For many of us, finding ways of handling stress is a crucial part of our toolbox for life. Learning what the Navy teaches their elite SEAL Teams is like being given a peek behind the curtain. Most people will not have to handle stress like a Navy SEAL. However, learning about their survival tools can only help you navigate your stress better.

Diving In

Have you ever been at home, bored, and scrolling through channels looking for something worth watching? On occasion, you find something that sticks with you. There was a show on the History Channel called “The Brain.” It was a fascinating program, especially the situational training that they documented. The program series took a look at how the brain operates under different circumstances.

One of the segments of the show was a piece on training the brain to manage stress, specifically, how the Navy is working to improve the passing average in the Navy SEAL program. What the Navy found was about 25% of the troops in the program passed the training. Still, there were 5 to 10%  of each group of trainee’s that should have passed, yet didn’t. Some of these men quit in the last week, last days, or hours. So, the Navy set out to find what key things these men needed in order to be able to pass.

What the Navy discovered was four areas needed to be addressed. These areas were important for the 5 – 10% of trainees to successfully complete this highly stressful training program.

The four areas that they discovered were: Goal Setting; Arousal Control/Breathing; Visualization; and Self Talk.

Goal Setting:

We all know that without a goal, it’s challenging to go anywhere. Having a big over-arching goal is where most of us begin and end our goal setting. The old adage, how do you eat an elephant is relevant. It speaks to the importance of taking the time to chunk that big audacious goal into bite-size parts.

The Navy began looking at goal setting like this; people needed to have very clear short-term, midterm, and long-range goals. A short-term goal is a goal that I can accomplish in a short amount of time and be successful. A mid-range goal is a mile marker and a long-range goal is my big audacious life goal.

Let’s break this out a bit

With a short term goal, a person needs a tangible vision of making it to the next minute, or the next meal, or the next mile marker. I will talk about this more under self-talk, but the vision/goal is going to activate the person to say things like “I can make it through this next minute,” “I can make it to lunch,” “I can make it one more step or I can make it one more mile.”

Midterm goals look like the mile markers on the path to the bigger goal. These are the bite-size break downs to the larger goal. On my road to graduate from xyz, I will complete this semester. Or, my path to owning my own business and being my own boss, I will get experience for five years at this job. For a Navy Seal trainee, it might be, making it to the end of the day or the end of the week.

And, a long-term goal would be further out. It’s linked to your ability to remember what the higher purpose of your actions is. For instance, “I want to be a Navy SEAL.”  Or, for mere mortals, we might have a long-term goal of graduating from school, being our own boss, becoming an artist, or wanting to create a bold life adventure resume for ourselves. The point is that all the B.S. that we are dealing with right now is worth it because it fits into our future self’s vision of what we are working to achieve.

Breathing/Arousal Control

Regardless of your goals, there will be times when you are flooded by overwhelm. This overwhelm may come in the form of too much to do and not enough time. Daily examples might be deadlines, productivity expectations, angry customers, insert your flavor of stress here. So, when you start to slip down the stress slide, your body will react with a stress reaction or arousal response, (getting scared, anxious, nervous, angry, worried, etc. – usually a strong negative emotion).

Once the response starts, your brain will call on your amygdala and will flood your body with the chemicals dopamine, cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline. When this happens, you will notice that your heart starts to beat hard, your palms sweat, and your breathing gets quick and shallow.

As your body reacts to the perceived threat, you will shake or tense up, and get ready for the 4 F’s, fight, flee, freeze, or freak-out. Unfortunately, when we are in the middle of an intense arousal response, our ability to think through the situation is lost. Stress pushes us to become reactive. This response is what keeps us alive when the tiger is running at us. This reactivity spurs us up a tree and hopefully out of the reach of the tiger. Alas, if it’s our boss being a jerk, a reactive response, as if they are messing with our air supply, may be overblown.

Your breath is one of your most important tools

What the focus on breathing does, is realign your autonomic nervous system. As we breathe slowly and into our belly, we begin to calm our heartbeat, and our thinking capacity begins to come back online. Focusing on our breath shifts our attention away from the situation, which can give us some clarity of distance.

By working to normalize our breathing, we can calm our autonomic nervous response to the situation. If the situation is not life-threatening, this is super useful. The point is we need to stabilize our brain and get back to a place where we can start thinking again. By practicing our breathing during non-stressful situations, we can create neural wiring in our brain to calm ourselves in a stressful situation. Which ultimately will help us make more effective choices, be less reactive, more effective, and hopefully help us to survive the situation and live another day.

There are many techniques for your breathwork. Breathing in through your nose for a 4 count and out through your mouth for an 8 count is one method. There is a box breathing strategy of breathing in for a 4 count, holding your breath for a 4 count, breathing out for a 4 count, and then holding for a 4 count, repeat as needed. What all breathing techniques do is help you clear your head and get back to emotional self-regulation so that you can reengage your brain.


Visualization or Mental Rehearsal:

I’m using the terms, visualization, or mental rehearsal, interchangeably. What the Navy found was it was essential, for the person, to see themselves practicing training successfully in their mind. For instance, one of the images that stood out for me was the underwater test. A Seal trainee would be in a pool, and their trainer would swim down and mess with their air supply. This act would trigger a primal fear of drowning. The trainees, who visualized how to handle this situation successfully, tended to be far more successful in actual practice.

Another example of this is something I saw most while watching the winter Olympics. You would see the athletes practicing turns or jumps in their heads and bodies moving around as they visualize themselves competing on the course or making a complex series of turns, jumps, and tricks.

Remember, this process of seeing yourself doing the thing that you are going to do is almost as powerful as actually doing the thing. You might recall from other articles on the blog; the brain doesn’t know the difference between the actual and the imagined thing.

If we are freaking ourselves out with the worst-case scenario, our brain will go into survival mode. If we are visualizing ourself as successful, the brain will remain able to think and we can plan and act in ways that are more useful to self-induced stress, like stepping into a job where we feel stretched, speaking in front of a large group of people, or anything that moves us out of our comfort zone.


During the show, there was mention that the average person says between 300-7000 words per minute to themselves. That is a lot of chatter. If the majority of this self-talk is negative, it’s no wonder that we can freak ourselves out and derail our efforts in completing tasks, as well as stop ourselves from moving toward our dreams. Toxic chatter swirling around your mind is something we can learn to turn the volume down on.

Part of making self-talk manageable is first to become aware that you are actually saying so much crap to yourself and then working on challenging the negative words and beliefs. This process begins with awareness.

I have worked with many clients paralyzed by anxiety. One of the things they all shared was the swirl of these toxic thoughts and the apparent acceptance of these thoughts without any challenge. They just allowed these thoughts free-range in their minds. They unconsciously accepted them as truth. Which, of course, is paralyzing. So, what do you need to do to get unstuck from these thoughts?

Change Your Brain

Dr. Amen, who wrote the book, Change Your Brain – Change Your Life, shared a powerful tool. When you find yourself flooded with negative beliefs, ask yourself these two questions.

  • Do I know that this self-talk or belief to be 100% true?
  • What do I know that contradicts the negative self-talk or belief?

So, for an example:  “I never finish anything I start!!!”  Question One: is this 100% true? I don’t know, maybe… maybe not. Second question: What do I know that contradicts the thoughts? Well, I finished the laundry… I finished brushing my teeth… I fed the dog this morning… I finished this blog article… Ok, it cannot be 100% true.

Create a list of all the things you have completed regardless of how small or unimportant you think these activities are. The point is that you need to challenge the global language that you are spouting. Words like, always, never, everything, forever, every time, need to be challenged. Life is in constant motion and rarely has someone never finished anything.

This is true of most toxic negative beliefs. These toxic beliefs like, I am unloveable, or I can’t handle this, all work to keep you stuck in a negative spiral. Stepping out of the spiral takes challenging the negative stories. If you’re interested in a deeper dive, I talk about this in more detail in the post Are You Ready to Challenge Your Negative Narrative?

Your Mantra

Lastly, create a mantra or mental chant that you can use to center yourself. If you’re going to be talking to yourself, you might as well say something useful. Your mantra could be as simple as, “I’m ok, I’m ok, I’m ok,” to something more complex like, “I am safe and I am keeping my focus on my goal.” You want to have access to a quick reminder that you are in fact, a. safe, and b. you’ve got this.

You’ve Got This

Remember the Navy has the SEAL’s train for stressful often combative situations over and over again. These men learn skills and develop strategies to manage their reactions in the most intense and deadly situations. This repetitive training is what helps them to succeed.

And one of the coolest thing we can learn from their training is that we, mere mortals, can work on training our brain’s reactions and responses to be better. For most of us, we are not navigating life and death situation daily. However, we are still navigating plot twists and stress. Everything from angry kids, customers, and bosses are real stress points and can send us into a tailspin. With practice and a few tools in your toolbox, you can become an expert on handling your stress like a Navy SEAL.

Your Turn...

I would LOVE to hear from YOU!

  • What is your favorite stress-fighting tool?
  • What mantra will keep your thoughts calm?

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