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What can the U.S. Special Forces teach corporate folks about stress management?

By Jason Van Camp

First, let's consider what you do for a living. American workers are some of the most stressed populations in the world. Stress has a natural progression. Let me know if this sounds familiar - You begin to feel stress at work. No problem. You can handle this. You compartmentalize what needs to be done now with what can wait to get done later. Work piles up. You begin to feel more stressed. You begin to be less productive. You begin to feel sick. Your performance suffers. You get really sick. You take a sick day. You take more sick days. You are considerably behind in work. Your stress is unmanageable. Your business suffers. You lose your job.  

Based on our experience in the corporate world, I’m willing to bet that your employer does not understand or help you manage stress. Sure, your employer might have wellness program at your office, but does this wellness program really solve your stress problem?

Well, what can you do? How can you effectively manage stress at your workplace?

In the U.S. Special Forces community, operators are taught to translate highly stressful training (physical and mental) into any stressful “work” environment.

Stress Management is first and foremost all about knowing yourself, knowing who you are, and how you react under difficult circumstances.  What is your natural human impulse to an incredibly stressful situation? We are designed to do one of three things; fight, flee, or freeze.  

Essentially, your brain produces certain hormones that affect how you react to stress. Now, understand that each of these responses, by itself, are bad choices. Why? Because these reactions are primal instincts which require no thought or reasoning. For example, let’s say that you are hiking in the woods when you are confronted by a Bear. Unless you are Nate Boyer, your natural human response to fight the Bear is probably not going to work out for you. Your natural human response to flee will motivate the Bear to recognize you as prey and hunt you down. Your natural human response to freeze will leave you powerless and at the mercy of the Bear.

An enormous challenge is finding when and how to target stress. Mission 6 Zero has combined U.S. Special Forces stress training with the science of Human Performance Psychology to develop a fundamental process to manage such stressors.

First, don’t panic. Say it outloud to yourself, “don’t panic.” It helps.

Sometimes a pneumonic or cheat code is helpful. At Mission 6 Zero, we use the “5 R’s”: Relax, Refocus, Reload, Reaim, Refire

Next, take a deep breath.

The parasympathetic nervous system is what controls our fight or flight response. Deep breathing triggers our parasympathetic nervous system, neutralizes stress and elicits a calming feeling.

Finally, think.

When you start to think, immediately you are going to search for something, a crutch, some help. For some people, they immediately turn to their religion and put all of their trust in their God to help them out. For other people, they revert back to whatever safety instruction or training they were taught. Case in point, how many times have you heard someone say after an extremely stressful situation, “I remembered my training.” Why do you think we train so much in the military? It is because we ARE going to be confronted with an extremely stressful situation and we NEED to know what to do when confronted with that extremely stressful situation. We train so repetitively so that our training becomes our crutch, our natural human instinct to these situations.  

Our goal is to overcome our natural human response to a stressful situation and arrive, as quickly as possible, at the point where your brain is processing information and providing solutions.

When I first arrived to my “A-Team” or Special Forces Operational Detachment, my boss immediately gave me the mission to take our team and “go test experimental parachutes down in Arizona.” I was excited about the mission; however, I was a bit uneasy with the term “experimental parachutes.” I briefed the team and was met with mixed emotions. Nevertheless, it was our mission and we went to Arizona as “quiet professionals.”  We were trained by HALO (High Altitude Low Opening) jumpmasters how to jump, pack parachutes, as well as actions to take if the parachute malfunctions.

The first guy to jump out of the airplane is always the heaviest, so I usually went first. It was Wednesday, halfway through our second week of training. I was jumping with a rucksack (giant military backpack) between my legs and my rifle strapped to my shoulder. I straddled to the back of the plane and waited for the green light and the jumpmaster to look at me and yell “go!” I turned around, waved my hand at the rest of the team lined up behind me and yelled “follow me!” which is the custom.

I jumped.

Due to our HAHO (High Altitude High Opening) mission, we deployed the parachute a few seconds after jumping. I would always feel the parachute catch air and make a comforting “pop” sound when the parachute inflated. Whenever I heard that “pop,” I felt safe.  This time was different. The parachute cord was pulled and the parachute exited the deployment bag. I heard the parachute begin to catch air and then…. nothing.

No pop.  

In this moment, my natural human response was to freeze. I immediately refused to accept reality. This is a joke. This not really happening. I didn’t even want to look at the parachute. In these moments, time seems to slow down. What are seconds feel like an eternity. It felt like I froze for several minutes when, in reality, it was probably a second or two.  I said to myself, "don't panic." 

I looked at the parachute. The parachute’s suspension lines were wrapped around the buttstock of my weapon. Although deployed, my parachute was not inflated. I was falling. Fast.  I tried untangling the suspension lines from the buttstock of my weapon. The suspension lines were too tightly tangled.

I took a deep breath.

At this point, the parachute caught some air. Unfortunately, it only partially inflated and began to oscillate me. What started out as a problem became a disaster. I was spinning so fast that I was on the verge of blacking out. I slowed my breathing down. I took deep breaths. My brain was motivated to think. I began to problem solve. I immediately went to my training - cut the main parachute and deploy my reserve parachute.  I then thought, “no, I can’t do that.” I can’t fully cut away the main parachute. It’s tangled on my weapon. I will have two parachutes deployed at the same time, pulling me in different directions.  I felt for my knife and thought, I’ll just cut the suspension lines.  It was good first step that my brain was beginning to problem solve; however, my brain wasn’t providing me sound solutions to my problem yet.  I was continuing to fall at a high rate of speed.

It was now or never.

I began to think clearly. I devised a plan. Try to untangle the suspension lines one last time and if that fails, pull the reserve. I twisted my body and grabbed the suspension lines with both hands. The lines were tightly wrapped around the buttstock of my weapon. As I attempted to remove the lines, I thought that it was a lost cause. I tried again, with the assistance of my adrenaline, I snapped the suspension lines off of my weapon. I heard the “pop” sound of the parachute inflating. I shouted in victory as my parachute system untangled itself. As the suspension lines were self-correcting, I spun around damn near a thousand times. As I spun, I noticed that I was only a few thousand feet off of the ground. I was nowhere near our landing zone. I didn’t care.  I landed in the middle of the desert. I packed my parachute and sat on the ground in personal reflection and contemplation.

When it pertains to stress, remember - It’s not so much what happens to us, but how we deal with what happens to us. You can’t control another person or their reaction to stress, you can only control yourself. “Courage isn’t the absence of fear. It’s an ability to control it, or replace it with something else: anger, compassion, focus, loyalty to a cause greater than oneself. For a soldier, that ability can be enhanced by an understanding of how the brain and body function under extreme stress. Being able to identify these physiological processes, and knowing that they’re completely normal, can prevent crippling self-doubt, and thus more fear, from taking hold when they’re experienced in the heat of battle." - Dave Grossman

The question for organizations is how to get the “skills” of stress management to quell their natural, organizational stressors fundamental to their business. Although we only provided a snapshot of basic stress management skills in this blog, Mission 6 Zero is able to provide an unconventional stress management program for your company.  Derived from U.S. Special Forces combat experiences and refinforced by Human Performance experts, our program provides you the tools and techniques required to correctly train your brain on how to effectively deal with stress.

Mission 6 Zero, a company created by U.S. Special Forces operators and Human Performance experts, helps business leaders learn how to build a cohesive and efficient team that can apply key stress-management skills and increase its performance.

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