Someone in my Stoicism philosophy group recommended this video to me and I am LOVING what I’ve learned about how the US Navy Seals (HOOYAH GO NAVY!) have integrated four specific cognitive behavioral techniques into their training program to help trainees combat fear.
Watch from 2:47 to to 18:30 – trust me, you’ll likely enjoy it – I certainly did! (the rest of the video did bore me though, and I did not care to finish it).
The following is transcribed verbatim from the video:
The techniques that we are most interested in are what I call the Big Four:
1. Goal Setting
2. Mental Rehearsal
4. Arousal Control
Scientists think goal-setting works by assisting the Frontal Lobes. As the brain’s supervisor, the Frontal Lobes are responsible for reasoning and planning. Concentrating on specific goals lets the brain bring structure to chaos, and keeps the Amygdala, the emotional center of the brain, in check.
The second technique, Mental Rehearsal, or visualization, is continually running through an activity in your mind so when you try it for real it comes more naturally.
If you practice in your mind first and rehearse and imagine how you might do in these stressful situations, the next time, in reality, you’re faced with these situations – it’s actually in effect the second time you’ve faced it, so you’ll have less of a stressful reaction.
The third technique, self-talk, helps focus the trainees thoughts. The average person speaks to themselves at a rate of 300 to 1,000 words a minute – if these words are positive instead of negative, can do, instead of can’t, they help override the fear signal coming from the Amygdala.
The Frontal Lobes are always on, so it’s very easy to think about something difficult, something bad like I’m going to fail, what am I doing here, I didn’t practice enough. What you’re trying to do is you’re trying to replace those bad thoughts with good thoughts.
The final technique, Arousal Control, is centered on breathing. Deliberate slow breathing helps combat some of the effects of panic. Long exhales in particular mimic the body’s relaxation process, and get more oxygen to the brain so it can perform better.
Breathing is a great focusing strategy, but you can only do it so much because in in response to fear your brain will get jacked up.
On it’s own, arousal control wouldn’t work – the Amygdala sends out such a powerful signal, it’s tough to suppress if we’re still feeling fearful – but combining the four techniques made a big difference to the trainee Seals pass rate, increasing it from a quarter to a third.
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Author note: This blog is a personal blog, there is and will never be an agenda to anything I post other than my own personal desire to grow and express myself (and to benefit my family and my dear readers), and I state this, because when I come across something like this, I don’t just ‘blog it’ and forget about it – I make it a part of my life, of my mental programming, and I return to it, and I study it. I’m not sitting here typing this stuff up in an attempt to aggregate a search query from google, or to make money. I state this because I hope that you, my reader, will not simply dismiss something you read here because of the abundance of free and purportedly helpful information available online. I know I sometimes make that mistake too, but it’s much easier for me to accept the value of something when I know there is no monetary or ulterior motive behind its production and publication. So, long story short – this is great stuff. The Navy Fucking Seals are using it with significant success. These concepts make complete sense and there is no reason why you too can’t transform your life with them. I know I plan on it.
Each of The Big Four techniques detailed above (1. Goal Setting, 2. Mental Rehearsal, 3. Self-Talk, 4. Arousal Control) has far reaching benefits beyond countering and calming the brain’s natural fear responses. These are major pillars of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and I think this is an excellent framework. It’s unfortunate there isn’t more info available on the Big Four.
Edit: I found a former Seal trainee’s account of the Big Four, which provides additional detail and perspective, and I am publishing a quote of below for posterity’s sake:
“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.”
Edit 2: Also found a great presentation on the topic that provides additional details, here
also, here: The Big Four Mental Toughness.
Future Reading: one of the things that is covered in the self-talk technique, is the concept of ABC (Activator / Adversity, Belief, Consequence), by Albert Ellis, who helped originate Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Here is a great document on the ABC approach to stress reduction, which I plan on writing about soon.
P.S. Anyone else like how the Seals refer to visualization as mental rehearsal…. quite a paradigm shift for those using ‘visualization’ to set goals.