Who do you want to be in a crisis? Discover resilience strategies from Elite Special Forces

Updated: 3 days ago

Learning terms: Visualization, Diaphragmatic breathing, Self-talk, Goal setting

During high-stress situations, do you want to be the person that everyone can rely on?

In every crisis, we need a person to turn to for strength. Whether it’s the death of a family member, a house fire, a violent assault, or a natural disaster, it will be less of a crisis if there is someone there to manage the situation.

For insight, we can look to the special forces operators, who are trained in some of the world's most advanced resilience initiatives due to the alarming rates of PTSD, suicide, and other effects of traumatic stress among warfighters.

In a crisis, we go through several phases of emotional processing; shock, reaction, processing, and reorientation. Humans are psychologically diverse, meaning we respond to situations differently, but typically the shock phase, if not controlled, can lead to more problems.

This affects our ability to perform under stress, because the sympathetic nervous system arousal kicks your heart rate into overdrive, sends more blood to your skeletal muscles to make ready, your adrenal glands release norepinephrine and epinephrine which flood through your bloodstream to stimulate your system in areas you need to act, and overall, these responses work together to prepare you for ideal situation performance.

But there’s a catch, the stress effect on human performance operates in a U-shaped curve, known as the Yerkes-Dodson law. In other words, increasing stress causes an improvement in performance until it reaches the optimal performance zone, there begins the decline of performance because of fatigue or over-arousal.

With the appropriate motivation and training, individuals can learn to maintain or even improve their performance beyond their optimal stress level. This is known as stress inoculation training, and in the world of special operation units, it has long been of value.

These methods are investigated to help warfighters regulate their autonomic nervous system and usually include physical components (i.e., breathwork) and cognitive components (i.e., self-talk and visualization)

For many of us, it is unlikely that we are going to face these situations often, but when we do, the lack of mental toughness and readiness may cause us to panic, shutdown, or even deny the reality of the situation. This can often be the difference between life and death, hence why special forces units around the world commission operational psychologists to create strategies that increase resilience in the face of adversity.

One paper reported that while negative life events reduce feelings of happiness, they also likely to increase life meaning. But what does this have to do with resilience?

“Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. And, weak men create hard times.” A quote from G. Michael Hopf, a combat veteran and bodyguard turned author. Hard times teach us hard lessons that enlighten us to a deeper understanding of ourselves, and others around us, they make us more compassionate and also build character.

These experiences shape our lives and make us who we are, for better or for worse. Special forces operators are likely to face hostile and life-threatening situations time and time again, so they, above most have to become masters of their own psychology. It does not mean they are naturally hyper-resilient, instead, they achieve this by deliberate practice and training in self-management techniques, and panic becomes less of an option as they develop in their career. The good news is that you can harness these techniques to increase your own ability to respond effectively in tricky situations.

The key is to find your warrior mindset, or in psychological terms, mental toughness. This means being mentally prepared for the emotional and psychological stress by applying survival mindset tactics. By learning these 4 methods, the next time you face a crisis, your resilience might just save the day.

#1 - Mental rehearsal or visualization

Many special forces operators will train their visualization, in other words using mental imagery to rehearse an action or situation. The power of visualization is harshly undervalued in the real-world (outside of academia), but it is a mental tool most people can easily access.

Research from the 1980s found 70% of track and field athletes used visual mental imagery techniques when preparing for a sports event. Since then, visualization in sport has become standard procedure for training regimes, and one study published in Neuropsychologia found the mental practice is almost as effective as physical practice.

A common trait among some of the world’s top sports professional is exercising the mindset of visualization. Here are a few examples;

Michael Jordan

Muhammad Ali

Tiger Woods

This can ready you for the feelings, both mental and physical, that a dangerous situation brings, and prepare you to override them. It means continuously running through a scenario in your mind, so when it happens for real, its less of a shock.

So, the next time your preparing for a challenge, perhaps you have an interview, a speech, a competitive event or even if you want to be ready for a crisis such as a house fire, imagine the scenario step-by-step leading up to the successful outcome, and in turn, this will increase your motivation, performance, and reduce anxiety.

As the last point, mental visualization is a perishable skill. So, it requires maintenance. For more on how to exercise and enhance your mental imagery see Master the Art of Visual and Spatial Memory.

#2 - Diaphragmatic breathing and arousal control

When our mind enters survival mode, we start to take short sharp breathes which causes hyperventilation, our blood pressure increases, and our heart rate surges.

Consider the experience of a soldier pinned down by fire, and the chaos that ensues. As the heart rate explodes that soldier needs to ensure that the bodies sympathetic arousal does not overwhelm their motor functions. “So, breathe…” control your breathing: control your heart rate: control your situation.

Special forces are trained to regulate their body's physiological response to stress with diagrammatic breathing. Deliberate, deep, and slow breathing fights off the effects of panic, but specifically, long slows exhales mimic the body's relaxation process transporting more oxygen to the brain.

This doesn’t mean the next time you get into a tricky situation; simply deep breathing will do the job. Research shows It takes time and practice to become proficient at breath-work. Diaphragmatic breathing is a skill, so start training it.

#3 - Self-talk

Self-talk is your internal dialogue, “come on, you can do this” or “there’s no way I can do that”. It can be both positive and negative, and the research shows that it can have a significant effect on one’s performance.

Positive self-talk is an effective stress management tool and many special forces operators who perform well in critical situations use their internal voice. The research is clear; a person's perceived control of a threat is influenced by positive cognitive evaluations.

Some fears are considered primal, that few people can overcome. Special forces training makes candidates tackle this head-on… Ever heard of “drown-proofing”?

This is a brutal test the Navy Seals (and others) have to go through. It’s a type of stress inoculation training that requires the candidates to jump into a 12ft pool with their hands cuffed behind their back and bounce of the pool floor to the surface, take a breath and then sink back down. They repeat this for several minutes.

Self-talk in this exercise is critical. Negative talk can exacerbate the anxiety such as “what if I need my arms”. This internal dialogue can provoke your anxiety causing oxygen to be used up more quickly, thus inducing panic. But positive self-talk such as “just stay calm and focus” can help the candidate gain control of their panic-related physiological responses.

The candidates are trained in self-talk to stay focused and control natural anxiety, and the research shows that this technique has proven effective in many high-stress professions (e.g. medical surgery) Not only that, one study found positive self-talk, combined with mental imagery and self-regulation helped personnel improve their academic test performance.

The average human speaks to themselves between 300 and 1000 words per minute, so learn to shift your inner dialogue to be more optimistic and encouraging. First of all, you'll need to identify your self-talk traps. Those are the areas you are most likely to self-doubt. Remember, it’s a habit change, and that takes time and effort, but after a while, positive self-talk will be your norm. Check out how to form new habits and break old ones.

#4 - Goal setting

In a crisis, concentrating on the next five minutes could be a life-saving decision. The intensive and enduring nature of military training can lead to feelings of hopelessness, and often recruits will perform arduous exercise’s that seem like there is no end in sight.

They are encouraged to concentrate on goal setting, that is focusing on getting past the next obstacle or get through the next 10 minutes. Successful candidates have an ability to break unimaginable circumstances into short-term, medium, and long-term goals, thus creating a more manageable situation.

Think back to the “drown-proofing” example.

In one of the tests, the instructor will harass the candidate by throwing them around, ripping off their breathing equipment, and tying the tubes in knots, forcing the candidate to hold their breath for long periods of time, whilst they untie and re-fit their equipment to breathe. As soon as they take in the oxygen, the instructor will be back to rip it out again.

Successful candidates use goal setting for this exercise, for example; rather than aim for end-ex (end of exercise) they might break it into smaller goals, for example;

  • Goal 1 - Concentrate on getting the oxygen tank tubes untangled.

  • Goal 2 - Get the face mask back on.

Rather than focusing on the finish line, focus on getting over the next hurdle

You can apply this goal-orientated approach to any given situation. For instance, consider the experience of a car crash. The chaos of the aftermath can amplify the negative impact for all individuals involved, but by concentrating on creating short-term, medium and long-term goals, you can transform this unimaginable situation into manageable steps, bring structure to chaos and you will keep the emotional center of your brain in check.

Bottom line

In an emergency that involves several people, its highly likely that the majority will panic. An individual with a prepared mindset will be able to take lead with a planned course of action which can significantly improve damage limitation. We can look to the operational psychologists for evidence-based strategies to better ourselves.

Just think, the U.S invests heavily in USSOCOM research to build service members to be more resilient, adaptable, and capable in the face of volatile circumstances. Research suggests combining these four techniques improved the chances of success for a Navy Seal candidate trying to pass selection (see also).

So, why not take a bit of that knowledge for yourself and train yourself to control the fear that could cause you to react poorly in a crisis.

A last word from Upmanship

If the idea of building a warrior mindset intrigues you, then here are some book recommendations:

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