Psychological Fitness – Keeping Your Mind Fit
Fitness is a whole-of-body experience, not just about how much weight you can lift, or how many miles you can run, but it includes a number of other factors outside the realm of strength, agility and speed. Psychological fitness is one of those factors. Understanding what makes up psychological fitness and how to develop a healthier mental state can improve your readiness to confront common challenges in military and civilian life.
Why Is Psychological Fitness Important?
Psychological fitness involves building your mental, emotional and behavioral abilities in order to effectively cope with the unique and changing challenges of military service.1 Psychological fitness encompasses the way you process information, feel about yourself and your environment and act in response to your thoughts and feelings.1 You can strengthen your psychological fitness by focusing on five areas:1
- Awareness of self and your environment
- Beliefs and attitudes
- Ability to cope with stress
- Decision-making skills
- Social engagement and interaction with others
When you think, feel and act positively, you help protect your psychological health and build overall strength and stamina.1,2 Psychological fitness is important to a warrior’s strength, commitment and health because coping with the stressors and realities of deployment takes a fit mind, not just a fit body. In fact, psychological fitness is just as important as physical fitness is in building stamina and performing at your peak.1
Strengthening your mind can carry you through tough times on the battlefield and can also help you be a source of strength for your fellow service members. Once back at home, being psychologically fit can lower your risk of health problems after deployment, which can contribute to a healthier reintegration. In addition, the psychological resilience that you develop will help foster leadership skills that you can use throughout your life.1
What You Can Do To Improve Psychological Fitness
Service members can train in many ways to achieve psychological fitness. The following tips can help you manage your stress and increase resilience:3
- Exercise often. Research shows promising relationships between exercise and psychological health. Benefits include sleeping better, having increased energy, lowering blood pressure and reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.1
- Talk about what’s bothering you. Everyone should have someone to talk to when things get tough to help avoid letting concerns silently build up inside. Talking to a trained health care professional, commanding officer, fellow service member or chaplain can be helpful.
- Be social. Don’t spend all of your free time playing video games or watching movies. Talk to the people around you and develop relationships with people in your unit. If you deploy, keep in touch with family and friends back home too.4
- Stay positive. Know you have what it takes to succeed and be solution focused. While stressful situations may be unavoidable, staying in control of your thoughts can help you stay resilient in difficult times.1 Looking for ways to positively re-frame challenges or keeping a sense of humor can help in dealing with difficult experiences.4
- Be realistic. Believe in yourself and your self-worth and have realistic expectations because there may be things that are beyond your control or can't be changed.3
- Cope with stress. Coping with stress well will strengthen your psychological health. For stress management tips, read "Guide to Life Stress" on afterdeployment.org or use the "Managing Stress Toolkit" on Healthfinder.gov. See the resources listed at the end of the article for branch-specific stress management tips.
What Line Leaders Can Do
Line leaders are an important influence when it comes to psychological fitness, and they can create a climate of trust, which helps everyone strengthen psychological reserves. Line leaders can also help service members reduce stress by: 2,5
- Modeling positive behavior
- Providing clear goals and expectations for performance
- Providing appropriate training
- Giving constructive feedback
- Instilling a sense of dedication and mission as well as a sense of inclusion and belonging to the unit
- Displaying confidence in their unit, individually and as a whole
- Self-examining their own leadership style, biases, beliefs and attitudes and understand how these attitudes may impact those around them
Managing Personnel in Distress
Line leaders can address stressors affecting service members with these tools to identify warriors who may be in distress and how to assist them in regaining full mission readiness, both in combat and throughout the entire deployment cycle.
Leaders may also be able to provide service members with a balance of job control, supervisor support, access to information and social support.5 In fact, it is most helpful for line leaders to teach service members how to incorporate social support into their lives. A unit, group or workplace with strong social engagement will allow peers and leaders to identify immediately when assistance is needed. Teaching peers to encourage unit members to seek counseling support or assistance when troubles are spotted can also be important.4 This helps enhance warriors’ coping skills, which can reduce emotional fatigue.5 When line leaders encourage this help seeking behavior, it helps strengthen the force as a whole.
- Combat and Operational Stress (Marines)
- Comprehensive Airman Fitness (Air Force)
- Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (Army)
- Maintaining Psychological Health While Deployed
- National Center for Post-traumatic Stress
- Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center: Psychological and Emotional Well-Being (Navy)
- Coaching into Care
1 "Chairman’s Total Force Fitness Framework,” [PDF 2.96MB] Human Performance Resource Center, Defense Department. Published Sept. 1, 2011.
2 Laraway, Lori and others. “Total Force Fitness: Enhancing Psychological Fitness,” Defense Department. Published July 8, 2011.
3 “Promoting Psychological Resilience in the U.S. Military,” [PDF 1.27 MB] RAND Corporation. Published September 2011.
4 Bender, James. “Medical Monday: Coping with Deployments,” DoD Live, Department of Defense. Published May 31, 2010.
5 Dr. Mark Bates and others. “Psychological Fitness,” Military Medicine, Volume 175. Published August 2010.