Mindfulness techniques, a ‘superpower’ for seafarers?

Chris Hall, managing director of SCB Management Consulting Services, managers of the American P&I Club in Hong Kong. Credit: SCB Management Consulting Services/American P&I Club

Mindfulness can prove to be a great coping mechanism when facing day-to-day challenges of working at sea, as can be seen in the military and sporting worlds

Seafarers are like soldiers. Both professions involve great risks, pressure, rigorous physical and mental requirements, work in extreme environments, travel, and teamwork. Smart and adventurous people are attracted to both. Human errors in either role can lead to bad outcomes, including accident, injury, and death.

Both fields also suffer high rates of stress, anxiety, and suicide. An October 2019 study from Yale and the International Transport Workers’ Federation found that of the 1,572 crew polled, 25% of seafarers said they suffered from depression, 17% had anxiety, and 20% had recently considered suicide. It also found that injury and illness rates doubled when seafarers were depressed or anxious. A key recommendation from the study was to “train [seafarers] for resilience”.

Top military commanders noticed the same problems with soldiers and came to a similar conclusion. How could they provide soldiers with “mental armour”? Their answer: mindfulness training. This kind of mental training is applicable to seafarers too. Militaries are turning to mindfulness to give their warriors an edge, not only in reducing mental challenges, but also in improving performance. US Army Major General Walter E Piatt said, “There is a stereotype [that mindfulness] makes you soft. No, it brings you on point.” This recognition is happening in other fields too, including first responders, medicine, law, business, the nuclear industry, and professional sports.

This is the secret that helped make Michael Jordan and the late Kobe Bryant such great basketball players and kept LeBron James on top for so long. All three have relied on mindfulness and all three were coached by Phil Jackson. He said the key to his coaching method was ‘one breath, one mind’, a concept that helped the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers teams win 11 NBA titles between them.

While professional athletes and elite soldiers are already selected for their physical abilities, the last area for improvement is mental strength. One sports coach asked athletes, “If you could become 30% calmer, would you want that?” Most athletes answered “yes”.

Just as push-ups build physical strength, mindfulness builds mental strength. So, what is mindfulness? The classic definition from Jon Kabat-Zinnis is “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

How do you do it? Start with one breath. The breath is a useful object of mindfulness because it is always with us. One method is simply to close your eyes, take a long breath through the nose deep into your belly and then exhale through the nose, focusing throughout on the physical sensation of the breath coming and going. Make your exhalation slightly longer than your inhalation and make your belly expand. If your mind wanders (which it will), you can just gently guide it back to the breath.

One mindful breath can usually be taken anywhere, anytime. A single breath can be a quick, ‘mental first-aid’, which anyone can use if feeling stressed or tired. You can increase to 10 breaths and eventually to a set duration every day. Personally, I do between 10 and 60 minutes every morning. As you see the benefits, you may bring mindfulness to your daily activities, making it less a practice and more a way of being.

What are the benefits? Research on this subject is solid and voluminous. Some benefits include lower anxiety, stress, exhaustion, and depression; increased mental stamina and resilience; better memory, creativity, focus; faster reactions; reduced pain; better mood; reduced self-destructive and addictive behaviour; greater self-awareness, empathy and attention; improved health and immunity. This is partly why mindfulness is considered a ‘superpower’.

However, instead of reading studies, I encourage seafarers to experience mindfulness for themselves. Just one mindful breath in a time of stress can prove its value. The more you practise, the more your mental armour will grow.