Several months ago I was watching a show on the history Channel called “The Brain.” It was a fascinating program for several of the pieces that they documented. The program really looked at how the brain operates under different circumstances. One of the segments of the show was a piece on training the Brain to manage stress, and specifically how the Navy is working to improve the passing average in the Navy seal program. What they found was about 25% of the troops in training the program were passing, but the Navy found that there were 5 to 10% of each group of men that should have passed the Seal’s training, yet didn’t. Some of these men quit in the last week, last days, or hours of the training. So, the Navy set out to find out what key things these men needed in order to be able to pass the training.
What the Navy found was there were four areas that needed to be addressed and taught to the men, so that these 5%-10% of men might be successful in the Navy Seal training program. The four areas that they discovered needed to be addressed were: Goal Setting; Visualization; Self Talk; and Arousal Control/Breathing.
Goal Setting: What the Navy found about goal setting was this, people needed to have very clear short-term, midterm, and long-range goals. What I mean by short-term goals is this, the person might need to be saying to themselves, “I can make it through this next minute,” “I can make it to lunch,” “I can make it one more step or I can make it one more mile.” Midterm goals might look like, “I can make it to the end of this training day,” or “I could make it to the end of the week.” What long-term goals are, is the ability to remember what the greater purpose is, of any action. For instance, “I want to be a Navy Seal.” And, for mere mortals, we might have a long term goal of being an Artist, or Writer, or own our own business.
Visualization or Mental Rehearsal: I’m using the terms, visualization or mental rehearsal, interchangeably. But the Navy found was it was very important, for the person, to see themselves practicing training successfully in their mind. For instance, one of the images that stands out for me, was the underwater test. A Seal trainee, would be in a pool and their trainer would swim down and mess with their air supply. This would trigger a primal fear of drowning. The trainees, who visualized how to handle this situation successfully, tended to be far more successful in actual practice. Another example of this is something I saw most recently the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver Canada, while watching the downhill skiers, you might see them practicing turns or jumps in their heads moving their bodies around as they visualize themselves competing on the course or making a complex jump.
Self talk: They mentioned in the piece that the average person says between 300-7000 words per minute to themselves. If the majority of that self talk is negative, it’s really no wonder that we can freak ourselves out of completing tasks. Part of making self talk manageable is to first become aware that you are actually saying so much crap to yourself and then working on challenging the negative words and beliefs.
Dr. Amen of “Change your Brain – Change your Body” talked about asking 2 important questions when you were flooded with negative beliefs. 1. Do I know that this self talk or belief is 100% true? and 2. What do I know that contradicts the negative self talk or belief? So, for an example: “I totally can’t finish anything I start!!!” Question One: is this 100% true? I don’t know, maybe… maybe not. Second question: what do I know that contradicts the thoughts? Well, I finished the laundry… I finished brushing my teeth… I fed the dog this morning… I finished this blog article… Ok, it cannot be 100% true.
Breathing/Arousal Control: When we are having a stress reaction or Arousal Response to a situation (getting scared, anxious, nervous, angry, worried, etc – any strong negative emotion) our brain can have an amygdala trigger, flooding our body with the chemicals Cortisol and Adrenaline. There are some other chemicals that the body also produces, but these two are very powerful. We may notice that our hearts start to beat really hard, or our breathing gets quick and shallow. Our bodies may start to shake or tense up, ready to Fight, Flee or Freeze. Unfortunately, when we are in the middle of a intense arousal response, our ability to think through the situation is lost and we become very reactive. What the focus on breathing does, is shift our attention away from the situation and as we work to normalize our breathing, we can calm our responses to situations. This then will help us stabilize our brain back to a place where we can start thinking again. Creating the wiring in our brain to calm ourselves in a stressful situation will help us make more effective choices, be less reactive and ultimately help us to survive the situation as best we can.
The Navy has the Seal’s train for stressful often combative situations over and over again. These men learn skills and develop strategies to manage their reactions in the most intense and deadly situations. As a quick aside, I am so humbled by how much they do in a days work. And, I appreciate what they do for me each and every day. But, the coolest thing we can learn from their training, is that we mere mortals can work on training our brain’s reactions and responses to be better!