What Makes Some Service Members More Mentally Tough

SEAL candidates test their grit while paying homage to the service members who took part in the D-Day landings.
SEAL candidates at Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training test their grit at Naval Special Warfare Command in Coronado, California, on June 6, 2019, while paying homage to the service members who took part in the D-Day landings in Normandy, France, 75 years ago. (Petty Officer 1st Class Abe McNatt/U.S. Navy photo)

Mental toughness has been a topic of discussion and debate for generations as humans try to define their lives. What makes some people tougher than others? More successful? More motivated? Calm in stressful situations? What are the common traits of ordinary people doing extraordinary things? Can mental toughness be measured? Scientifically tested?

These are the questions I have been seeking answers to and the type of questions I get each day from young men and women preparing for challenging programs in the military, law enforcement and fire​​fighting professions.

There are some scientific studies performed that try to measure how people handle stress and why they graduate Special Operations programs like Army Special Forces and Navy SEALs. Some of the most interesting and pertinent to this discussion were the ones done by Andy Morgan of Yale Medical School.

Morgan's work has provided insight into the psycho-​​neurobiology of resilience in elite soldiers and has contributed to the training mission of Army special programs. His research on enhancing cognitive performance under stress in Special Operations personnel has been crucial to how we better understand the stress response. In 2011, Morgan deployed to Afghanistan as an operational adviser with the Asymmetric Warfare Group.

From Don Mann's "U.S. Navy SEAL Survival Handbook": Morgan's research was the first of its kind and produced some fascinating findings about the types of soldiers who successfully handled stress and stayed focused. Morgan examined two different types of soldiers: regular Army troops and Special Forces soldiers.

At the start, the two groups were essentially the same. But once the stress began, he saw significant differences. The two groups specifically release very different amounts of chemical in the brain called neuropeptide-​​Y (NPY). NPY is an amino acid produced by our bodies that helps regulate blood pressure, appetite, learning and memory.

It also works as a natural tranquilizer, controlling anxiety and buffering the effects of stress hormones like adrenaline. In essence, NPY levels in Special Forces soldiers are used to block alarm and fear responses and keep your frontal lobe working while stressed.

Morgan also studied sailors going through stressful tests at dive training. He found that during the drownproofing and underwater navigation tests that were conducted, the ones who performed the best released a natural steroid called DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone). DHEA buffers the effects of the stress hormone cortisol and helps the brain with spatial relationships and memory. Divers with the most NPY and DHEA finished at the top of the class.

The question is: Does the training enhance this ability, or is it genetic? This is the debate. Special Operators and scientists have been trying to figure this out for decades. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recently asked these very questions when recruiting Special Operations candidates.

Even with Morgan's study findings, there is no foolproof method of testing the perfect Special Ops candidate prior to training. There is no scientific evidence that you are born with this ability, but there is statistical and anecdotal evidence that your stress-coping ability can be enhanced during stressful training. Morgan refers to it as "stress inoculation."

Can you further develop the ability to think while simulating stress? Yes. One of the physical ways is to design your workouts so you get significantly tired and winded (physically stressed) and then do some form of creative thinking or math.

For instance, one of my favorite "stress thinkers" is the standard pyramid workout. Do pull-ups, push-ups and sit-ups. Each set builds on itself, and you increase the reps by one for pull-ups, by two for push-ups and by three for sit-ups. Set one would be one pull-up, two push-ups and three sit-ups. The second set is two pull-ups, four push-ups and six sit-ups. Keep going up the pyramid until you fail and then repeat in reverse order.

Keeping up with reps may seem easy while you read this, but after 30-40 minutes of non​​stop activity, the ability to think becomes more difficult. See link: PT Pyramids. For a more advanced version where creative thinking is required, see this version of the Pyramid/Run Workout.

I have been helping candidates prepare for various types of training programs for more than 15 years now. I have seen hyper​​prepared candidates that I swore would excel in the Spec Ops training, yet they quit due to something other than physical stress. Cold water, darkness, being yelled at by instructors, tactical proficiency and girlfriend/spouse issues can play a part in a candidate's decision to quit training. However, I have seen others who were not "physically prepared" by fitness standards who successfully graduated SEAL or Army SF training programs simply by gutting out each day and meeting the standards.

My opinion is that you cannot measure someone's heart and desire.

To date, the best definition of mental toughness I have seen is: "Finding fuel -- when the tank is empty."

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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