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Master the Mental Toughness of a Navy SEAL

“Fear likes to be the frontrunner in the Grand Prix of life. But in the face of hope, it loses steam, especially when hope invites allies like focused attention, mindfulness, and inspiration to the racetrack as well.” — Srinivasan S. Pillay.

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The beginning of SEAL training is a six-week vetting process of sorts. Only people with very high IQs and in superb physical condition are selected. At the end of the six-weeks is a period called Hell Week. During Hell Week recruits get about four hours of sleep over a 60-hour period and spend long amounts of time in the water.

Prior to bringing in psychologist Dr. Eric Potterat, 76% of recruits were dropping out during the six week vetting period. This is a huge loss of investment for the Navy. Think about the time and money spent on each recruit, only to have a significant percent leave the program.

Dr. Potterat reviewed the mental toughness training and made suggestions to increase the graduation rate.

He came up with a four point plan, and the graduation rate increased 50%.

These four techniques can help put anybody over the edge mentally and can mean the difference between quitting or finishing.

Technique 1: Focus on Right Now

Focus on getting to the end of the current task. Concentrate on finishing the 20-mile run. Don’t think about anything after the job at hand. Don’t think about dinner. Don’t worry about what you have to do tomorrow.

You can break this down even further. Pick a spot on the running course, perhaps a tree. Focus on getting to that tree. Then pick another point on the course, maybe a light post. Concentrate on getting to that light post.

Essentially, chunk the task down into micro steps. Focus on each micro step until completed, then repeat until you finish the larger goal.

Technique 2: Imagine How Good It Will Feel

One way to do this is to think about past successes. Remember how good they felt. Bring all your present senses into this. Now transfer those feelings to how good it will feel to complete your current task.

Again, break the large task down into smaller, micro steps. How good will it feel to finish the current step and then the next step? Each one of these mini victories will help propel you toward completing the larger goal.

Technique 3: Breathe Deeply

During many difficult tasks, we start to feel frustrated, drained, like we cannot finish. We may become completely discouraged. These feelings can then create a sense of panic due to a part of the brain called the amygdala. Once the amygdala starts to kick into overdrive, it can be very tough to mitigate the sense of fear and hopelessness.

When we breathe deeply into the diaphragm, we flood our bodies with oxygen. This type of breathing helps ground us, bring our mind back to the present, the task at hand.

Cortisol, which is the stress hormone, actually drops within a short period after we begin deep, intentional breathing into the diaphragm.

Here is a quick, easy breathing exercise. Inhale into the diaphragm for a count of six. Hold for a count of two. Then exhale for a count of six. Repeat this cycle three times.

Technique 4: Cheer for Yourself

Use positive affirmations to motivate yourself. Instead of saying to yourself, “I can’t do this. I will never be able to complete this task.” Cheer yourself on with positive affirmations. Flip the switch and say, “I can do this. I will do this.” Focus on that next micro step, the next problem, the next tree and tell yourself you can get there.

The Navy Seals use these four tactics to complete some of the most physically and mentally grueling tasks imaginable to humankind.

Think about how you can implement some or all of these techniques to overcome mental blocks and finish what you started.

As it turns out, there is a lot of science supporting these methods.

Harvard brain scientist, Dr. Srini Pillay, in his book “Life Unlocked” goes into extensive discussions about fear and how we can overcome it. “Fear is an electrical current. What can an electrical current do? It can help you cook something in a microwave, start a car, turn on a light, and amplify an electric guitar. It can also run through your body and kill you if you are struck by lightning during a storm. Because fear is electricity running through a certain part of the brain, it is probable that we can redirect this electrical energy to run through other parts of the brain that do not elicit fear. … And the message in this to you is that there are two important biological realities that give us hope for overcoming fear: First, nerve cells can change (we call this property neuroplasticity), and second, fear, as electricity, can be rechanneled through other circuits.”

The four techniques that Dr. Eric Potterat came up with to help the Navy Seals are ways of bringing awareness, or Mindfulness to our thoughts and emotions.

Through being present, breathing deeply and cheering ourselves on, we are taking control of our thoughts, our feelings, and our emotions. We are essentially channeling those electrical currents away from the amygdala.

As Dr. Pillay writes, “When we allow our attention to be captured by fear, our level of fear grows. But if we swing our attentional spotlight to focus on something else, our brains will respond in kind.”

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Dr. Eric Potterat’s four techniques described above are largely paraphrased from the book, “Creating the Person You Want to Be, NLP, The Essential Guide to Neuro Linguistic Programming,” by Tom Hoobyar and Tom Dotz with Susan Sanders. I highly recommend this book. It is great for learning how to understand and manage your mind.

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