Few soldiers who strive to be Navy SEALs make it through the grueling six-month Basic Underwater Demolition/SEALS (BUD/S) training. More than 70 percent of the soldiers who start BUD/S drop out by the time the class completes Week 4, better known as Hell Week.
SEALs who make it through Hell Week survive 132 hours of swimming, rowing, crawling, running and verbal abuse. Nearly every second, they’re either covered in mud and sand or submerged in freezing cold water. They do all this on, at most, four hours of sleep.
How do SEALs survive Hell Week? Based on my experience and conversations with physiologists, psychologists and other Navy SEALs, I believe the secret is disassociation. Disassociation is the ability to disengage from one’s body and focus on something besides the pain, boredom or discomfort at hand. It’s basically “going to your happy place.”
The nagging blisters, chaffing and discomfort I experienced during Hell Week quickly taught my mind to go somewhere else to escape the pain. For example, thoughts of a warm shower, dry clothes and a warm bed kept me from quitting while sitting for hours in freezing water.
This is a highly useful skill not only for SEALs, but also for athletes who push their bodies to the limit on a regular basis. Many marathon runners spend the first few miles establishing their pace and the next 20 mentally building a house, brick by brick, to get through the monotony of 26.2 miles. Long-distance swimmers go into what they call a “swim coma” as they swim back and forth for 6,000+ meters. Some college swimmers even talk about writing term papers in the pool.
With practice, anyone can develop the ability to disassociate. Physiologists tell us that our bodies have the ability to produce hormones that speed it up, such as adrenalin and cortisol, as well as hormones like endorphins that relieve pain. Through mental techniques like disassociation, we can control these hormones enough to get through the task at hand. While you should never work through injury, disassociation is a great technique for pushing your body to its limits.
As a SEAL, Hell Week taught me that my body is stronger than my mind thought. The training paid off in the field, where I could remain confident in both myself and my team members, no matter how difficult the mission became. This year, take your game to the next level by pushing your body to its limits through disassociation.
Stew Smith is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, a former Navy SEAL and the author of fitness and self-defense books such as The Complete Guide to Navy SEAL Fitness and Maximum Fitness. He has trained hundreds of people for the Navy SEALs, Special Forces, Air Force PJ, Army Rangers and other military and law enforcement units. Visit Smith's official website at stewsmith.com, where you can access his ebooks.