Mind-Body for Performance and Resilience: Advice for Leaders


We know mind-body practices improve performance. Mind-body techniques are based on recognizing the stress response and engaging in purposeful activities to stimulate the restorative relaxation response. These responses – stress on the one hand and relaxation on the other – are controlled by the autonomic nervous system, and can be regulated by the mind. Mind-body techniques can be mastered and leaders can help their teams learn when and how to use appropriately.

How can we as leaders make these tools more accessible to our teams? The barriers can seem overwhelming when trying to effect change. But by overcoming barriers of language and imagery; challenges of limited resources and making one degree of change at a time, leaders on all levels can improve the performance and resilience of their teams.

Overcome the Language Barrier

Not everyone connects with the typical language of mind-body practices. In fact, it alienates many who might benefit from it. To overcome this, leaders must normalize the language and make it un-mystical. By “de-mystifying” it, any religious or negative connotations associated with the mind-body connection are removed as barriers. We can use neutral language that relies on evidence and communicates to our teams in their language. This will drive policy change and increase utilization of beneficial mind-body tools.


It’s just training

"Soldier, take a knee."

“Soldier, take a knee.”

In the military, we don’t call it mind-body, we call it training. However, mind-body practices can be seen throughout training. Breath control is an essential component of marksmanship and weapons training. Team leaders often calm on-edge Service members by saying: “Soldier, take a knee.” This allows the Soldier to take a breath and relax thereby resetting their stress response.


Sports stars also use mind-body skills to achieve greatness. However, rather than calling the process “guided imagery,” sports stars call it “visualization” avoiding any spiritual or religious connotations. Athletes have long-relied on presence of mind to get through the most difficult physical challenges. Long-distance runners often rely on the mind-body connection to maximize the ability to perform under pressure.

Put it to work. Don’t wait for perfection.

How can you immediately get mind-body techniques into your clinic, your office, or your “squad” even with limited resources?

It only takes a moment. Leaders could teach all staff simple exercises to help center the patient and set intentions. An example is to teach staff language to encourage the patient to do a breath exercise when just before taking a blood pressure measurement. It’s as simple as saying: “We find that we get more valid readings if while you breathe, you think of a person or a situation that brings you joy.” Adding mind-body to well visits, vaccines, and other patient encounters is a small step within a leader’s control and requires no more time or resources.

The Bounce Back Project in Buffalo, Minnesota, takes a mind-body approach to help patients with anxiety and mood disorders. Patients were prescribed to do three good things and then report back. Their symptoms were more improved than those in treatment as usual.

And its not just in medical settings that Bounce Back is making an impression, it is also in the justice system. Police and judges are making a difference, too. A judge caught on to this idea and sentenced people to do three good things a day and journal it. These very real activities are mindfulness in action.


Aim High. Invest Now for Later

USUHS_Meditation1webHealth care leaders can make the most of their efforts by targeting residence training. By investing early in a young doctor or a nurse’s career, the payoff will include increased energy, optimized performance, decreased stress and improved health. Paying attention to the stress of their charges, leaders will help prevent stress from becoming burnt out. Military medical schools are working to provide this type of training to new health care professionals.

Leaders should consider incorporating mind-body training into daily meetings. Take a moment to set an intention and take a breath; this models the behavior for all present.

In 2012 CAPT Lori Laraway wrote in Proceedings, the official journal of the Naval Institute Press, about the “Navigating Operational Stress.” CAPT Laraway noted the pressures on active and reserve Service members and families due to the operating tempo of military operations such as wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, humanitarian and disaster relief deployments after the devastating earthquake in Haiti and the tsunami that hit Japan.


These pressures, whether due directly to dangers of war or difficulties related to frequent, lengthy deployments away from home and family, have significant costs that are manifested in multiple ways, including higher divorce rates, an uptick in DUI and alcohol-related incidents, increased illegal drug use, more frequent spouse or child abuse, and even, most regrettably, more suicides.”  CAPT Laraway

The solution, she says, required re-thinking about stress and recovery, moving away from the culture of believing a Sailor or Marine was either a “full up round” or “broken,” to embracing the idea that stress is normal affecting people differently. Navy operational stress management doctrine changed shifting more responsibility to leaders who needed more knowledge and skills identifying and managing adverse consequences of stress injuries and illness preventatively.

  • Read more: Samueli Institute studies have shown that emergency responders and Service members can learn to self-calm in the face of a crisis.

Leaders have a responsibility to incorporate mind-body practices into the everyday rituals of those under your command.

Watch video of Dr. Kevin Berry at the 2016 Military and Veteran Resiliency Summit in San Deigo: WATCH