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How to Reduce Stress When You're Downrange

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There’s perhaps nothing more stressful for soldiers than being deployed overseas—or “downrange.” Between being in a war zone and away from family, the stress can be overwhelming. But there are ways to reduce stress when downrange, according to Dr. Roy Sugarman, the director of applied neuroscience at EXOS. These strategies also have applications to daily life, even if you’re not in the military. Sugarman recommends these five approaches to reduce stress.

1. Create a mantra.

Even soldiers following orders and facing danger have a natural need for autonomy, the sense that they're in control of their lives. One way to do this is to have a personal and unit mantra, a single sentence you can repeat to yourself that supports your autonomy. You call on this powerful statement to support your actions.

Sugarman worked with one soldier who recalled how his mother, a single parent, refused to accept money from his father after they split up. “I'm here to defend my family,” she would say, and in moments when he felt stressed or out of control, the soldier repeated that statement. Doing so reinforced his belief that the job he was there to do was worth the sacrifice. Consider what's important to you. Write it on your hand or paper and turn to it when needed. “The more powerful the emotion you feel when you recite this to yourself, the better,” Sugarman says. That’s because “two emotions seldom occupy the same space at the same time in your thinking.”

2. Focus on small goals to build confidence.

Training simulates future challenges and is a way of visualizing all scenarios. The key is to focus on one small goal at a time. Avoid looking at the big picture, focusing instead on the immediate goal at hand, and pursue that regardless of obstacles. “Confidence is built on small steps and that can be lost when facing a big picture that seems overwhelming,” Sugarman says. Using your training, visualize every scenario you might face, and plan for it. Think of the things you have accomplished and how you were able to do so. Now visualize the things you still have to accomplish. “Small steps, focusing on the here and now, will get you through,” Sugarman says.

3. Trust in yourself.

Many times you will be asked to have faith, to just believe all will work out well. When things are going wrong, that can be challenging. Trust, on the other hand, isn't a belief. It's based on real experiences you have had with commanders and colleagues. Unlike belief, trusting in yourself, your training, your fellow soldiers, your leaders, and the mantra you have chosen, is a solid foundation to call upon when facing challenges. “You're the expert in how you succeed and fail, and you can trust that,” Sugarman says.

4. Think about what went well.

It’s all about your relationship with others. Be clear in the trust you place in yourself and those around you. Realize that your job isn't done for you, but for others, the highest form of commitment. Everything you do impacts everyone. At the end of each day, think of three things that went well for everyone, how you contributed to that success, and how you can do more to contribute tomorrow.

5. Practice breathing exercises.

Remaining calm and focused is essential, especially before you hit the ground running. Your autonomic nervous system is ready to kick into high gear, helping you avoid danger and maximize the probability of a favorable outcome. Keeping the autonomic nervous system from running out of control and causing you to act impulsively is essential. Riding in a vehicle just prior to action is the perfect time for some targeted breathing.

Practice 6:4:10 breathing, breathing in for a count of six, holding your breath for a count of four, and breathing out for a count of 10 or more. “This way, you tone down the shakes, keep focused, and don’t think too much about what is to come,” Sugarman says. “You’re also preparing your body to defend itself by imposing the calming and focusing parasympathetic neurons in the brain. You stay calm but focused before and after danger.”

Looking to gain more knowledge on how to improve your performance as a tactical athlete? Check out our Tactical Education courses offered at EXOS facilities and on-site to your unit.

About The Author

Pete Williams – Pete Williams is a contributing writer for CorePerformance.com and the co-author of the Core Performance book series.

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Tags: Stress, Military, Pressure