ARLINGTON, Va. — The Army is developing new ways to improve readiness with pilot programs now underway to add mindfulness training to help Soldiers manage stress and stay in the moment, Army leaders said Wednesday.
“We’re doing a few pilots at entry-level training all the way to our senior executive level training with general officers and nominative sergeants major and throughout,” said Lt. Gen. Walter Piatt, director of the Army Staff, during a Thought Leaders webinar hosted by the Association of the U.S. Army.
Mindfulness training is the practice of teaching the brain to stay in the moment and, according to the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, it offers many benefits like helping individuals relax, sleep better, become more focused and alert, lower their blood pressure and improve their relationships.
For Soldiers, mindfulness training can also help reduce pain and stress related to post-deployment stress and post-traumatic stress disorder.
To do this, individuals need to set aside a few minutes from their day, find a quiet space and relax their minds.
Like with other skills, mindfulness is better with practice. Piatt called the psychological exercises more like “mental push-ups,” he said.
Although Piatt didn’t mention the specific details of the pilot programs, he added that mindfulness can better improve Soldiers’ decision-making on a battlefield, similar to an athlete performing in the chaotic environment of a stadium, as well as reintegrating from a deployment.
For example, in sports, an athlete needs to be in the zone regardless of how loud a roaring crowd screams. Instead of listening to the audience, the player should be in the moment when taking their shot. This also applies to the Army, he said.
“Science has shown that mindfulness increases your ability to pay attention and reduce stress -- two things we’re very familiar with in the Army,” he said.
In addition, working on mindfulness only takes a few minutes a day, with research showing that it helps the brain strengthen attention and increases working memory, he said.
“You can put it into your daily routine. We are doing some really good studies and I think the research will show with the completion of these studies that this is something we need to do, and we’re very excited,” he said. “A lot of good work is being done across our military education system.”
While a brigade commander serving in the 25th Infantry Division a decade ago, Piatt was on a bi-yearly deployment cycle. Essentially, “we were [deploying] and seeing and experiencing horrific things, and we were coming back and would see our stress manifesting itself into harmful behaviors,” he said.
Around this time, 200 of then-Col. Piatt’s Soldiers volunteered to be part of a case study by Amishi Jha and Elizabeth Stanley to figure out how prolonged and repetitive stress during military deployments have caused psychological and physical health issues, and how mindfulness training can reduce those stressors while reintegrating.
At first, the commander hoped the case study would help Soldiers reintegrate, but he quickly realized it was something that would be beneficial before deploying, too.
“This is about improving your performance, not about just reducing stress, and I was hooked from the get-go,” he said.
He even noticed changes at home. After focusing on mindfulness and being in the moment, Piatt learned to listen to his wife better, and not just plan a response. In the decade that has followed, he has been a proponent of mindfulness training.
“The strength of a nation is its Army, the strength of the Army is its Soldier and the strength of the Soldier is [their] family,” Lt. Gen. R. Scott Dingle, the Army’s surgeon general, said during the event.
When it comes to readiness, Dingle added that Army Medicine is also conserving the fighting strength by helping develop a healthy force.
“We’re taking all the Army approaches to improve access to healthy foods and healthy choices, and I’m very excited about that,” Dingle said.
In the end, Army leaders want their Soldiers at their best and not thinking about stressful situations from the past, Piatt said. Especially while deployed, the general said Soldiers need to be in the moment and focus on the mission at hand.
“Soldiers are put in very difficult situations where they have to make decisions in split seconds that could have strategic impacts and result in life or death,” Piatt said.