No one who hasn’t experienced combat on the battlefield or the stresses and unpredictability of military life can truly know what service members go through to serve our country. Even after they come home from tours of duty, their ordeals can stay with them in the form of post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). And the current era of terrorist threats has increased their emotional and psychological burden, making it more essential than ever for them to have tools and techniques for coping with a high stress load.
Drawing on cutting-edge research on heart rhythms and heart-brain communication, Institute of HeartMath (IHM) scientists have teamed up with members of the military to create stress-control programs customized for service members. Under the direction of Dr. Rollin McCraty (IHM Director of Research and Director of Military Training) and Major Robert A. Bradley (USAF, Ret., Director of Veterans Outreach), IHM Military Resilience Training programs are giving service personnel the tools they need to prep for expected stressful situations, to sustain resilience through those situations, and to reset their emotional state as needed through adjustments to and from military settings. Programs and resources are customized for different sectors of the military, including those on active duty, officers, veterans, and the families of service members.
Coherence: The Key to Optimum Performance and a Balanced Emotional and Cognitive State
As with its programs for civilians, IHM training for the military is based on coherence: when heart, mind, and emotions are operating in sync and balanced physiologically—a state especially important to service members. The IHM Coherence Advantage program teaches service members skills for building coherence and resilience. Participants learn to interrupt the body’s typical stress response of agitation or panic, so they can maintain operational readiness under extreme battlefield conditions and a proper balance for deployments and other day-to-day challenges.
Coherence is based on achieving optimum heart rate variability (HRV), a measure not just of pulse rate but of how this rate varies from minute to minute. A steady heart rate used to be thought of as a sign of good health, but actually a high level of heart rate variability is better both for health and performance. HRV is an important measure of our resilience and directly relates to emotional flexibility, which enables us to better deal with stress and perform well under pressure.
IHM Military Resilience Training involves three key practices, which all feature breathing as a key element:
- Heart-focused breathing. This involves imagining your breath flowing in and out of your heart area, then taking slow, deep breaths (inhale for 5 seconds, exhale for 5 seconds). This can help service members invite a state of calm when an environment triggers unpleasant memories, when dealing with civilians who don’t understand their mission, and handling many other stressful situations.
- Inner Ease Technique. In this exercise, one imagines that each inhalation draws in a feeling of inner calm, with balance and self-care coming from the heart—a process scientifically proven to activate beneficial hormones and boost immunity. Service members can use this technique to help adjust to redeployment or service transition issues, or when feeling overwhelmed by deadlines, unexpected disruptions, disturbed sleep, or high-pressure decision-making situations. In a state of inner ease, it’s much easier to choose less stressful perceptions and attitudes, as well as experience more of an even “flow” in daily life. This technique can be especially beneficial for veterans after leaving active duty, when the residue of experiences in war zones can compromise quality of life.
- Quick Coherence Technique. This technique combines the breathing exercise with conscious activation of a positive feeling, such as appreciation, or the recollection of an enjoyable occasion or special place that always makes you feel happy or calm. These positive feelings can be re-experienced anytime and anywhere to prepare for or defuse stressful situations.
Coherence Training Helps Veterans Improve Cognition and Reduce Pain
A 2014 issue of Global Advances in Health reports a study showing that HRV coherence training reduced perceived pain, stress, negative emotions, and limitations of activity in veterans suffering from chronic pain. In another study discussed in Alternative Therapies Journal, training with visual HRV feedback, breathing techniques, and induction of positive emotions resulted in major improvements in emotional control, attention, and other cognitive functions. Although these were small studies, they have important implications for the benefits of HRV training.
Coherence Advantage training also utilizes IHM’s innovative emWave®2 Technology, which includes the emWave®2 handheld device and emWave® Desktop computer-based program. The emWave technology enables users to focus on their breathing and positive emotions as they observe changes in their HRV on a monitor or cell phone. This feedback loop helps them learn how to shift to a more coherent state as needed and react more calmly and rationally to stress, anger, and anxiety. By signaling comfort and discomfort levels as users imagine different scenes, for example, it allows them to lock into a scene that is especially calming. This ideal scene can then be called upon during times of stress to defuse the situation and maintain a stable emotional state.
As Dr. McCraty and Major Bradley point out, none of the techniques taught in this training program is an instant fix; it takes practice to make the positive responses automatic. But once mastered, these skills can be life-changing for service members and veterans by helping them to:
- Sharpen and maintain situational awareness
- Increase mental clarity and flexible, focused thinking, especially under pressure
- Improve reaction times and coordination
- Reduce fatigue and sleeplessness
- Reduce symptoms of operational stress
- Strengthen connection to the mission, unit, and team
- Decrease friction in relationships and improve communication with unit and family members
Considering the types of stress faced by today’s armed services, the emergence of resilience training as a tool for optimizing behavior and maintaining one’s composure is especially important. Thanks to IHM and dedicated military officials, this training is bringing the power of positive emotions to more and more service members each day. And it’s helping them draw on one of the most powerful emotions there is for helping not only others but themselves.
An emotion they have in ample supply that commands our continual respect and admiration: courage.
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