How to thrive under stress, according to a former Navy SEAL and FBI Agent

The first step to dealing with stress is recognizing your emotions, says this former combat veteran.

[Source Photo: Anthony Tran/Unsplash]

Every day, you encounter stressors. Some are genuine, such as unexpectedly being called into your boss’s office when your company is going through layoffs. Some aren’t quite so serious, like when you’re stuck in traffic. And some are in-between, like when you’re stuck in traffic on your way to catch a flight.

All that stress can add up, and how you cope will impact the strain you put on your nervous system, says Errol Doebler, author of Ice Cold Leader: Leading from the Inside Out. He should know; Doebler’s résumé is unique. He is one of the few who has served as a Naval Warfare Officer, Navy SEAL Officer, FBI Special Agent, and SWAT Operator.

A former combat veteran, Doebler was living with a traumatic brain injury that had been undiagnosed for 20 years. “It hadn’t come through in a scan before,” he says. “I randomly ran into a doctor who found it. He said, ‘The part of your brain responsible for processing emotions is dormant. It doesn’t work. There’s no energy going to it. You’ve been dealing with this for over 20 years. How did you survive?’”

Unknowingly, Doebler had adopted behaviors that helped him cope. “Without even knowing it, I won a battle that should have killed me,” he says. “I used it for combat situations, stressful situations in the FBI—life and death stuff.”


Even if your brain is different, you can use this same process to move through your own daily stress. The first step is emotional awareness. Doebler’s process involved recognizing your emotions, identifying the intuitive action based on the emotion, and then mindfully deciding if that behavior suits the situation.

“If it isn’t the right behavior, then what’s my plan to get through this?” he explains. “I would do that every time I walked into a room.”

To better understand your emotions, Doebler recommends logging them four times a day.

“It could be you’re angry because you have to log this emotion,” he says. “I don’t care what it is. I want you to be able to identify and articulate it. By the end of the first week, people come back and say, ‘I didn’t realize how angry or frustrated I was all the time, and I didn’t realize this is how I acted on that.’ It’s the awareness and the recognition that has to be first and foremost on your mind.”


The next step is to break down what you want to do with the emotion. Look at how you usually handle stress. Maybe you procrastinate. Maybe you yell. Maybe you run. To better understand how you react, Doebler, a certified instructor in the Wim Hof Method, recommends taking a cold shower or ice bath.

“You’re going to have plenty of emotions before you turn that water on, while it’s cold, and after you’re done,” he says. “That becomes a drill to practice emotional awareness.”

Cold exposure therapy will give you insights into how you handle stress, he says. “It’s a tool because it’s probably the way you behave in real life,” says Doebler. “You get a clearer picture of what you like and what you don’t like. If you don’t go through your day fully aware of how you’re feeling, any tip or trick isn’t going to work, because you’re not going to exercise it.”

If you’re brave enough to try it, cold exposure also allows you to recognize stress truly. “We don’t recognize stress anymore, because it’s so constant,” says Doebler. “When you get into an ice bath, it’s a reminder that’s what stress feels like.”

It also has benefits, adds Doebler. “Scientifically, we know it resets the nervous system,” he says. “And when it resets the nervous system, it clears the information from the body caused by stress. You can start thinking clearly about the process.”


Once you identify the emotions and what triggers them, Doebler says using the power of your breath helps you handle stress. You can also take five-minute breaks to practice breathwork. Or use it before you go into a stressful situation.

“Your inhale and exhale start to activate your nervous system that will serve to calm you down,” he says. “You’re taking a moment, and you can start making decisions. How am I feeling? Is this the right behavior? What’s my plan to get through this? Do that every single time when you’re faced with a challenge and problem to solve.”

While you can practice breathing in the moment, Doebler recommends starting a practice when you wake up. “You are resetting your nervous system, walking into your day from ground zero,” he says. “The inflammation is not built up. The stress isn’t already overtaking you before you’ve had your first cup of coffee.”

By recognizing your emotions, understanding their origins, and choosing the behavior you want to adopt, you’ll become better equipped to deal with stress.

“The process always starts with emotion,” says Doebler. “At the end of the day, you have to recognize how to move forward in a way that’s positive to you.”


Original post-Fast Company


Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

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