What we can all learn from Roman wartime philosophy

Photo: Andrew Yardley

Photo: Andrew Yardley

Imagine you’re hyped up for a big thing. You’re flooded with adrenaline, you’re laser focused, and you’re altogether jumpy.

Now imagine that big thing has just transpired and you are feeling an ‘excitement hangover.’ Now, imagine being incapable of returning to your previous state of consciousness and de-briefing yourself out of the hype.

This is what we put veterans through when they train, serve, and return.

There is something particular about military training that elevates an individual’s autonomic neural activity. It’s no wonder; war is intense and the hype-up is to be taken very seriously. Vets are trained for months in boot camp prior to departure for their missions, sometimes in special facilities pertaining to the kind of work they’ll go on to do, or specific to the region in which they will serve (for example, arctic region training is different from desert region training). This training helps those about to go on active duty or elsewhere to be in a fight or flight state, which is a state of hypervigilance.

Unfortunately, this training program lacks a decent and systematic de-brief, one that would ‘undo’ the hype-up vets experience. We train vets to go deep into the brainstem, into survival-mode-thinking, so that they’re highly reactive in the event of combat. When they’re no longer on active duty, it becomes tough to switch that highly active part of the brain off, which makes it difficult for vets to come home and be relaxed.

Hypervigilance can be beneficial, and it does serve an evolutionary purpose. But human beings are not meant to be consistently in this state; chronic hypervigilance leads to a host of problems, which everyone at some point in his or her lifetime has likely experienced.

In the ancient Roman empire, when a warrior would go to war, he would then train in unwinding himself for months on end before returning home.

I like to think of it as a ‘spa for military professionals,’ where tools like the body, breath, and other techniques to manipulate the autonomic nervous system would help get the war out of the man. He would go with his military unit and no one would leave until the leader of the group felt confident that the war had left their eyes.

When anyone is in fight or flight mode — not just vets — s/he is visibly hypervigilant, and you can see it in his or her eyes. It’s that panic that makes it hard to focus on anything but the stressor of the moment and next moves. And when someone is totally relaxed, you can see that in their eyes, too.

What ends up happening, when someone ‘comes home’ from an elevated autonomic neural state, and doesn’t make an effort to down-regulate the nervous system out of ‘war mode’, it’s likely that that person will remain in this state. I call this the ‘freeze’, and when it happens, we develop sleeping problems, feel physical pain in the lower back, develop discomfort in digestion, experience weakened sexual response — the list goes on.

On a neurological level, what is going on here is that there is too much brainstem and midbrain activity happening, and not enough in the full cortex. Perhaps the real solution is simply that certain regions of the brain need to be more activated once the fight or flight state is entered.

I’m in the business of down-regulation; it’s my thing. I teach it to military professionals and veterans, students and teachers, executives, lawyers, families and athletes alike. The great thing about the practices and techniques that I teach is that they help to re-engage different parts of the brain for any situation in which you might feel stressed. They really help the body to relax itself out of fight or flight tension, and they’re easy to do. In a word, I teach people how to ‘get chill’.


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This post originally appeared on Medium