On our best day we barely know how we feel, let alone why. The boundary between the external world we experience and the internal world that guides our feelings and determines our actions circumscribes a Black Box. We know that different people can decide to do similar things or very similar people can do very different things but the reason why they behave this way is hard to account for.
Our science is improving all the time however. It allows us to understand, for instance, the steps required to help us overcome our fears and the link between how the mind perceives something and how the body reacts to it. A more practical example of this is found in the Wim-Hof method.
When we better understand why something happens we can then analyze it, measure it and find ways to make it more widely applicable and further improve it. This means that if we can better understand how trained individuals like snipers and Navy SEALs operate internally so they can achieve the exceptionally high level of behavior we observe, externally, then we too can learn to emulate them.
That’s the central tenet behind The Sniper Mind. We don’t have to enroll into sniper-training school and learn how to become a sniper in order to benefit from better situational awareness skills greater analytical powers and cooler decision-making when we are under pressure. Nor, do we need to become a Navy SEAL to learn how to mentally operate like one.
A new study carried out on 174 trainees undergoing the gruelling BUD/S training that culminates in Hell Week shows exactly what is required to feel and think like a Navy SEAL.
Obviously, a large element of that is adequate preparation and our expectations which, inevitably, involve our sense of self and vision of ourselves in the world. At the same time there are specific attributes that involve mindset, resilience, hardiness and grit. All of these are affected every time we do something difficult.
What We Do Changes Who We Are
Our intentions are, indeed, revealed by our actions. At the same time what we do also changes who we are by affecting the potential of who we become. To see how this is even possible we need to understand the connection between the body and the mind. A connection that explains how the actions and internal states of the latter affect the internal states and capabilities of the former and then how that feedback loop is closed when we decide to do something in a way that involves total commitment and focus.
To unravel this complexity we need to start with something simple: “There is no action without a cause”. Everything we do and everything we don’t do and everything we do later than we should have done it, has a cause and that cause can be attributed to a stimulus we’ve experienced that triggers a cascade of neurochemical and electrical impulses that lead to particular physical states. Because all of the body’s involuntary responses are performed by the autonomic nervous system we’re barely aware of it. There is good reason for that. No matter how busy we are or tired we get this system’s autonomy makes sure that we won’t forget to breathe and our heart will not stop pumping.
The autonomic nervous system further subdivided into the sympathetic, parasympathetic and enteric nervous systems and is, itself, a component of the peripheral nervous system which reports to the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord).
Think of all this like interrelated building blocks, a little like babushka dolls where one encompasses the other and is affected by it. That means that while everything we do has a cause in something we have experienced, what we do also affects how we feel. How we feel, in turn, affects our thinking and impacts on the quality and effectiveness of our actions.
All of which brings us now to the Navy SEALs study. “United States Navy SEALs (named for the settings they operate in: Sea, Air, and Land) are an elite military force responsible for special operations, working in chaotic and unknown environments with little margin for error. Some of the most notable missions in recent history including the rescuing of a cargo ship from Somali pirates in 2009 and the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011.”
Think Like A Navy SEAL
The study medically and psychologically examined 175 recruits undergoing the gruelling BUD/S training (including Hell Week) looking for changes in their attitude and their bodies. As the authors reported: “Psychological surveys and blood collection occurred at the beginning of their training and after each 8-week-long phase. Psychological measures were completed on resilience, hardiness, and grit, in addition to blood samples being drawn.”
The results revealed that resilience, and hardiness showed an initial decrease followed by an increase as the recruits progressed in their training. The biological markers test showed, “there was a growth in DHEA and DHEA-to-cortisol ratio, which are thought to be a response to intense physical exercise and increased stress resilience. DHEA is a steroid hormone that is produced by the adrenal glands and is involved in a number of physiological processes, including immune function, metabolism, and stress response.”
What this amounts to: the sheer level of difficulty of BUD/S training physically grinds down everyone who goes through the process, everyone feels physically tired and psychologically exhausted. The recruits who succeed in passing however are able to draw on mental components that reframe the experience as positive.
This reframing allows them to use the stress they feel to enhance their physical and mental performance.
Science has been looking at this area for some time. For instance we know that the whole body decides what the mind tells us to do. The image we draw of our self in our mind creates the reality we experience by activating a specific internal model which then affects our judgement, decision-making and behavior. This is why the mindset we carry is so crucial.
The study’s authors found that:
“Candidates’ stress mindsets may be particularly important in this extremely stressful setting. Instructors convey stress-relevant messages about welcoming stress in training (colloquially referred to as “embrace the suck”) and simultaneously attempt to increase candidates’ stress throughout training to mimic combat settings. Candidates who see stress as beneficial may show greater persistence and performance throughout training.”
Choose Between “Hot” And “Cold”
In more practical terms a positive mindset in a difficult situation emerges from the ability to choose between the body’s and brain’s “hot” reward system that is activated when we focus on short-term gains (such as relief from the stress of training) and its “cool” reward system that looks at future gains, goals and personal development and defers gratification.
The Navy SEALs in the study that did not drop out saw the stress they were undergoing as a positive event that would enable them to rise to the occasion, develop and grow. The ones who did drop out saw themselves being diminished and worn down by the emotional, physical and mental grind they experienced on a daily basis.
Here are then the three key ingredients to thinking like a Navy SEAL:
- Have a sense of purpose: focus on your long-term aims
- Know who you are: have faith in yourself and your capabilities
- Embrace stress: reframe short-term difficulties to include long-term goals
Do this consistently and you will find things will start to change for you in your personal and professional life and, most importantly, you will begin to feel better about who you are and what you do.
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You can read a sample of The Sniper Mind chapter here.