Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese martial art that focuses the mind on each slow and deliberate movement of the body. The martial artist feels deep breaths rising and falling from his chest with every pose. Feeling the present like a Tai Chi master is growing in popularity as a way to gain mental clarity.
The practice of “mindfulness, or being in the moment,” using age-old meditation practices offers a way to relieve stress, said Dr. Valerie Rice, chief, U.S. Army Research Laboratory’s Human Research and Engineering Directorate Army Medical Department Field Element in San Antonio, Texas.
Rice has been using virtual worlds and peaceful real-life retreats for the last three years to conduct Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction research on behalf of the Army Study Program to explore whether mindfulness could be helpful to reduce stress for Soldiers or veterans facing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other psychological issues.
The Army Study Program Management Office (ASPMO) funded nearly 30 studies at about $335,000 each for 15 agencies in fiscal year 2013 to inform Army leaders on issues of importance to the Army such as combating PTSD, according to a recent Army article.
ASPMO intends to determine the best courses of action in addressing specific issues such as ways to enhance mental wellness.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction research at ARL consists of 66 participants, about 36 percent of the participants are active duty Soldiers and 64 percent are veterans. A unique twist is half of those participating for the eight-week, two-hour weekly sessions meet in a traditional face-to-face setting; and the others participate using a Second Life virtual world.
Second Life is a 3D screen where avatars represent real people. The people who are part of the virtual world design the avatars to represent themselves. They could even disguise the sound of their voice to the other participants, Rice said.
“There is still a stigma we have to confront that asking for help is a sign of weakness,” Rice said. “The virtual world reduces the anxiety that comes from going into a behavioral health center by offering anonymity.” If virtual training proves effective, “we can support Soldiers and veterans anywhere there is an Internet connection and a computer,” Rice said.
Mindfulness classes are not therapy sessions that have to be taught by health care professionals. Instructors go through a series of courses to earn their certifications, which eases the challenge of Army-wide adoption, Rice said.
“Instructors teach meditation-type coping skills, little by little,” Rice said. “Anecdotal evidence from the study shows individuals are still using the techniques six months later.”
The first participants show increased energy and faster reaction, Rice said.
“I am hopeful we can show mindfulness helps deal with military-specific stress,” Rice said “But whether it works or not, we need to know.”
In the mindfulness classes, study participants go through exercises and discuss the experience. People have the option to talk about what they feel. The facilitator asks: Did anything come up that was difficult for you? How did it feel?
Each session is experiential, said Gary Boykin, who has been with the project since the beginning.
Boykin said when he was on active duty he didn’t seek help coping with stress. “In military life oftentimes you accept it and move out without a second thought, but the Army is moving away from that mentality.”
“We all live with stress at some time,” he said. “Mindfulness teaches you to accept reality. When you are concentrating on what is in front of you, your mind is less inclined to wander to those things beyond your control.” As an Army combat medic, Boykin used mindfulness administering medical care, without knowing about it. As he concentrated on each step in triaging patients, he called it “staying in the moment” but his way was much like the meditation they practice in the classes, he said.
David Barraza studied neurobiology prior to coming to Rice’s team. He said he was familiar with mindfulness as a way to build his own resiliency.
The way Barraza describes it is that for him, “mindfulness starts to untangle how things affect your life.” He said that even before situations arise, his reactions are more controlled when he is mindful. Barraza’s said that his five years in active duty, and currently as a National Guardsmen, has helped him relate to the study’s participants and motivate their success.
So far, the team has seen the mindfulness methods used to lower blood pressure, reduce anger and increase calmness, Rice said.
She wants people to think of it as simply “bringing yourself into the here and now. Not thinking about past or future, but being right here to deal with what is here,” Rice said.
“Thinking of the way your hand falls when you stand up to walk is a small gesture,” she said. “But thinking in this way brings you into the moment, where you have clarity. That is the kind of clarity we want for war fighters.”