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Stress Is Rewiring Our Brains. Can Training Like Navy SEALs Help Combat It?

While few employees are running miles in combat boots, mentally training like the elite military unit may help us reclaim our brains from stress.

A big deadline is looming. The boss calls you into his office. Your server is down on a delivery date.

Stress is no stranger to the workplace—and according to a recent Gallup poll, it’s especially pervasive in American offices: U.S. workers are some of the most stressed out in the world, with a whopping 57% of respondents from the U.S. and Canada reporting they feel stressed out on a daily basis. 

Stress isn’t just overwhelming panic or anxiety—it’s a psychological and physiological reaction that directly impacts the brain’s structure, memory, and performance functions which, if left unchecked, has the potential to cause long-term brain damage and significantly impact other parts of the body.

While stress may be unavoidable, it’s manageable. Take the Navy SEALs, who have stress management down to a science. Though the average employee isn’t running miles in combat boots or partaking in underwater demolition training, engaging in mental training like the SEALs may help reclaim our brains from stress.

This Is Your Brain On Stress 

Letting stress run rampant is a surefire way to tank job performance. Not only does it negatively impact sleep and morale, it also can change the way your brain functions.

  • Memory loss: Stress kills neurons, which can  result in short and long-term memory loss, impaired cognitive processes, reduced motor abilities, and behavioral changes.
  • Too much white matter: Stress can cause an imbalance of gray and white matter in the brain, which can lead to lasting changes in the brain’s structure.
  • Altered neuroplasticity: Chronic stress may actually rewire your brain by bulking up the part designed to process threats, while the part tasked with more complex thought takes a back seat—which can lead to cognitive issues like Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Stabilizing your reaction to stressful events can minimize the risk of these damaging effects, and help you become more resilient, focused, and successful at work. 

Get Your Head In The Game

During combat training, Navy SEALs endure some of the most mentally and physically demanding tasks possible. Following are some SEAL-approved exercises for managing stress that can help you become more resilient, focused, and successful at work.

  • Engage in mental dress rehearsals.

Instead of catastrophizing about an upcoming stressful event, mentally insert yourself in the scenario—what the SEALS call “mental loading.” Envision yourself navigating it successfully in multiple ways, guided by calm and reason rather than panic. 

  • Flip the script on stress.

Trying to run from stress is in itself stressful. Instead, channel that stress as a productive force. Use biological responses like adrenaline and sweaty palms before an important meeting or a presentation as an opportunity to associate those signals with anticipation for a healthy challenge, rather than fear.

While taking command of your breath might seem rudimentary, it’s a powerful technique. Navy SEALs commonly engage in “box breathing”—in for four counts, holding for another four, then exhaling for four—to control their physiological response to stress.

Or try tactical breathing—through the nostrils and counting to four for each inhale and exhale. Warriors worldwide have used this technique to calm their minds heading into battle.

  • Sharpen your emotional intelligence.

Comprised of four main pillars—self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management—Emotional intelligence (EI) means recognizing your own and others’ emotional responses, which begets more intelligent situational and self-analysis.

Emotional intelligence is a crucial facet of SEAL training because it creates more effective, resilient leaders and helps combat stress. While not everyone has the resources for building EI like SEALs do, Enspira offers EQI inventory and coaching, helping create greater situational and self-awareness for more resilient employees.

  • Be okay with a little discipline.

Navy SEALs are fueled by discipline—a crucial tool even for those of us who aren’t subjected to hours of surf torture. Holding yourself accountable can make building new habits — including stress management habits — more effective. 

Having an accountability partner can come in handy when the going gets tough. Enspira offers 1:1 coaching to help employees achieve their professional and personal goals, unlock their own unique potential, and maintain a level head when stress starts to build.

SEALing the Deal With Stress

Neural scans have shown that brains of Navy SEALs respond differently to stress, activating neural centers related to emotional control rather than those related to anxiety and fear.  

While it can be dangerously easy to let stress wreak havoc on your professional (and personal) life, learning how to manage it, like the SEALs do, is key to becoming a more effective and resilient leader, employee, and person. 

Jes Valentin is a seasoned expert in human resources, organizational psychology, and talent. With more than 20 years of global experience, she has helped leaders at both Fortune 50 multi-national and not-for-profit organizations achieve growth, lead through change, and engage diverse workforces. Jes holds an MA in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University and a BA in Journalism & Political Science from Rutgers University. She's a professional/career coach, and is completing her International Coaching Federation certification through the College of Executive Coaching, the premier institution for masters-level executive coaches.

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