more specifically—frustration, irritation, embarrassment— as labeling the type of anger gives people more control in the moment.
Helf said that optimism is often misinterpreted and needs to be clearly defined. “It’s an understanding and belief that things can change for the better, having hope for the future, and this being wed to reality,” Helf said. She said it is not about “putting our head in the sand and pretending that all is well and that bad things aren’t there.”
Develop the skill: Helf said realistically identifying points of struggle and then identifying where you have control can help develop an optimistic thinking style. The positive emotions aspect of optimism focuses on how cultivating positive emotions, like gratitude, joy, and love, can increase people’s situational awareness and critical thinking.
Mental agility the ability to think flexibly, accurately, and thoroughly, Helf said. The brain often develops thinking shortcuts that can be helpful in organizing the world around us but can get in the way of an accurate assessment of a situation, ourselves, or other people, she said.
Develop the skill: Notice if you’re falling into thinking patterns, Helf said. “Do I tend to blame myself; do I tend to blame others and other circumstances, do I think that this is something that is not controllable, it’s going to last forever, affect every part of my life,” she said. Noticing those thinking patterns in the moment can help people change them. Whatever thinking pattern you are falling into, Helf said to question the thinking pattern and look for more information as to what else could be contributing to the situation.
Strengths of Character:
Character refers to the qualities or traits people possess, strengths of character refers to identifying those qualities people possess that are their “signature” character strengths— “essential, effortless, and energizing,” Helf said. “These are the traits that we have that are absolutely essential to who we are, that if we imagine ourselves not being able to use one of those strengths it would be draining.”
Develop the skill: One good question to ask yourself to identify your character strengths is: “What aspects of your personality, of your character, do you feel are essential to you, which strengths flow out effortlessly no one needs to give you external motivation and which strengths do you feel energized by while you are using them?” Helf said. People can also take the VIA survey to identify their character strengths. Once people identify their signature character strengths, they can be more intentional and deliberate in leveraging those strengths in their work and life, and cultivating those strengths in others, Helf said.
How many confidants do you have to share your struggles, challenges, and joys with? If you can’t name any, you may be struggling with connection. Deep meaningful connection means being able to be your authentic self, including showing vulnerability, so people can know the real you, understand you and connect with you, Helf said.
Develop the skill: Opening up leads to people being able to ask for help when they need it. Leaders can model authenticity to increase connections with their Soldiers, Helf said. They can ask for feedback and ask for help, which helps build those authentic connections.
“‘Know your people’ is Leadership 101, so if I know who my people are, I’m more likely to see any changes in those behaviors that might be a cue to me that something is going on for them and I can reach out to them and see what help I can offer them,” she said.
MRT is based on the Army’s belief that Soldiers who learn these six core skills can optimize their physical and work performance, creating thriving and cohesive units that contribute to the collective readiness of the Total Army. But MRT is also about how these skills help Soldiers thrive in their personal lives, improving their and their Families’ quality of life. To request resilience training in these six competencies for yourself or your Family, contact your installation’s R2 Performance Center.