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Your Attention Tanks Under High Stress: A Neuroscientist Says This May Help

The study at the retreat center in Colorado had yielded promising results. Those participants had improved, indicating that mindfulness could boost attention under ideal circumstances. But what about less-than-ideal circumstances? What about less than a full month of intensive, continuous meditation in a placid, remote place? Sounds great to be in an idyllic mountain retreat–but most of us need help with our attention while we’re in the midst of our day-to-day lives, under pressure, juggling a million things. And further, meditating 12 hours a day is hardly realistic for the vast majority of people. Could mindfulness help the rest of us?

We’d been mulling over these questions at the lab when I got a phone call from a security studies professor from another university. A veteran who had turned to mindfulness after experiencing firsthand the difficulties associated with deployment, she was interested in offering it to other military service members. Since she didn’t have a background in neuroscience or experimental research, she was looking for a research collaborator. Richie Davidson, who I had stayed in touch with since his lecture at Penn, suggested she try me.

I was intrigued and got to work poring over existing research on attention and military deployment. I was immediately engrossed and, frankly, quite concerned. The military represented a population that had to deal with extremely high-demand situations all the time, and it clearly took a toll. During pre-deployment, service members trained intensively, simulating scenarios in which lives were at stake all day, every day. Then they deployed into scenarios where lives were actually at stake.

Those potent forces we’ve been discussing that degrade attention are a constant way of life for military service members. Add to that other factors that degrade attention, like sleep disturbances, uncertainty, extreme temperatures, and mortality salience (thinking about your own death). And to punch things up even further, this was in the post-9/11 era of the military surge in Iraq. The year was 2007 and, as a nation, the United States had been at war abroad for six years. Units were going out on back-to-back deployments. Rates of suicide and PTSD among service members were climbing. Not only was high stress causing warriors to spiral into psychological disorders, but many were suffering from moral injury, struggling with regret, remorse, and guilt when their own reactivity led to behavior that violated their ethical code.

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