Becoming a U.S. Navy SEAL is a notoriously difficult and arduous task, but how does being trained for something like that change you? A study published in Physiology and Behavior explores the psychological and physiological changes associated with training to become a Navy SEAL.
Military personnel who have specialized skill sets, such as Navy SEALS, are part of an elite unit that expects them to complete missions that are unfathomable to most of the general public. People engaged in these units are subject to intense selection criteria and grueling training in order to qualify to complete high-risk tasks in dangerous conditions.
These conditions can and should lead to significant growth within the trainees both physically and psychologically. This study seeks to understand the physiological markers and psychological development associated with Navy SEAL training.
For their study, Andrew K. Ledford and colleagues utilized a sample of 353 students who were training at the Naval Special Warfare Center in California across three different training classes. The training is split into three phases: one for physical conditioning, one for combat diving, and one for weapons and demolition.
Psychological surveys and blood collection occurred at the beginning of their training and after each 8-week-long phase. Psychological measures were completed on resilience, hardiness, and grit, in addition to blood samples being drawn.
Results showed that the average SEAL trainee initially showed a decrease in resilience, before showing an increase per phase following the beginning of training. Hardiness showed a similar early drop off followed by increase. For both resilience and hardiness, there was a high degree of variation between individuals, with some showing significant increases and others showing significant decreases. In regard to grit, there was no overall significant change.
This pattern is potentially due to the beginning of training being an adverse experience, so resilience and hardiness initially are decreased, but trainees must overcome and grow from the experience.
For biological markers, there was a growth in DHEA and DHEA-to-cortisol ratio, which are thought to be a response to intense physical exercise and increased stress resilience.
DHEA is a steroid hormone that is produced by the adrenal glands and is involved in a number of physiological processes, including immune function, metabolism, and stress response. Cortisol is another steroid hormone that is produced by the adrenal glands, and is commonly known as the “stress hormone” because it is released in response to stress.
A high DHEA-to-cortisol ratio is generally considered to be a sign of good health. This is because DHEA is associated with positive effects such as improved mood, cognitive function, and immune function, while cortisol is associated with negative effects such as increased inflammation and immune suppression.
Interestingly, the physiological and psychological patterns displayed were asynchronous and did not form a cohesive explanation of how trainees responded to the stress of training. In other words, while resilience and hardiness dipped from their initial start points before later increasing, DHEA and DHEA-to-cortisol showed consistent positive growth all the way through training.
This study took intriguing steps to better understanding how the stress of being a Navy SEAL trainee could affect human beings both psychologically and physiologically. Despite this, there are limitations to note. One such limitation is that due to demanding training schedules, data collection days/times had some variation, which could potentially affect their mindsets. Additionally, this study was funded partially by the Joint Special Operations University, which could be viewed as a conflict of interest.
“Despite these limitations, there is a possibility of utilizing the growth of these attributes as a monitoring tool for positive psychological and physiological growth during training,” the researchers concluded. “An understanding of positive growth could be used as one of many data points to determine the potential for struggling students to either continue training, get a second chance at training by rolling to subsequent classes, or find a more suitable occupation for the student in the Navy.”
The study, “Psychological and physiological changes during basic, underwater, demolition/SEAL training“, was authored by Andrew K. Ledford, Meaghan E. Beckner, William R. Conkright, Celeste Raver, Deirdre P. Dixon, Patti Miles, Brian Martin, Bradley C. Nindl, and Scott M. Lynch.