Training Builds Confidence and Courage   Leave a comment

Recently a member of one of the the Navy SEALS/SWCC forums who is training to prepare for the Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) program asked for tips in overcoming a personal fear of heights. I provided the following reply:

You can take confidence with three things. First, it is possible to extinguish anxiety responses through training and repetitive drilling. What you describe is a technique termed “successive approximation” and works well. It involves taking small steps and building up to (previously) high anxiety-provoking situations, but maintaining calm, control and/or the outcome of success at each stage, or what is called “desensitization.” It is actually a very powerful set of behavioral modification techniques. The human being can be trained to replace the anxiety response with calm, or even an activation response (something like an athlete’s response).

Second, your response to situations will be affected by context, and you can think about the effect of being surrounded by teammates or being in a crisis situation. You might not jump out of a plane on your own, but when your buddies are jumping out in front of you and waiting to jump out behind you, there is an increased probability that you are going to jump too. Case and point, consider the “Stairway to Heaven” or the tower on the SEAL O-course. A guy in BUD/S can expect to be trained to climb ’em, he will be drilled on ’em, and he will do it all in a series of situations with his team (read Couch’s accounts of the O course in “Warrior Elite”).

A third factor that might also help is monitoring your own cognition, meanining what you’re focusing on and thinking about during the anxiety provoking situations. Most of the time, anxiety is fed by a perception of the situation as lethal and the resultant conclusion “I’m gonna die!” It is possible to substitute and drill yourself on using a different set of perceptions and thoughts. For example, when it comes to height, rather than focusing on altitude, focusing on one step, or other unit of ascension (e.g. 100 feet or 1,000 meters) at a time until final altitude is reached. For example, if you’ve ever had to climb a fire tower or tall ladder to paint a house, it’s about focusing on just the next step to get higher up on that tower or ladder – one step at a time. Also, rather than perceiving the situation as dangerous, rationally remember that others have accomplished the same task before you, or perhaps that the situation is not beyond your training or control. In the examples I cited, you could remember that many guys before you have gone up and down that fire tower on a daily basis with no problems and did their jobs at the top – meaning it is possible, has been done many times before, and YOU can do it too! It is also possible to drill to the point where you’re not thinking much at all, but have an automatic response trained in you (‘habituated”) instead. For example, a buddy of mine who is a commercial airline pilot is mercilessly drilled on protocols for responding to crisis situations. When an engine falls off the plane, he has an automatic response that follows a very specific protocol and set of steps — not much room left for plugging in the lava lamp and pondering all the fearsome things that could happen with only one engine left.

Any or all of these strategies will work for you, and it sounds like you’re already engaged in putting them to productive use for yourself! Keep up the program!

Tom Delaney
HT Fitness Trainer


Posted October 27, 2010 by Tom Delaney in Uncategorized

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