The Big 4 – Navy SEAL’s Technique to Conquering Fear and Panic

The Big 4 - Navy Seal's Technique to Conquering Fear and Panic

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not the absence of fear.”

Mark Twain

In stressful situations when our life is at threat we have a very powerful mechanism of protection. It is an automated system within our brain that acts even before we are able to take conscious actions.

This system has protected us during the millions of years of evolution from predators and imminent danger. Even though it is very sophisticated, it can have flaws.

Say hello to the Amygdala!

The Amygdala

The amygdala is well hidden in the depths of the human brain and it has developed prior to our neocortex (the thinking brain). It is part of the limbic system and its purpose is to regulate emotional reactions such as fear and aggression.

Since the limbic system and the amygdala are older than the neocortex (in terms of evolution), it has priority (in response) whenever dealing with very dangerous situations. A tragic example that shows how we can act prior to being conscious is the story of Matilda Crabtree.

Back in 1994, Matilda was a 14 year old girl who wanted to make a prank to her parents. As Bobby Crabtree and his wife returned home late at night, they thought Matilda was at one of her friends’ house. However, as they entered home, Bobby heard some noise coming from upstairs. Matilda hid in the closet wanting to scare her parents. As Bobby got upstairs he took his gun and went to Matilda’s bedroom. When she jumped out of the closet, Bobby pulled the trigger. Matilda died 12 hours later.

Bobby’s fear kicked in and his body took action way before he could be conscious of what he was doing. We are talking about milliseconds here, the bits of time that can really make a difference. Bobby Crabtree was not prosecuted because what happened was an accident. However, you can imagine the pain this father had to live with throughout his life.

The Mechanism of Fear

When in panic or fearful situations, there are two parts of the human brain that fight for control:

1. The frontal lobes (part of the neocortex) – that are responsible with conscious and rational decision making processes.

2. The amygdala – which is twice as faster in response than the frontal lobes and this sometimes can be misleading. The purpose of the amygdala is to protect, no matter what.

There are some fears that are pre-programmed in the human brain. This means that we are born with them. Chocking, drowning, the fear of heights, and even the fear of public speaking are examples of such.

Whenever in peril, the amygdala kicks in as the first commander; it sends signals to the hippocampus (another part of the limbic system) which in turn releases stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline; they prepare our body for the fight or flight response.

Thus, all the energy available is hijacked and directed to the feet for running or to the hands for fighting the imminent danger.

The Big Four

Navy SEALs are often confronted with such life threatening situations and to succeed they have to effectively conquer their fears. It has been shown that humans can minimize the time before the fear stimulus reaches the frontal cortex so that the decision is more conscious. It basically means that the response from the frontal cortex should be as close as possible to the response from the amygdala.

Members of the Navy SEAL (N.S.) are trained to increase their mental toughness with the ultimate purpose of controlling their fears and being able to appropriately respond in panicking situations. The technique is called The Big Four and (as you guessed) it has 4 parts:

1. Goal Setting (G)

When you are in a stressful situation your amygdala is firing like crazy. Emotions, fear, stress, you name it; it’s a total chaos. The frontal lobes can bring structure to this inferno through goal setting.

They can keep the amygdala at ease.

N.S. members often think about their friends, family, religious beliefs, and other important things from their lives.

The key point is to see something positive in the future (in the near future, if possible). That serves as an anchor to your inner balance.

2. Mental Rehearsal (M)

Mental Rehearsal is also known as visualization and it refers to continuously running an activity in your mind. When the real situation occurs, you are better prepared to fight it.

Take for example Michael Phelps.

Few people know that his training is insane. I have learned from Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit that throughout his years of training, Michael Phelps followed the same routine over and over again, with the preciseness of an atom clock.

From getting closer to the Olympic pool, to fixing his goggles, to stepping onto the diving board, then the jump, the first contact with water, each hand movement, and so on. All of these coordinated so accurately that he knew them by heart. They were part of him. Phelps’ coach used to name this routine as “the track”.

Now, in this track, Michael basically confronted all the scenarios that can possibly occur.

August 13, 2008

It was the day of the finals for the 200m butterfly swim in The Beijing Olympic Games.

Phelps was prepared. When his coach saw him enter the arena, he shouted at him to plug-in the “track”. Michael was already plugged-in.

He was a winner even before getting into the pool. Everything was taking place the way he knew it by heart: the diving board, the water, hand movements, wait…

Something was wrong. Water started to enter into his goggles. He could not see….

When I first heard the story I thought that it had a sad ending. However, instead of panicking, Phelps was trained for this.

He already had a scenario when this would happen. Sight would not be a problem for him because he knows by heart how many hand movements he needs to make until reaching the final wall. He played “the track”… and amazingly he won the gold medal, finishing 0.66 seconds faster than Laszlo Cseh, the second place.

This is the power of mental rehearsal.

Confront the bad situation in your mind over and over again and it would come naturally when you face it for real. This is what many public speakers do.

Psychologists treat phobic patients by exposure to the stimuli causing the phobia.

3. Self Talk

We know from research (here or here) that the average person speaks to him self more than 400 words per minute.

Logic guides me to say that it would pay much of a difference if these words are predominantly positive. These guys say that positive self-talk can override the signals from the amygdala.

I’ve personally learned about positive self-talk from Brian Tracy’s book The Power of Self-Confidence.

4. Arousal control

This is more of a physical exercise. It focuses on breathing and it requires to deliberately breathe slower as it would help counteract some of the effects of panic.

Long exhales mimic the process of relaxation within the body.
Long inhales provide much more oxygen to the brain which results in better cognition processes.

Each of these techniques may not work when used individually due to the powerful signaling coming from the amygdala, but they can definitely kick-ass when they are used together.

Don’t forget:

1. Goal Setting – Find an anchor. Project yourself into a better future.
2. Mental Rehearsal – Visualize the situation that bugs you the most and try viewing it from multiple perspectives. Repeat it over and over again.
3. Self-talk – If you can differentiate between negative and positive thoughts, you’re a good candidate into choosing which ones are better for you.
4. Arousal Control – Slowly inhale. Slowly exhale.

This technique can be applied in different contexts, such as when your life is at threat or when the sweets aisle from the supermarket is threatening your waistline.

If there is any other method through which you have been able to overcome your anxieties, fears, and panicking situations, please share it in either of the comment sections below. I would be grateful for that. If you haven’t been able to deal with your fears yet, please let me know and we can figure it out together.


1. The Human Brain

2. Dr. Daniel Amen – Change your Brain, Change your Life – The Breakthrough Program for Conquering Anxiety, Depression, Obsessiveness, Anger, and Impulsiveness

3. Dr. Joe Dispenza – Evolve your Brain: The Science of Changing your Mind

4. Charles Duhigg – The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in Business and Life

5. The Panic Puzzle – Help People End Panic and Anxiety Attacks

6. Elke Zuercher-White – End of Panic

7. Brian Tracy – The Power of Self-Confidence

Photos: here, here

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19 Responses to The Big 4 – Navy SEAL’s Technique to Conquering Fear and Panic

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  3. Karen Griffin says:

    Hi, I have found this article very informative. I have two daughters with severe brain abnormalities. One of the problems is they are constantly in panic mode and can not relax. The brain disorder they have is extremely rare, they are 2 of eight in the world that are known to have it. It causes other problems as well including difficulty with motor skills, very poor attention and concentration, difficulty with eye tracking and so on. The biggest difficulty though is behavior. They become very violent on a daily basis. My eldest daughter (11) is now a danger to herself and her siblings. If I could find a way to teach them to calm down I think it would change our lives. I am going to attempt to use this technique. They both have learning difficulties but I am willing to try anything! Thank you for posting this very informative article.

    • Chris Chris says:

      Karen, are your daughters aware of their behavior? This is the first question I think you should ask yourself. If your girls know that their behavior will not lead to positive outcomes, then you can really give it a try to the technique.

      But if the girls perceive as normality what it happens to them, then it would be a bit difficult to try and implement this technique.

      However, making them aware and willing to cooperate is the key.

      Then, you should start using The Big 4. Just my thoughts.

      Let me know how it goes!

  4. Susan says:

    Breath-holding: It really helped me to learn that a panic attack was often precipitated by holding my breath 10-30 seconds earlier, without realizing it. That change and build up of carbon dioxide levels in the blood, can trigger the panic attack. So the panic attack isn’t really just happening in the moment – it started when the person forgets to breath or breath deeply, 1/2 a minute to a minute earlier, and the change in gas levels to less oxygen, more carbon dioxide triggers the body to panic.

    • Chris Chris says:

      Susan, I’m not sure that I get this right. How can a person forget to breathe? The breathing reflex is deeply ingrained within our medulla oblongata, one of the most primitive areas of the brain.

      I do understand that some irregularities in breathing can appear, but they must have an internal or external trigger. An event, an imbalance within the body, something.

      Have you managed to find a solution to your problem? Can you share it with us?

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  6. Alfre says:

    Very good article! I didn t know all of that stuff 🙂

    • Chris Chris says:

      Thank you Fredo!

      • james says:

        great article.but the fear wont go away..the big four brings a great balance between fear that saves a life and panic that takes it away. i believe (experiance) that fear keeps me focused and got me through a great amount of situastions but i have to bring the big four in to routine before that fear switch over to panic and not be so lucky one day.. thx

        • Chris Chris says:

          in light of the connections between physiologic states and biochemical imbalances, I’d recommend doing a thorough blood work to see if something is out of whack. There are many vitamin, mineral, hormonal, etc deficiencies that can lead to a state like this. On another note, I’d recommend reading Daniel G. Amen books as a starting point. hope this helps!

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  9. Mindy says:

    My therapist recommended I read the Big 4 – Navy SEAL’s Technique to Conquering Fear and Panic in preparation for an upcoming criminal trail in which I am the victim. Searching for the exact title lead me to your site. I’m appreciative of your article and the additional resources it offers.

  10. Andreea says:

    Hey Chris,
    I get terrible panic attacks at night at it was determined that they are triggered by sleep apnea. With sleep apnea, your breathing stops for a short while, but long enough to increase the levels of carbon dioxide in my body.
    Panic attacks are crazy unpleasant. As I was telling ny husband, I may be closer to a primate than he is because of my overactive amdigdalya. 🙂 i have a terrible fear of falling asleep, but my shrink and GP will treat my apnea asap.
    AS for the day time panic, I will train like a SEAL if I have to.
    Thanks (Multumesc) for the eye opening article.

    • Chris Chris says:

      You’re welcome Andreea. Are you sure there’s no physiologic trigger to your sleep apnea? Did you run some thorough blood work?

      Magnesium and/or melatonin intake may help. In terms of supplements you could try 5-HTP (5-hydroxitriptophan) which is a precursor of serotonin. You may also try a very hot or very cold shower 1 hour prior to bed (make sure you can tolerate that). Hope this helps…

      • Andreea says:

        Hi Cristi,
        My big problem is that I am prone to serotonin syndrome so docs have to be uber careful when it comes to meds that stimulate that little bugger.I am scared to take melatonin, because I do not know how that would affect my brain. I need to ask my GP. All this started after mom visited us for 4 months. Some luck, huh? So they gave me Buspar which works with serotonin but the med’s mechanisms of action is generally less understood. It works, but they keep me on a low dose. During the day I am ok, but mother of god, at night, I wake up feeling like I am in a middle of a fall from a skyscraper. Of all my CBT techniques that I acquired, observing non judgmentally is the only thing I can do, but then I am afraid to fall asleep after one of these episodes. The next day I am dragging my knuckles on the floor like a gorilla. My poor husband was looking forward to enjoying our summer here on LI, but no luck so far. My doc said that apnea has to be treated asap because it can trigger a series of other problems (heart-related) if I do not address it pronto.
        Your article was soo interesting. I was reading it last night after my panic subsided. I was telling my husband that I may be closer to a primate than he is.
        Keep up the excellent posts, I will be following you daily.

        • Chris Chris says:

          Well, yes. These kind of strategies can help a lot. And they come very handy for the SEALs. However, I really hope that you and your doctor find a way to efficiently deal with your condition. Keep me posted Andreea.

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