What you do is trick your brain into engaging the opposite response to fight, flight, or freeze (the sympathetic autonomic nervous system). The opposite response you want to activate, the parasympathetic autonomic nervous system, is better known as the “rest and digestion” response. Thus, slow, steady breathing gradually brings the influencing chemicals in your system back into a calmer balance.
Breathing techniques like this are brilliant because they can be applied just about anywhere, in situations ranging from disasters to public speaking. Another great technique to hack the rest and digest the response is to chew gum. Research by survival psychologist Sarita Robinson found that chewing can engage the rest and digest the response, lower your level of chemical stress, and defog your brain. It’s a system I’ve been using instinctively for years, like when driving in heavy traffic or late at night, and now there’s survival research to back that up as well.
This means that, if we are to make better decisions, we have to try to do two things: 1) try to make as much room as possible in our rational brain and 2) try to reprogram the brain from the wrong shortcuts. it takes when he feels threatened by a new situation.
Whenever your body is functioning in under-threat mode, your adrenal glands also release the stress hormone cortisol to temporarily increase energy production. One of the other effects of cortisol is to inhibit the creation of new memories by your brain’s hippocampus, which is why even though he must have done so, Dale Zelko has no memory of shooting. the emergency eject handle of his stealth fighter. (Your memory creation is also inhibited if your blood alcohol level exceeds 0.2%, hence the uneven storylines of any really drunken night.)
No matter how hard Dale tries, his memory is missing, but it happened. The next thing he remembers is sitting in the ejection seat, watching his cockpit recede into the night below him, the many indicator lights flashing red and yellow. That he was able to do all of this so instinctively when it mattered was because he had repeatedly explained what to do in an emergency, both in the field and, most importantly, in her head, until it does not involve producing a new response on race day.
This is why all military crews receive specialized worst-case scenario training, also known as “survival training,” whether they like it or not, because one day that training check may have to be cashed. And when that day comes, you really don’t want to rely on the slow parts of your brain to find every answer. So, we survival instructors drag our students behind boats at sea in their parachute harnesses, to simulate being blown after ejection over water, and to practice the exercises necessary to avoid the drowning. We drop them off by helicopter in the middle of the night and have them hunted by teams of trackers, in order to practice the skills necessary to avoid being captured in hostile territory. Any type of training is easier to remember if it is recent, but when the situation arises, the simple fact of having had training, even if it was a long time ago, can bear fruit. We remember actions much better if we have done them physically – rather than just thinking, hearing, or reading about them – and the more we practice the actions, the deeper they soak into our brain.
As part of the same learning process, and well before any specific environmental survival training, military crews like Dale Zelko are trained in air emergency management. Emergencies on board come in all shapes and sizes, and how to respond can be learned by heart. Emergency aircraft drills are carried out in a very precise sequence and there is no ambiguity as to content or order. This is because we don’t want to have to think about it – we practice it over and over again on the pitch until it feels second nature in the air. Royal Air Force baby pilots are even given ‘cardboard cockpits’ so they can practice their emergency drills at their booth during downtime. These models are printed at real size, to allow repeating muscle movements and hand gestures in the form of “touch-drill” until they become instinctive.