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Mindful : August 2019
an article chronicling her work with 120 members of a US special- operations forces unit. (She can’t say which branch.) That study, pub- lished in the journal Prog ress in Brain Research, showed that the elite troops gained working memory, and were better able to pay attention, when they took a month-long mindfulness class and practiced the skills daily. Much of Jha’s research today focuses not on proving the value of mindfulness training, but rather on figuring out how to best implement it in a time-constrained military. “ What’s a good amount of time that would allow units to take it on, and not so burdensome that they say, ‘Forget it, we can’t do it’?” she asks. Jha’s interaction with the spe- cial-operations forces highlights the quandary: “They said, ‘Can you give them this mindfulness training in one day?’ They didn’t really understand: Would you ever train for a marathon in a day?” For some of the elite forces, Jha did try to compress the eight-hour training into two weeks. She found it considerably less effective than a four-week program. (Earlier trainings were spread over eight weeks.) This type of inquiry makes Stanley uneasy, and she has parted company with Jha over it. “Some military leaders were interested in seeing how low can you go,” she says. That approach, she worries, could backfire if service members don’t receive a full suite of coping tools. “ Mind- fulness alone, without the skills to re-regulate the mind-body system, may flood someone with heightened attention on their stress, which may amplify their stress arousal and its cognitive, emotional, and physiologi- cal effects,” she says. Stanley believes the training must be gradual, taught by experienced instructors, and combined with other skills to help soldiers “rewire” how they process difficult experiences. She favors a 20-hour curriculum. Jha says that she and other researchers are looking for solutions that are safe and effective, and also realistic within the military’s culture. “ We need to balance the time burden of taking minutes away from their training calendar with not going so low that it’s not effective,” she says. “If it’s a non-starter to offer a 20-hour program, even if in the end it may have some more subtle benefits, I just can’t go into that direction. I still have to meet people where they’re at.” Mindfulness researchers else- where have had promising results working with submariners in France and soldiers in the Israel Defense Force. Last April, participants at a NATO-sponsored wellness confer- ence in Berlin heard from Anders Meland, a Norwegian psychologist who studied a helicopter unit in his country. Meland found that mind- fulness practices reduced stress by creating a “restful, alert, and flexible state of mind.” At City University of London, psy- chologist Jutta Tobias Mortlock has been working with the United King- dom Ministry of Defence, which she says is trying to build a culture with “less command and control.” In partic- Pvt. Kelvishia V. Worth practices mindfulness in the emWave Biofeedback chair—which displays heart rate variability based on mental states—in the Fort Drum Wellness Center. ular, she’s looking at “collective mind- fulness”: a team’s ability to anticipate and deal with conflict by remaining engaged with one another rather than retreating into individual corners. The US military is conducting its own studies. Thomas Nassif, a research psychologist at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, analyzed survey data from 1,100 soldiers returning from Afghanistan. “You talk about a pretty banged-up population,” he says: Most had dodged small-arms fire, witnessed dead bodies, and known others who were killed or seriously injured. Nassif found that the most mindful partic- ipants—those who noticed, and then let go of, their distressing thoughts— were less likely to suffer from pain, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They also engaged in fewer risky behaviors like driving recklessly, carrying weapons need- lessly, and looking for fights. → August 2019 mindful 57