Samuel Cox (SC): Can you tell readers about your work with Army? What is it you teach to give soldiers an edge?
Jemma King (JK): I began my work in 2015 and it was developed with, and in response to the needs of, soldiers. I spent two years doing research with one of the Army Training Centres and then created a training package called the Pre-emptive Training and Education Continuum (PRETEC) which combined the stories of experienced soldiers with scientific theory and empirical, validated research.
I use a multi-dimensional biopsychosocial approach to being ‘better’. My premise is that in order to be an effective leader, or soldier, you need to first be able to manage yourself. If you can’t manage self, you can’t manage others; and if you can’t manage others, you can’t manage a team through conflict. If you can’t do that, then you certainly can’t manage an organisation.
I’m interested in developing pre-emptive strategies before someone is placed under immense stress, rather than going back after soldiers have been under prolonged duress and already had a mental health disruption.
SC: So, this is about more than just heightening their performance in the battlespace? It’s about preventive medicine to ensure there’s fewer soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder or a moral injury at their end of their career.
JK: Absolutely. The unit I worked with believes in a ‘from cradle to grave’ approach. They are focused on soldiers being effective at their job at the moment and at their job longitudinally, but also on soldiers being better partners and parents. This ensures that when they leave the unit, they can be effective human beings who go out into the community and make the unit proud.
When I talk about emotional intelligence or emotional regulation, I’m not advocating a ‘soft and fluffy’ approach where we all do meditation and learn to be nicer to one another. Quite simply, there are already not enough people who can get through some of the arduous courses in Army so we need to maintain those who can. They are a high-performance machine asked to do high-performance activities.
The PRETEC course seeks to answer, ‘what are the factors that make it hard for you to remain emotionally stable and to perform under pressure?’ PRETEC covers ‘eating for emotional stability’ and examines what foods you might be putting into your body that cause inflammation and therefore make it harder for you to stay calm. We talk about sleep and provide tips on how to perform while sleep deprived or how to optimise your sleep (especially when you can’t get enough). We also go into the four factors of emotional intelligence and use practical examples from operators that demonstrate why emotional intelligence is important for them individually and as leaders.
SC: Can you talk to the emotional regulation techniques you teach?
JK: First, when you’re in the moment, under extreme pressure, and having difficulty down-regulating, we use the ‘vagus nerve reset’. There are neuroscience and evolutionary biology reasons behind that. When you get angry or stressed, you get into a frenetic fight or flight state and your brain goes offline and you cannot concentrate. You whack that big vagus nerve in your chest three times and that gives your brain enough time to get back online and start thinking rationally.
Next, we employ resonant breathing. Every human has a specific breathing rate which is optimal for their physiology. This is slow, rhythmic breathing that uses the least amount of resources. It has been tried and tested with operators on various stress serials and before parachuting. It’s a way to hack our stress response system and tell our brain to calm down.
Third, perspective take. You need go outside yourself and move beyond ‘why is this happening to me?’ Instead ask, ‘what is the greater purpose here?’
Fourth, counting to 10 is a really effective way to calm your mind down because fear, panic and stress lie in the amygdala; a primitive part of the brain. Counting to 10 draws your brain into the higher order, more reasoned and complex parts of the brain. Writing down notes achieves the same result.
SC: You mentioned previously that the PRETEC training includes tips for how to perform under sleep deprivation. Can you speak to that?
JK: Some of the most arduous Army courses are a contest of minds. It’s not the fittest person who passes these courses, but those who are mentally tough. I recommend high-performance athletes, and anyone planning to undertake these courses, practice cognitive activities under sleep deprivation in order to test themselves. Knowledge dispels fear.
After 36 hours without sleep, there is degradation in cognitive and physical performance. Be confident that you can still perform within that time period. However, if you are stressed about being sleep deprived then you are making it far worse for yourself. You will make yourself more exhausted. Negative rumination grinds you down and draws on many cognitive and physical resources. On these courses, there’s nothing you can do about being sleep deprived, but if you’ve practiced cognitive activities under sleep deprivation then you understand that you’ve done this before and can manage it.
I also suggest that you use resonant breathing as much as possible when you are sleep deprived. It is the most energy efficient way to breathe and will save you burning and grinding calories that you don’t have when you don’t have to.
SC: How do you know what your resonant breath is?
JK: We have a specific device for that test. However, there are many apps you can use to identify it. The breath should make you feel relaxed, but ready for action. You should be calm, but not sleepy.
That makes it perfect for periods when you are waiting to perform on these courses (for example, before a 3.2KM time trial or the pack march). If you just breathe, you will decrease how much energy you burn away, and you will perform much better.
If you understand what is going on within you physiologically, then you know that you must get control of your stress reaction system. Activate when you need to but stay calm in the moments beforehand.
It helps to know what is happening when you challenge the accepted. 10in10 is an interview series designed to share insight into future-leaning work across the Australian profession of arms. One interview will be released every day for 10 days. You can find previous interviews here. We hope they inspire you to share your own ideas.
About the Author: Samuel J. Cox is the editor of Grounded Curiosity. You can follow him on Twitter via the handle @samuel_j_cox.