Surviving stress in the Special Forces

In business and in war, prolonged stress can be a killer. New research amongst Special Forces troops shows how emotional intelligence training can build resilience.

If you think it’s tough in business with the uncertainties of the current climate, then spare a thought for the Special Forces (SF). Australia’s elite troops are expected to survive and thrive amidst the stress, fear and confusion of modern warfare.

The complexity of today’s conflicts such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq means that SF soldiers must overmatch their adversaries consistently and operate in multiple contexts without signs of panic.

These “soldier-diplomats” must be able to switch effortlessly from delivering humanitarian aid and building rapport with the locals, to engaging in front-line combat and counterterrorism operations, while at the same time maintaining healthy relationships with wives and families back home.

Emotional intelligence (EI) is therefore a key skill - not only to help them function at a high level, but also to regulate their emotions and mitigate the damaging effects of stress. New research led by PhD candidate Jemma King, under the supervision of Associate Professor Nicole Gillespie and Professor Neal Ashkanasy of UQ Business School, has shown how training elite soldiers in EI can help them to build resilience and maintain performance.

The results will be of interest to business managers too – in fact anyone who wants to survive and thrive in a high-stress, competitive environment.

Jemma King says: “Extensive research has shown that sustained stress damages people’s minds and bodies. It is crucial that elite soldiers build and maintain emotional fitness through training, in the same way they build physical fitness levels.”

The root of the problem is that the human stress response system – known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis – has evolved to deal with short-term, rather than sustained, stress.

Once HPA is activated, the adrenal glands release the stress hormone cortisol which triggers a cascade of responses. It signals to the body that danger is imminent so other systems – such as the immune system, digestion, cell regeneration and even memory and learning consolidation - are temporarily ‘benched’ to allocate resources for survival.

If the HPA system is repeatedly activated or fails to shut down, it can increase susceptibility to disease. People experiencing prolonged stress are likely to suffer from viruses, allergic or autoimmune conditions, arthritis, depression, PTSD and diabetes. It can also exacerbate coronary heart disease and cancer.

An innovative Army Research Scheme funded training program developed by The University of Queensland and other leading institutions such as Yale University and Australian National University, aims to help soldiers manage stress levels by drawing on the principles of emotional intelligence. Psych-Edge Training involves three days of mission relevant training. The research team set out to measure its effects by comparing those who had taken part in the program with others who had received physical training alone.

All the soldiers were then asked to participate in stress immersion tests, which included physical exercise to increase their heart-rate to assault levels and exposure to stress-inducing situations such as public humiliation or a four-day high-pressure exercise engaging with actors playing the role of hostages and terrorists.

They were then tested on their ability to carry out a range of tasks such as answering questions accurately, recalling information, hitting targets in a ‘shoot-no-shoot’ exercise with simulated enemy gunfire or overcoming muscle fatigue and pain.

Throughout the exercise, the researchers tested their levels of the stress hormone cortisol and IgA which is part of the immune system. Both can be detected in saliva. IgA spikes and falls quickly after a stress event and can also be used to measures the effect of long-term stress – once levels plummet by 40% the subject is likely to suffer burnout. Low IgA can also result in poor health and recurrent infections and allergies.

Those who had received the Psych-Edge Training performed significantly better in more areas than the control group. They also had lower levels of cortisol and higher levels of IgA. In fact, their average IgA increased by 19% from the end of the program, whereas in the other group they dropped 37.6% - close to the 40% drop that would put them at risk of burnout.

Jemma King adds: “With each commando costing around $1.24m to train, elite soldiers can be compared to a high-performance racing car. While they are likely to have above average resilience because of their high IQ and mental fortitude from frequent combat training, it makes sense to take a pre-emptive approach to equip them to deal with stress, operate at a higher level and sustain the longevity of their career.

“The results of our research indicate that emotional intelligence training may be an effective means to moderate the negative effects of stress, bolster the immune system and significantly increase performance.”

Full details of the study will be published in the Australian Army Journal later this year.

Last updated:
27 February 2019