How the Science of Fear Makes Soldiers Stronger | Reader's Digest

How the Science of Fear Makes Soldiers Stronger

The U.S. military turns to science as it seeks new ways to create more resilient fighters and prevent PTSD.

By Kathryn Wallace from Reader's Digest | February 2013

How the Science of Fear Makes Soldiers StrongerPhotograph by Jamie Chung
Lessons from the SEALs

Identifying the most resilient members of the U.S. military has been the business of the Navy SEALs for the past 50 years. Just to earn the right to try out for the legendary program, a candidate must be exceptionally tough, in body and mind. The chosen few must then survive up to 18 months of training so physically and mentally arduous that nearly 80 percent of this superior group of sailors never get past the fourth week.

So who makes it, and who washes out? The answer lies not in biceps size or speed but in a cognitive test the would-be SEALs take on induction day. The test measures 24 different personality traits, but the results of the “adversity tolerance” section, which explores how the candidates respond to extreme stress, are what best predicts who makes the cut.

“There are people who make a negative loop about the situation they are placed in,” says Potterat, the SEAL psychologist. “Those are people who can’t cope.” It’s the people who take control of stressful challenges “in any environment,” he says, who will eventually wear the SEAL uniform.

“Clearly something Darwinian is happening with the SEALs,” adds Potterat. “These are exceptional human beings.” Nevertheless, it’s the intense stress-management training, he says, that turns a tough sailor into a SEAL. Weeding out the less resilient candidates is just the first step.

Potterat describes the classified SEAL training program as highly mental. It uses techniques you can find in self-help books, such as breathing exercises that reset the fear system, calming self-talk, and compartmentalization of trauma until the job is done. Of course, SEAL candidates have to apply these methods while sleep-deprived and physically exhausted, during live-fire combat exercises; and much of the SEAL training is performed underwater, with instructors intentionally creating obstacles and cutting off the air supply to panic the recruits.

“Our training is all about worst-case scenarios and pushing us to the limits,” says Lu Lastra, director of mentorship for Naval Special Warfare and a 30-year veteran of the program. “You stand a much better chance of mentally withstanding war if you can visualize it and prepare your brain for it than if you’ve never thought of it, never been able to picture it.” The proof is in the numbers; it’s very rare for a SEAL to be diagnosed with PTSD.

Testing Stress

While some brains are naturally more resistant to stress than others, recent research on Marines diagnosed with PTSD suggests that vulnerable and even traumatized brains can be trained to manage fear more effectively. Martin Paulus, MD, a psychiatrist at UC San Diego who has studied the optimal stress responses in SEALs and elite athletes, wondered if resilience was akin to a muscle in the brain that, like all muscles, could be strengthened.

“People who have resiliency respond to stressful events in a positive way,” says Paulus, who also works at the VA Healthcare System in San Diego. Paulus developed a mental fitness program for a test group of 20 Marine combat veterans with damaged stress responses. Rather than trying to blunt the fear they still carried from their battlefield experiences, Paulus intentionally stressed them, restricting their breathing and showing them unpleasant images, such as close-ups of angry faces, while observing their brain functions with a scanner. He likens this to testing knee reflexes with a hammer; the only way to test the fear system is to swing the hammer and apply some stress.

Paulus makes the combat vets uncomfortable to help them relearn that anxiety does not equal mortal danger. “The big issue with PTSD,” he says, “is that the brain still links up strong emotional responses to that experience of battle, triggering a cascade of stress responses that were helpful in battle but not now, in real life.”

After initial brain scans showed the Marines “overresponding” to the negative images and other stressors, Paulus put them through an eight-week mindfulness course. The program included “refocusing exercises” in which the vets were taught to mentally recast their traumatic battlefield memories and treat them simply as feelings or as obstacles to overcome. They also learned controlled breathing, meditation, and other relaxation techniques.

Early results from follow-up testing and scans point to improved resiliency among the Marines, or something closer to the warrior brain response, with a less reactive stress circuit and more control from the cognitive part of the brain. “This isn’t a new idea,” Paulus says, citing a historical precedent. “Samurai warriors famously used meditation, likely to balance the experiences of war.”

Science Makes Soldiers

While some of the research the U.S. military has commissioned suggests that there are those who simply do not belong in the armed forces, it adamantly believes that good soldiers and sailors are made, not born. That’s why it has spent millions rebooting boot camp and basic training to include high-tech simulations like the Trayer and Battlemind that closely mirror the chaos of the battlefield. “We have always been of the mind-set that we can make a good sailor out of anyone who comes through that front gate,” says Michael Belanger.

And science supports the idea. Huda Akil, PhD, who studies the neurobiology of fear and anxiety for the Navy at the University of Michigan, has coaxed resilience and “hardiness” from the most timid animals. Akil works with rats, which have a stress response somewhat similar to our own; they either cower and hide or become aggressive and proactive. “This is genetically predetermined,” Akil says. “We can breed curious, brave rats or timid, anxious rats. And after a few generations, they are very predictively one way or the other.”

But Akil found she could make an anxious rat braver by slightly stressing the animal. Making males fight or enriching the environment, with a toy, for example, can change them from timid to curious. “The brain is very plastic,” she says. “We found we can’t encourage a timid rat to be a high-risk taker, but we can move him off the timid side of the scale into average territory.”

The War on Fear

Back on the Trayer, the attack continues. Operating from a command center in the belly of the vessel, special effects engineers orchestrate the sights, sounds, and smells of naval warfare, pressing buttons to create explosions and fires and to trigger the screams of the wounded. Ceiling fans blow ocean-scented breezes, and recordings of gull cries echo above the bridge. Inside the ship, scattered around a blasted hull modeled after the real-life bombing of the USS Cole, mangled mannequins, wired for sound, call for help in the eerie red glare of the emergency lights.

It all seems so real, as if it were an actual maritime siege. But it’s not. Except for the enemy, that is. The enemy—fear—is real.

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