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6 Mental Toughness Techniques from the NAVY Seals


In a world full of softies, cultivating mental resilience provides an incredible advantage. By building the ability to stick it out as those around us give way, we are setting ourselves up for success.

After reading his way through a handful of memoirs from assorted ex-SEALs, Charles Chu has distilled the tips and techniques they use down to the following 6 techniques.

Each technique comes with a short explanation and a practical application to real life.

Technique #1: Eat the Elephant

 How do you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time.

Faced with a daunting task—a marathon, a pretty girl on the street, or a startup launch—we often feel the fear, freeze and stop before we have begun.

The SEALs present a solution in segmentation. Slowly divide the elephant into neatly digestible parts and… Well, you get the idea. Take your challenge one tiny step at a time. It’s cliche, but it works.

You’ll see many ultra-marathoners and triathletes doing this. They focus on the next immediate objective—the next point in the horizon—and prevent their minds from passing to the entire race.

Application: Break down any daunting task into immediate, bite-sized objectives. Ideally, they should fit into a 24-hour window. Focus only on completing one at a time. Avoid considering the whole.

Technique #2: Visualize Success

This one startled me.

In a certain study, basketball players improved their free throw accuracy by 23% from just visualizing the free throws. Players who practiced actual free throws only improved by 24%. That’s a mere 1% difference. Wow.

Good visualizations have the following qualities:

  • Vivid and detailed. Engage all the senses. Imagine the particulars. Make it as real as possible.
  • Repetition. Run the play-by-play over and over in your head. Make it automatic.
  • Positive Imagery. Do not envision yourself failing. Instead, repeatedly envision yourself in a state of effortless success.
  • Imagine Consequences. If your fortitude wanes, imagines the consequences of failure. See the faces of your friends and family when they hear the news. Envision the pain of personal embarrassment.
 Application: The next time you have a big, stressful event coming up, use visualizations to imagine yourself succeeding.

Technique #3: Emotional Control

 In times of great stress, a rush of our body’s main stress hormones—adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine—can give us a boost of energy and focus.

However, when these hormones stay elevated for long periods, we cannot switch to relaxation mode. We have trouble sleeping, motivation tumbles and immune function takes a serious hit.

The SEALs simple solution is something called the 4 by 4 for 4:

  1. Breathe in for 4 seconds
  2. Breathe out for 4 seconds
  3. Repeat for 4 minutes
 Look familiar? This is the same kind of thing yogis have been doing for thousands of years. Our brain affects our body, and the reverse is true as well.

Use simple breathing exercises to switch off your stress hormones and prep the body for relaxation.

Application: This helps if you do meditation already, but the next time you catch yourself feeling stressed, stop and take several deep breaths. Bestselling author Tim Ferriss recommends stopping everything and taking a simple 3 breaths before going on with your day.

Technique #4: Nonreactivity

“Men are disturbed not by things, but the view they take of them.” —Epictetus

We have more control than we think.

We can’t control what happens in our outside world, but we can control our interpretation of it.

In his book, Breaking BUD/S: How Regular Guys Can Become Navy SEALs, D.H. Xavier recalls his own “Hell Week” experience—

“They were kicking me while I was way, way down. My belief could have been that they truly didn’t want me there; the consequence of that belief would have been me quitting. Instead, my belief was that I didn’t care what they said. I believed I was capable of succeeding…

Xavier implements something I call reframing. He takes one possible belief or world view, discards it, and selects another one. What could have been interpreted as a negative event suddenly becomes a positive one.

Application: Take an active look at how you are interpreting external events. Once you recognize it, challenge that view. Try to reframe any negative views into more positive ones. See “bad” events as a challenge for you to go out there and improve yourself.

Technique #5: Small Victories

 What to do when morale is low? You lost your wallet, it’s raining, AND your wife just left you in the same day. What to do when nothing is going right and everything is going wrong?

Try to think smaller.

Every day, I write three things in my journal that I am grateful for.

Today I wrote:

  1. The cool, refreshing air following a long rain.
  2. The smoky satisfaction of iced coffee.
  3. A smile with the barista at my local cafe.

Small victories keep morale high. And high morale feeds forward into more high morale. It creates a virtuous circle of positivity for doing good work.

Give it a shot if you haven’t tried this. It matters a lot more than you might think.

Technique #6: Find Your Tribe (and Necessity)

 In his book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger writes—

Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.”

Junger is on to something here. We’ve all seen the tales of immense human performance in times of great need. It’s the classic “mind over body” of a mother lifting up a car to rescue her child.

We humans are social creatures. And we crave meaning in a world that sometimes seems all too meaningless.

Find both—close friends and close principles—and you have a hotbed for mental resilience.



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