Preparation of high performance teams under stress
By Dialogo November 19, 2013
The human brain is the most complicated device. We learned more about it in
the last 5 years than in the entire existence of civilization.
It manages all our vital activities. Throughout the evolution of the human
race this organ has doubled in size. Despite weighing less than 3.3 lbs., it
consumes 1/5 of the body’s energy. Throughout millions of years, the brain has
evolved from its original structure receiving further attachments and
The most primitive part is the brainstem, also present in reptiles and other
animals. It keeps us alive and controls vital functions such as our heartbeat,
digestion, blood pressure and other automatic functions that we perform
The limbic system, in which the amygdalae are located, developed hundreds of
thousands of years later. The almond-shaped ganglia transmit our emotional reactions
to the brain.
I had the opportunity to participate and lead for a while the training of
Commandos, Special Forces and Army Jungle Warriors, where students are trained to
modify the way their brains react to fear, one of the simplest, most primitive and
strongest human emotions. From the beginning, students are subjected to situations
of intense psychological pressure in order to cause chaos in their minds. The goal
is to submerge them into a situation to simulate combat stress.
It was observed that most of the mistakes during combat situations are
associated with fear and panic, therefore, leading to the conclusion that the
ability to control these impulses is extremely important. Because the soldiers who
attend these courses are being trained for the most difficult, dangerous and high
risk missions, the courses are extremely rigorous. As a result, a very large number
of candidates are eliminated or drop out during the selection process and training.
Graduating students usually demonstrate greater ability to adjust their
mindset based on the demand of the activities and the pressure. The students with
higher levels of fitness are not necessarily the ones who will make it to the end.
Record holders in swimming, athletics, pentathlon and medalists in other sports
often give up during some strenuous activities while people with mediocre level of
fitness maintain the determination to pursue the training which involves situations
of extreme cold, pain, hunger, thirst, sleep deprivation and end up completing it.
The tonsils tend to instinctively lead to a state of panic in the face of
fearful situations. They send signals to the brainstem through their connection.
Whenever fear is present, anxiety will fully manifest either in physical or mental
signs. From this point, several reactions can manifest in the body: tachycardia,
rapid breathing, sweating, chills, tremors, dry mouth, dizziness, tingling in the
feet and hands, among other symptoms.
The Special Forces’ counter terror is carried out under pressure. Students
are trained to accurately identify the targets and shoot when necessary, by
controlling stress impulses sent by the amygdala.
The training is gradual. In the final phase, the increased stress can occur
from other variants such as tear gas in the room, without the use of masks, and poor
visibility. Some coaches or team members are mixed with the targets, and the
execution is random, requiring greater attention and zero tolerance for mistakes.
Sometimes, the correct reaction is rapid and lethal, other times it is about
identifying the hostage and controlling the impulse to shoot.
The training of hand-to-hand combat is another event in which students learn
to control their reactions and test their robustness, resistance and aggressiveness
under extreme stress. In the final phase of this activity, students undergo an
exhaustive situation and need to immediately identify the threat they are being
subjected to and vigorously apply proper techniques in their defense. The
aggressiveness and fatigue controls, and correction of movements are part of the
Another activity in which students are subjected to intensive training is
parachuting, because of the need to counter the instinct of preservation when
jumping into open space. The systematic seeks to automate the procedures and
possible reactions to the various emergencies that the parachutist may be exposed
to. In these cases, the time that the soldiers have to save their lives is minimal.
Any hesitation due to fear in decision-making can be fatal.
The fine-tuning of the reactions of the combatants is only made possible
because of the frontal cortex, another part of the human brain, which also processes
fear. The cortex features a greater human evolution and emerged after the tonsils.
It is the outer layer of the brain, thin and wrinkled, which can be four times
greater than that of other primates.
It was discovered that the information from our senses reaches the tonsils
with twice the speed it takes to reach the frontal lobes. The speed difference
between the signals means that we react instinctively to a threat; otherwise we
would be paralyzed with fear waiting for the frontal lobes to decide on the correct
Behind the fear and panic is the unknown, not knowing what to do. The brain
paralyzes, like an alligator paralyzes at the sight of a flashlight beam. The
amygdala can send fast signals of fear, but they are not always correct. As soon as
you realize that the situation does not correspond to a threat you naturally calm
The objective of this type of training is to control the signals from the
amygdala via the frontal lobe, that is, rationally. One learns how to minimize the
delayed reactions to a stressful situation, generating instant movements/behavior.
The 21st Century has been characterized by the significant growth in the
employment of Special Operations Forces; therefore, the three main centers of
training for these human resources in Brazil (Special Operations Instruction Center,
Parachutist Instruction Center and Jungle Warfare Instruction Center) are in
constant pursuit of excellence in education and improvement of the educational
In the diving training modules of the Special Forces one learns to control
the fear of lack of oxygen. Human beings, throughout evolution, were programmed to
fear underwater situations. Therefore, it has required a lot of self-control to
contain the impulse to emerge and breathe.
Students are gradually prepared to perform complex underwater tasks. They
begin by performing untimed tasks out of water, and then with time they face
critical situations totally immersed. They are subjected to planned activities
conducted by an instructor who interrupts their flow of air in several ways, hiding
the regulating valves, promoting somersaults, ripping off their masks and tying
knots on their equipment in continuous attacks that can take more than fifteen
minutes while their reactions are evaluated and observed.
The anxious students rapidly increase the consumption of oxygen, reducing
their capacity for reasoning and the time available to solve problems. Depending on
the students’ performance, they may spend half the time holding their breath.
Despite their out-of-water training, the practice under these conditions is
extremely difficult and leads students to fail if they did not learn to deal with
stress under these conditions.
When students begin to run out of air, their tonsils trigger the panic
“button” that impels them to emerge. The cerebral cortex needs to control that
impulse so that the combatants remain self-controlled. In this process, students
must hold their breath longer than usual while the trainers evaluate their
Nerve impulses sent by the brain move at a speed greater than 249 miles/hour
and under stress the tonsils release adrenaline and cortisol in the bloodstream,
preparing the body for emergency reaction. These hormones speed up the breathing and
heart rate, raise blood pressure, cause their senses to become more alert, the
memory becomes sharper and the body less sensitive to pain, but still, this
underwater skills test is very difficult. The greatest enemy of the students in this
exercise is panic, which leads them to lose control underwater.
In all the situations mentioned above, the control of fear is crucial to
success in training.
Upon observing the graduates from these types of training, it was concluded
that almost all of them base their behavior on the use of four mental tools that
help control the stress even in the most extreme situations:
1. Establishment of intermediate objectives
3. Development of self-esteem
4. Breathing Control
The establishment of goals helps the frontal lobes, which are the brain’s
supervisors, facilitating the reasoning and planning. The focus on specific goals
allows the cortex to keep the tonsils under control. Students usually set simple
deadlines, such as: “I am going to get to the next meal,” or “until the next
release,” and so on. The important thing is to keep focused on these intermediate
goals and stand firm on convictions.
Very good. Thank you. Good article, the reality is clearly described and the explanation is upfront and scientific.