“Courage is not the absence of fear, it is the ability to act in the presence of fear.” -Bruce Lee
If you suddenly stumble upon a giant bear, standing up on its hind legs, looking directly into your eyes and roaring out with a ferocious and spine chilling growl, would you stay calm and be able to think clearly? If so, perhaps you should go join the Navy SEALs. However, if you are like most of us, your brain would immediately trigger the release of stress hormones increasing your breathing and heart rate, giving you a heightened state of alertness, but making it difficult to control your thoughts and to make life-saving decisions.
Life can be full of chaos, unpredictability and change which can lead to fear, panic and stress. How can we deal with anxious and stressful situations so that we can maintain self-control and our decision-making abilities? The answer may lie in the groundbreaking neuroscience research that led to the development the Navy Seal’s 4 keys to mental toughness.The Navy SEAL mental toughness program was designed by neuroscientists to change the way the SEALs would react in extreme situations and to provide a means for controlling the brain’s overwhelming and instinctual need to panic. It did this by developing what research showed to be the 4 keys to cultivating mental control and resilience.
Neuroscience research shows us that, in times of fear, a part of the brain called the amygdala will press the body’s panic system and trigger the release of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. While the role of the amygdala is to heighten our awareness, this state also interferes with our decision making ability and can make it difficult to think logically and clearly.
Historically, the majority of SEAL mistakes were associated with fear and panic (the amygdala’s activation of the panic system), therefore it was necessary to find a way to retrain the brain’s instinctual response in moments of extreme stress. The mental toughness program teaches the SEALs how to deal with anxiety, maintain calm in the face of danger and keep the mind in a state of clarity, enabling them to do what is necessary. In other words, they are taught to maintain control in the midst of chaos.
The 4 Keys to Mental Toughness
Based off of the neuroscientific research, the Navy SEALs harness what are called the four keys to mental toughness:
1. Goal Setting – Goals are segmented, broken down into smaller goals, which seem more manageable and keep the mind on the task at hand. This brings structure and order to chaos, helping to keep the amygdala in check.
2.Mental Rehearsal – Visualization is something which Olympic athletes have used for some time. Navy psychologists discovered that mental visualization led to increased success in the SEAL training exercises. Running a scenario over and over in your mind and seeing yourself excel in the task helps to prepare the mind and body. Then, once the exercise actually occurs, the mind is ready and the SEAL is in full control of their reactions.
3. Self-Talk – Throughout the day we have thousands of thoughts and are constantly talking to ourselves.
SEALs pay careful attention to their thinking and block out all negative thought, only permitting positive, supportive thoughts to enter their minds. Research suggests that positive self-talk can help override the fear signals from the amygdala. There are numerous techniques which can be used to teach the brain to think positive.
4. Arousal Control – By default, the amygdala presses the panic button in our brain when confronted with what it perceives as danger. The chemicals sent out cause our hearts to pound and our minds to race. This is the body’s natural response to stress, developed over millions of years of human evolution. But SEALs learn to control this response so they may remain poised and calm even in the most stressful of situations.
One of the techniques they are taught is the 4 x 4 x 4 breathing pattern, in which you inhale for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, and continue to perform this rhythmic breathing for four minutes. It should be performed for a minimum of one minute to see an effect. This slow deep relaxation mimics the body’s relaxation process and gets more oxygen to the brain so it can function optimally. The immense power of the breath is one of the least understood and applied control mechanisms at our disposal.
A First-Hand Account of Learning the 4 Keys
I was able to find a former SEAL trainee’s account of his experiences learning the 4 keys. I have included below a verbatim account of his experiences, to help preserve his valuable words.
The account is as follows and can also be read in the link above:
THE BIG FOUR; KEYS TO MENTAL TOUGHNESS
Goal Setting Through Segmenting: All of us have heard of goal setting. However, not all of us do it effectively. Segmenting is breaking a large task into smaller, more achievable goals. Not looking ahead all the time at everything you need to do to achieve the task but staying in the present and looking simply at what you have to do today or before each meal. It’s like the old adage “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Master Chief told us exactly how to break up the humongous task of getting through BUDs. “One meal at a time,” was our motto. Anyone can make it to the next meal. Once you make it to lunch then you focus on making it to dinner. At the start of BUDs, I focused on working from meal to meal but I also broke it down to even smaller parts during surf torture, long, cold swims, and brutal conditioning runs. “Just get to the next minute, the next sand bar, past this section of the beach,” I thought to myself. I also focused on a slightly bigger picture and set an initial goal of just making it to the end of each week. Weekends are rest and recovery time at BUDs and students are free to do whatever they please. Segmenting sounds like such a simple idea but how many of us use it effectively? I think as triathletes we can use segmenting over the course of our season, not just in an Ironman, to keep us focused, patient, and on a path to successful racing.
External and Internal Visualization: “Worrying is praying for something you don’t want. If you worry about it enough, it will happen.” Visualization is the antidote for anxiety, nervousness, and worry. In your mind, visualize yourself successfully going through each step needed to complete the task in detail through your own eyes (Internal). Then visualize seeing yourself successfully negotiating that same task as if you were watching yourself on video. Do this over and over. Go to a quiet place if you can, close your eyes, and visualize yourself internally and externally. When I was coaching, I used to tell cyclists that were afraid to descend at high speeds to focus on where you want to go instead of all the places you don’t want to end up. At BUDs I used this when we were waiting for our turn on the Obstacle Course. We had to negotiate all nineteen obstacles in under eleven minutes. Any obstacle that took you more than three attempts was an automatic failure. Failures were sent to remediation with more physical punishment as a reward. BUDs is hard enough. Avoiding extra doses of pain could mean the difference between passing and failure in another evolution in the day. Even though I knew I could negotiate each obstacle; waiting in line and not wanting to fail could cause unwanted anxiety. Visualization was my weapon against this.
Self Talk: Self talk is self affirmation. “Belief in yourself is the number one thing that will get your through BUDs. Believe in the program, training and where it will take you,” said Master Chief. Action (event), Belief (experience, prejudices, biases, stereotypes), Consequences (possible outcomes). Every task we encounter has these factors surrounding it. “Beliefs” are improved by self talk which equals a better consequence. All of us that compete have had a bad experience one time or another. A bike crash, being unable to finish a workout, bonking, gastric distress, cramps, equipment problems, or battling through an injury. These prior experiences can have a negative influence on a future consequence whether we realize it or not. Talking to yourself, believing in your training, your equipment, and trusting yourself to know what to do in the event things don’t go your way can mean the difference between success and failure. Every morning at BUDs, during the run to chow I would talk to myself as well as talk to God. I’d remind myself how hard I’ve worked to get to this point and that this day would soon pass. I would talk to myself during those cold two mile ocean swims and the dark four mile timed runs along the beach. “Just get to that buoy, just get to those rocks on the beach, you’re not cold” were things I said to myself.
Arousal Control; 4 x 4 x 4 breathing: People can react to a stressor in different ways. For instance, if an individual perceives the stressor as a challenge to his/her control of a situation, norepinephrine, the “fight ” hormone is predominantly released. And, if the stress arousal increases and a possible loss of control is felt by the individual, then epinephrine, another “flight/anxiety” hormone is released. When the stress is prolonged and seen as hopeless, the individual becomes more distressed and feels defeated. This activates the hypothalamus in the brain. What follows is a cascade of hormonal pathways resulting in the final release of cortisol from the adrenal cortex (of the kidney). The HPA Axis (Hypothalmus Pituitary Adrenal Axis) is a term describing the connection between your brain, pituitary, adrenal gland in relation to stress. During times of stress, the pituitary gland releases cortisol and the balance of cortisol in comparison to other hormones (DHEA, Testosterone, and Estrogen) is high. An increase in cortisol naturally occurs during the day and is highest in the morning and later afternoons as well as in times of stress. In a healthy person, the balance of hormones fluctuates naturally throughout the day. During normal, healthy sleep levels of cortisol are low allowing the body to repair and rebuild itself. High levels of cortisol as a result of stress or over training inhibit this process. In addition to affecting recovery, high or prolonged amounts of cortisol reduces blood flow to the muscles as well as limit the amount of glucose that the body is able to use. It affects athletic performance negatively as in the flight or defeat response.
To combat this, Master Chief Guile introduced us to 4 x 4 x 4 breathing in which you inhale for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, and continue to perform this rhythmic breathing for four minutes. This pattern mimics REM sleep patterns, controls arousal, and keeps the cortisol balance in check. I found this extremely effective while waiting to do the obstacle course and before “drown proofing” or knot tying. It allowed me to keep my heart rate down, kept anxiety in check, and helped me go into a stressful situation calm, relaxed, and confident.
Before a race, time trial, or for those with the fear of open water swimming 4 x 4 x 4 breathing is an invaluable tool to combat an increased amount of cortisol. It works just as well for a speech, an interview, or presentation.
These tools are the basics of mental toughness and how aspiring Navy SEALs learning early on what it takes to be the best at what they do. Whether you are gearing up for an Ironman, an important presentation, or simply trying to get through a stressful day give these tactics a try.