Guest Blog: Doc Bender Writes About Responding to Stress

Doc Bender on top of the Ziggurat of Ur in Southern Iraq, in February 2009. (DCoE photo)

Dr. James Bender is a former Army psychologist who deployed to Iraq as the brigade psychologist for the 1st Cavalry Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team out of Fort Hood, Texas. During his deployment, he traveled through Southern Iraq, from Basra to Baghdad. He writes a monthly post for the DCoE Blog on psychological health concerns related to deployment and being in the military.

I’m sometimes asked about how the brain responds when exposed to stressful situations, like being in combat or intense training. Think about that first Airborne jump or testing for military combatives. Your brain has one main reaction to stress, whether that stress comes from being shot at during a combat deployment, asking someone out on a date, or any other situation where you’re scared or anxious. Knowing how the human brain responds to stress is helpful for military training. Not only is it good to understand how your brain operates under intense conditions, but also understanding the importance of physical fitness and psychological fitness in your ability to handle all aspects of a demanding mission is important.

One of the first parts of your brain to be affected by stress is the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is the “smart” part of your brain that plans tasks, predicts outcomes, controls behavior and directs attention. Unfortunately, the PFC generally shuts down during intense stress, impairing these functions. Under stress, you stop paying attention to parts of your environment that are most relevant to completing your goals and start paying attention to things that are loud, brightly colored or moving, but not necessarily helpful in achieving your mission. In a firefight, you might pay very close attention to the pop of a weapon but completely miss a small alley that can lead to an escape.

During intense stress, a part of the brain called the amygdala takes over. It’s the “fear center” of your brain, responsible for processing negative emotions. The amygdala also directs people toward well-learned behaviors, rather than complex or unique ones. Also, the simple or well-practiced physical activities, controlled by the basal ganglia, can actually be performed better than under normal circumstances.

So…during periods of intense stress, the thoughtful, “smart” part of your brain (PFC) that controls emotions and processes complex information becomes less reliable, and the primitive parts of your brain (amygdala and basal ganglia) that control adrenalin and favor well-learned or instinctive movements take over. What does this mean for pre-deployment training? Here are a few things you can do:

  • Improve your physical health: Stay physically active. Regular exercise, to include a variety of activities and exercises, improves your endurance, flexibility and mobility.
  • Improve your psychological health: Stay mentally active. Your mental, emotional and behavioral abilities are equally important to optimize performance and strengthen resilience.
  • Train until your responses are instinctive: Know your battle drills well enough, so you can perform them under pressure. For those who do mixed martial arts (MMA) or are involved with the Modern Army Combatives Program (MACP) or Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP), practice a move until it becomes so simple that you can literally perform it without thinking.

Stay safe, and feel free to post comments or questions.


About Julie Weckerlein

Julie Weckerlein is no stranger to the blogosphere. As a personal and professional blogger for the past 10 years, she further contributes to the internet as a web content manager for the Department of Defense. She's also an Air Force Reserve public affairs non-commissioned officer after a nine-year active duty career with assignments in Germany, Italy and the Pentagon, and a deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan as a combat correspondent for the Air Force News Service. Her affinity for science media started with her first magazine subscription to Ranger Rick at age 9 and she's never lost her excitement for the cool things happening in the world of science.
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