Preventing Stress-Related Mental Decline in Soldiers

Making mindfulness training accessible to active-duty soldiers can reduce the harmful impacts of stress on their brains, according to a new study.

Active-duty soldiers experience highly stressful mental and emotional demands that can take a toll on their brains over time. New research finds that mindfulness instruction delivered by professional military trainers may help to lessen these effects.

In the study, Mindfulness-Based Attention Training (MBAT) co-developers Dr. Amishi Jha, Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of the Contemplative Neuroscience Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative at the University of Miami, and Scott Rogers, founder and director of the Institute for Mindfulness Studies and the University of Miami School of Law’s Mindfulness in Law Program, were curious to see whether professional trainers who work with military personnel but have no background in mindfulness, could successfully teach MBAT to soldiers. MBAT combines fundamental mindfulness principles and practices with skills relevant to military service members with the goal of reducing stress and building mental resilience. 

Prior research with active duty service members has shown that periods of stress, pressure, and uncertainty can take a toll on soldiers’ mental health. Although mindfulness interventions that emphasize focused attention and open monitoring have been found to bolster resilience and protect against declines in attention and memory, none have been delivered by professional military trainers with no prior background in mindfulness.

Before beginning the study, professional military trainers with no history of mindfulness practice completed a formal, 12-week MBAT training practicum. This included first-hand experience practicing mindfulness exercises, and eight weeks of instructor training that prepared them to teach these skills to soldiers. At the same time, several trainers with prior mindfulness experience but no history of working with soldiers also completed the MBAT practicum. 

Delivering Mindfulness-Based Attention Training to Soldiers

Next, 180 healthy, active-duty, male, US Army volunteers from three different companies were randomly assigned to receive MBAT instruction from either one of the professional military trainers (military trainer group), or an experienced mindfulness trainer (mindfulness educator group). Soldiers from a fourth company, who did not receive any mindfulness training, were included as a control group.

Both mindfulness training groups received the MBAT program, but with different trainers. Instruction was delivered in weekly, two-hour sessions over four weeks. Training involved mindfulness instruction and practice using weekly themes: concentration, body awareness, open monitoring, and connection. All participants were asked to complete daily exercises at least four days per week that corresponded to the weekly theme, and were given an MP3 player with 15-minute guided practices.

Soldiers from both the mindfulness training and control groups also completed a series of computerized cognitive tests and questionnaires before and after the training period, and again four weeks later. Computerized tasks included an attention memory recognition task where participants had to recall pictures of faces or shoes, while being distracted by combat-related or non-military-related images. 

Slowing Cognitive Decline

At the end of the study, performance on the attention and working memory tasks declined for all three groups. However, the military trainer group showed the smallest amount of change immediately after training and four weeks later.  They also had less of a drop in working memory than those in the mindfulness educator and control groups. For all groups, accuracy on the tests was lowest when respondents were distracted by emotionally-charged images. 

There were also differences in how much time each group spent practicing mindfulness on their own. During training, members of the military trainer group formally practiced mindfulness nearly one day more per week on average than those in the mindfulness educator group. This trend persisted during the four weeks of follow-up. Dr. Jha, one of the study’s authors, believes that this occurred because “context-familiar trainers were better positioned to motivate soldier engagement in and out of class. Perhaps soldiers felt that these trainers were more attuned to their goals, demands, and challenges, compared to the context-unfamiliar trainer,” she concluded.

Jha also feels that the results of this study are hopeful: “The findings suggest that it is possible to improve accessibility of effective mindfulness training programs for groups like soldiers, firefighters, police officers, surgeons, and teachers”—in other words, groups that regularly experience high on-the-job pressures, demands, and challenges. 

“What we learned,” says Jha, “is that the key to successful scalability [of mindfulness programs] involves having members of these groups learn how to deliver training to their peers. And our results suggest that trainer ‘train up’ time need not take years. It can be achieved in as little as 12 weeks,” she says.

All told, results of the study suggest that soldiers who received instruction from a professional trainer who understood the military context were more inclined to practice mindfulness on their own, and more likely to be protected against stress-related cognitive decline.

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  • Mindful Staff
  • November 12, 2019