In 2008 I was deployed to Afghanistan as a unit commander with the 82nd Airborne Division. It was planned to be a 12-month tour but while we were there it turned into a 15-month haul.
We were assigned the dual mission of maintaining perimeter security of Bagram Airfield and also providing personnel support for the entire region. As a commander I was responsible accomplishing the assigned mission with zero allowance for error and at the same time ensuring the safety and wellbeing of all my soldiers.
Needless to say it was one of the most stressful times of my life.
It was during this time that I learned some very important lessons for keeping mentally and emotionally balanced in the middle of high stress situations. They have served me well on multiple deployments, at home station, and even now as I have transitioned to civilian life.
I will share one of those lessons with you here.
A New Idea
Some of the best training I ever received in the Army was through a program known today as Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness (CSF2). It was unlike anything else in that it took cutting edge research in the realms of positive psychology and sport psychology and applied it in a practical way for use by anyone.
It was during this deployment that I was first introduced to the cognitive skills taught in CSF2. The actual training session they put us through was not well presented. I was crammed into a large tent with over a hundred other troops from our battalion and it was obvious that the instructor was brand new at teaching this material.
But one concept that was presented resonated in my mind immediately and something “clicked” that changed my perspective forever after.
The Cognitive-Behavioral Chain
What I learned was based on the ABC psychological model developed by the work of Albert Ellis and others.
The core proposition of this model is that it is NOT the things that happen to us that trigger our emotions and behaviors, but rather it is our deeply held thoughts about the events that drive our reactions.
In the terminology of Cognitive Behavior Therapy the chain of causation works like this:
When we are involved with an Activating Event (A) it is our Beliefs (B) that generate the Consequences (C) that are expressed as emotions and actions.
In other words there is not a direct link between what happens to us and our subsequent actions and results. What determines our reactions is the thoughts we employ to interpret the events.
While it’s true that we often can’t control the things that happen to us, with just a little effort we CAN control our thoughts and therefore choose a response that will be most beneficial in any given situation.
But understanding an idea intellectually, even if it’s an idea you admire and think is true, is not enough to cause you to actually use it and put it to work for you when it matters.
So how can you leverage the power of the ABC model and put it into practice in real life? Here is a method you can use to apply it immediately.
Step One: FACTS
Describe the Activating Event in strictly in terms of the objective facts of what happened without any subjective interpretation.
List the basics of the event: Who? What? When? Where?
Step Two: IMMEDIATE THOUGHTS
With complete honesty determine what was your initial unfiltered thoughts were when the Activating Event occurred.
Ask yourself, “What was my raw thinking in that moment?”
Step Three: REACTION
- What were my emotions in that moment?
- What actions did I engage in? What did I say? What did I do?
Step Four: EVALUATION
Now look carefully at the results of your reactions. Be detached and objective like a scientist analyzing an experiment.
Ask yourself, “Did my reaction create a positive result? Did it help me get closer to my long-term goal? How did my reaction affect those around me?”
Practice this skill and make it a habit whenever you have a strong emotional reaction to a situation.
It may be helpful to remember the acronym FIRE:
The first essential step in making any meaningful change is to be aware of your current patterns of thinking. This technique is invaluable will allow you to make great leaps in your self-awareness.