Elizabeth Stanley, Associate Professor of Security Studies at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, sat down with the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs to discuss her work with the Mind Fitness Training Institute, which addresses mental fitness and resilience in a military and civilian context. GJIA: How has the way the United States military regards issues of mental health changed over time? What factors have been catalysts for these changes?
ES: There has been a gradual understanding that mental health issues can result from not just combat experience, but from other life experiences as well. As understanding and normalization of these experiences has increased, their stigma in the military has decreased. Vietnam veterans were the initial impetus for PTSD being added to the diagnostic standards in 1980, and research continues to show that issues formerly perceived as very separate are actually linked—the mind and body can become dysregulated from traumatic events or prolonged exposure to chronic stress without recovery ts. The two wars since 9/11 have shown the American public and the military that, although our men and women in uniform are extremely resilient, they’re likely to see psychological and physical injuries if they lack the skills to recover from prolonged stress and trauma.
Fitness is not just in the body. The U.S. Army has adapted the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program, which has five different components: physical, family, spiritual, emotional, and mental fitness. Mind fitness has cognitive, emotional, and psychological components. About 20 years ago, the field of neuroscience had a tremendous revolution in understanding that the way that our brain and nervous system are wired changes from any repeated experience. These can be repeated detrimental experiences, like prolonged stress, but also repeated experiences where we are training the brain in a positive way. It’s that understanding we capitalize on with the Mind Fitness Training Institute.
GJIA: What is the Mind Fitness Training Institute, and how have its techniques impacted members of the armed forces? How are these techniques applicable in a civilian context?
ES: I experienced PTSD after my military service while I was in graduate school at Harvard. Over the course of my healing journey, I came into contact with these techniques. I began to realize that the autonomic nervous system—which controls the fight or flight response, sleep, appetite, and core regulating functions—can become dysregulated when we are exposed to prolonged stress or trauma. Although the body and mind are naturally wired to do reregulation, we can inhibit or block that process when we’re not paying attention, allowing system dysregulation to show up as the symptoms of stress spectrum disorders and trauma. I did a number of years of intensive practice with mind fitness techniques as well as years of clinical training in body-based trauma therapies to understand how to reregulate the system. When we understand how the body and mind work, we can use our attention to support the system coming back into regulation. These two pieces came together in my designing Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT). I have partnered with a variety of neuroscientists and stress-physiology researchers in conducting four different studies of MMFT’s efficacy with the Department of Defense since 2008. After the findings of our first study with Marines generated wider interest, I founded the non-profit Mind Fitness Training Institute in 2009, realizing that we would need trainers and that we wanted to offer it for a variety of different high-stress situations. Combat isn’t the only high-stress situation, and dysregulation in the body and mind doesn’t require a firefight to occur. Any human with prolonged exposure to stress or a stressful event can experience dysregulation; training to help the system reregulate could be helpful in any situation. Although my research has been with military troops preparing for deployment, we’ve been invited to teach firefighters, first responders, medical personnel, emergency medical technicians, ER doctors, substance abuse counselors, and inner city schoolteachers. We are even in conversation with several universities to offer training to faculty, staff, and students; earlier this year we taught MMFT to faculty and staff at Princeton.
GJIA: What are some of the continuing challenges to implementing MMFT-modeled techniques, either in a military or civilian context?
ES: Thirty years of empirical research looking at mindfulness-based training shows that benefits accrue with the amount of time someone practices these techniques. Because the trainees have to consistently practice, the most important piece is helping them build motivation to enact this new habit and practice it regularly. Having come from a military background and having researched what makes militaries effective, I could see an immediate doorway in the military context. Our research has shown that when troops practice between 12 and 15 minutes a day, we see demonstrable effects in the way their brains are wired and function—in their patterns of brain activation and cognitive functioning, as well as in their stress physiology, hormone profiles, sleep patterns, how they go through the stress response, how quickly they get stressed, and how quickly they recover. Regardless of which setting you’re in, it’s imperative to find a way to help people understand how the body and mind are wired and then teach them the techniques correctly. It doesn’t take an inordinate amount of time. The important piece is developing consistent practice.
GJIA: Some of your research criticizes what you call the “technocentric,” as opposed to “humancentric,” strategic culture of the U.S. military. What do you mean by technocentric thinking, why is it so dominant, and how does it relate to mind fitness?
ES: By “technocentric” I mean that the United States—not just the military but the national security community more broadly, and even American culture—has a proclivity towards identifying possible issues in terms of technology and trying to find solutions in terms of technology. The technocentric culture has an underlying assumption that we can create, with more information or more precise technologies, a sense of certainty, control, and efficiency. We have this myth of the perfect technical fix, and there’s an elusive search for some technological silver bullet. Interestingly, many of the technologies we rely on in that search are actually introducing more uncertainty and less control, yet we continue to search for better technological solutions to resolve the problems that the technology has introduced. It becomes a vicious cycle. Much of the way the United States goes about national security is by developing technologies, contingency plans, strategies, and doctrines that try to anticipate and prevent unwanted events from occurring. This is a natural reaction, and when it succeeds, it is great. Yet at the root of this approach is the desire to avoid the ambiguity and uncertainty that is a natural part of being alive. The truth of the matter is that we can’t eliminate all ambiguity and uncertainty. However, when we have become so enamored with this approach and begin to buy into this illusion that we have certainty and control, life inevitably intercedes, and something happens that’s a shock.
While technology enables the anticipation end of the spectrum, this future-oriented way of responding to the environment that tries to predict and prevent future obstacles, I advocate a balance with the other end of the spectrum, a more present-oriented way: resilience. The resilient approach acknowledges we’re never going to be in complete control or have complete certainty, but we can build capacities that are adaptive for anything that happens. Core capacities in our relationships, alliances, work teams, bodies, and minds allow us to work with whatever shows up in the environment, learn from it, and adapt our capacities in the future. That’s a more human-centered way of finding security. Interestingly, the process of trying to anticipate and prevent helps to cultivate those core capacities, such as the ability to scan the environment, understand threats, respond to them, and buildrelationships to do that.. In some ways, my mind fitness work grew out of my technocentric work, realizing that anticipation alone is not enough and that we need to move toward a more human-centered, resilient approach. MMFT is one example of this resilient approach to our environment.
GJIA: Are you optimistic that American culture and national security are moving towards resilience, or do you predict we will continue on the technocentric track in the future?
ES: I’m optimistic that a balance is possible. The troops we’ve trained naturally gravitate towards resilient interactions with their teammates and their environment when they have these skills. Shifts like this will naturally pull us to a more balanced place not so far out on the anticipation end of the spectrum. The constrained funding environment right now could be a good impetus for the kind of innovation needed. In terms of the possibility of rolling out mind fitness more broadly, one of the things that is very attractive to the Marine Corps is that mind fitness isn’t expensive. It’s building core capacities for performance enhancement and resilience that are very fungible, adaptable, and usable in lots of contexts. I am optimistic; we’ll have to see what happens.
Dr. Elizabeth Stanley is Associate Professor of Security Studies at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. She recently delivered a TEDx Georgetown talk at Georgetown University about her work with Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training, which can be found here.
Dr. Stanley was interviewed by Ian Philbrick on 25 November 2013 in Washington, D.C.