You are currently viewing Resilience after trauma

Resilience after trauma


We can’t change the fact that highly stressful, even traumatic events happen in our lives, but we can change how we interpret and respond to these events.

When I’m working with groups of younger people, especially young men, I often talk to them about how the Navy SEALS use resilience or mental toughness training.

Hell Week!

Navy SEALS are the US Navy’s special operations force, and their selection programme tests both mental and physical fitness over the course of many months. Early on in the training, Hell Week consists of 5 days of cold, wet, brutally difficult operational training on fewer than four hours of sleep. It tests physical endurance, mental toughness, pain and cold tolerance, teamwork, attitude, and the ability to perform work under high physical and mental stress, and sleep deprivation On average, only 25% of SEAL candidates make it through – Hell Week is the toughest training in the U.S. Military.

The Navy SEALs Mental Toughness Program is specialised training designed by neuroscientists out of the need to control the brain’s overwhelming instinct to panic. They wanted a way to change the way Navy SEAL’s brains react to fear in extreme situations. Historically, mistakes were associated with fear and panic and the capacity to control these impulses were important — they had to find a way to adapt the brain to the demands of the job. The mental toughness program goal is to retrain the brain’s instinctual response to panic — thereby enabling the Navy SEALs to handle stress differently, adapt quickly and maintain control in the midst of chaos — to do what is necessary.

How do the Navy SEALS survive Hell Week?

Psychologists have studied the 25% who have made it to see what traits these graduates have in common. It seems that the four key traits are:

  • Setting goals
  • Mental visualisation
  • Positive self-talk
  • Arousal control (being able to manage strong emotions)

Although we are never likely to have to undergo the rigours of Hell Week, we can still learn from the SEALS and so build our own resilience:

  • Setting Goals

SEALS break down their goals into weekly goals, daily goals, hourly goals, and even goals by the minute. For instance, during a 90 minute “grinder session” at 6 am in the morning before breakfast, SEALS would simply focus on getting through that set of 90 minutes. They might even break it down further by getting through one set of exercise at a time. In our own lives, when things are tough, setting extremely short-term and specific (yet simple) goals allows the mind to focus on one thing at a time without distraction.

  • Mental Visualisation

Mental visualisation has been used by world-class athletes and sportspeople for many years and during the Navy SEALS training, one of the toughest aspects are the underwater exercises. Students and instructors are paired and the instructors do all they can (including disconnecting their air supply) to make the students go up to the surface, at which point they fail.

It seems that the ones who do best use mental imagery to prepare them for the exercise. They imagine themselves going through the various corrective actions while being attacked so that their minds were then ready and they remained in full control of their physical and mental faculties. We can do this in our own lives by mental rehearsing ourselves successfully doing something we fear, such as giving a public talk or we can visualise ourselves eating healthily and exercising if these are our personal goals.

  • Positive Self-Talk

We all tend to practise a lot of negative self- talk – “I can’t possibly do that” or “I handled that really badly” or “I’m no good…” Successful Navy SEALS are able to block all negative self-talk and deliberately choose to use only positive, to constantly motivate themselves to keep going. This echoes the results from the famous Nun Study, which began in 1986 in the US and is ongoing today. It involved 678 nuns and found that positive emotion statements in autobiographical essays written when the they were in their twenties was directly correlated with length of life – and also the likelihood of getting Alzheimer’s Disease. The more positive statements in their essays, the longer they lived and the less they suffered from dementia. Similarly, studies which have been carried out involving the cold virus found that people who expressed positive emotions before being injected with the virus were less likely to have cold symptoms.

  • Control of Arousal

When our bodies feel overwhelmed or in danger, they release cortisol and endorphins – the natural response to stress, survival mechanisms developed over millions of years of human evolution. SEALS learn to control this natural response to arousal by, for example, deliberately controlling their breathing. We can also learn and practice simple breathing techniques to use when we experience stress.

Watch a documentary about the training   Excellent documentary about lessons learned from the Navy SEALS training

Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with the effects of traumatic stress and would like to talk it over with complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.

Book a counselling session today!

See also: Transformation after trauma, Survive and Thrive, Trauma recovery: two simple choices