Coping and succeeding in high pressure situations

Note: The following piece was written over a year-and-a-half ago and may or may not reflect the author’s current view

So I have a problem, probably the longest lasting most serious personality related problem that affects me in the army. When I find myself in a high-pressure or stressful situation, everything seems to break down. I lose control of my ‘excitement/anxiety gauge’. I become reckless. My mind races at a million miles an hour, and I find it difficult to focus. I become irrational. The initial excitement turns into dread, as I come to the realization the ‘this is real’, I’m to blame, and its only up to me to salvage the situation.

My mind speeds and works overtime. My body slow down, my responses less-sharp. I broadcast stress and anxiety, and give off the feeling that ‘everything is lost’, the situation is doomed and other extreme and unhelpful comments. Time seems to fly – indeed loses all meaning – and I feel stuck in motion like a swimmer battling against the stream without progress.

So why am I like this and what can I do to improve?

First of all, most of the time I do feel as if I’m calm, in control and rational. Indeed I try, in public, to give off a cool, suave impression – as if playing some James-bond style alter ego. But in truth I’m anything but, and that all has to change.

I think my problem stems from lack of “personal-framework,” a clear order in my mind of what needs to be done, and an inability to see the bigger picture. I find that many times I find myself in these situations when I’m in a leadership position, or when others are dependent on the performance and ultimate success of my actions. Exhibited emotions include anxiety, stress, a feeling of being overwhelmed and hyper-excitement. It’s as if a valve shuts off in my brain and prevents me from thinking rationally. The worst part is that most of the time I am unaware that I’ve descend into this self-destructive cycle, and as a result it only worsens – with the beating tick of the seconds handle.

So what practical steps do I take to alleviate and prevent such situations in the future? What do I do to minimize and even eradicate this flaw in my personality?

The first step of course, is awareness of the problem, and acknowledgment that it is harming me in the army, and even in the long term. If I do not battle this problem now with all my might, who knows how it will develop in the future?

The next step is to realize that during the ‘high-pressure situation’ that I’m in a ‘high-pressure situation.’ When I find that things are getting out of control, I need to mentally tell myself that now of all times I have to slow down a notch and acquire clarity. This is the most difficult of all, because it requires me – under severe constrains – to stop everything, whilst the clock is ticking and make sense of it all in my head.

Even if it holds everybody up.

Even if there is ‘no time.’

Even if stopping now means that I broadcast that I have lost control of the situation.

This is the most critical stage. I must learn to stop everything – pause time. Ignore the chaos around me, and take a breath.

Ask myself gently like a father asks his young son:

“What’s the problem my dear boy?”

“Well is it really such a big problem, or are you blowing it out of proportion?”

“Can you fix it? Or is there another way?”

“What about the importance of the issue> i.e. the biiger picture?

Problem -> solution(s) -> course of action.

It’s simple really. And it makes a lot of sense. All I have to do is to force myself to stop, and to analyse the situation rationally from the outside.

And of course, as mentioned earlier – to take, a, breath……

Dealing with disappointment

Do you know the feeling you get when you ‘almost made it’? When something was within your reach, and then unspeakably, unexplainably, it slips out of your hands in slow motion? – like in the movies, when the protagnists are hanging off a cliff edge and then one of them loses grip and disappears into the abyss – that stare of doom forever capturing their final moments of fear? It’s the feeling you get when you’re informed of that job promotion, or that you have been awarded the Nobel Prize for sobriety – only to be told later that it was all a mistake, and that your name was mistakenly announced – “you were never sober”, the Nobel Prize Commitee tells you, “you were in fact a raging, inebriated alcoholic from the get go.” These analogies somehwhat exemplify my experience over the past 24 hours. After a year of hard work and training, test and interviews, changing enlistment dates and numerous travels to the army office and back, my dream of enlisting into a particular special forces unit was dashed. I was almost in, with 2 days to go. I was on top of the world. And it felt great. Which makes this emotional rollercoaster so much more painful.

It’s been quite a journey to get here – Gibbush Tzanchanim in May, getting the news that I had passed (!) in June, getting my enlistment date moved from August to November, fighting to attend Yom Sayarot – passing that and then passing Gibbush Matkal as well! Gibbush Matkal is a gruelling week long “hell-week” style physical test, that the most motivated army canditates attend in order to enlist in one of the IDF’s top tier, elite units. Naturally, over the past three weeks since getting the results, I was on top of the world – one of the few who finished the gibbush and got selected  – and today I had to resign myself to being regular, simple and plain again.

I received the call last night – an army clerk informing me that I was to be dropped. I scrambled to make a few late night calls to fellow friends who had already enlisted in these units, and thus had some connections with the officers who pass and fail the aspiring canditates. It was both a disappointment and a relief to find out the reasons behind this last-minute fiasco: They had simply accepted too many canditates, and Olim Hadashim – new immigrants – whose families remain behind overseas, generally have a lower security profile to begin with, than the Israelis that try for these units. I wasn’t the only one held up by this last minute surprise either. Another 5 guys I knew, Olim like me, had been hastily culled from the list, merely 2 days before we were due to go in. Luckily though, I was still given the option of enlisting tomorrow, albeit to the infantry brigades of the IDF.

There are essentially two ways to view this scenario – two outlooks that will define hereafter my service in the IDF:

The first is the negative outlook: That now I will never be satisifed as a regular solider. That I have trained mentally and physically for an entire year, and invested all my willpower for nothing. That the army has screwed me over – like all those stories that I hear about ‘so-and-so’ that will never happen to be – that has indeed just happened to me. This attitude is inherently flawed because it sets me up for disappointment from the outset – even before I have gone in. It is wrong for me to feel this way even though I cannot help it.

The other option is to bite the bullet and look at the positives: I still get the chance to serve in the IDF, I don’t have to wait until March, and it’s still Kravi, Achi! I made Aliyah in order to give back, to contribute and to work hard in the Israeli army – to serve and defend the Jewish people – and that is exacly what I will be doing when I put on my army fatigues tomorrow afternoon – regardless of where the IDF chooses to place me. The brigades – the ‘Gdudim’ in hebrew – have a shorter training circuit by a few months and are generally assigned to the more mundane and routine jobs that keep this country moving. Being in a place where the ‘Yokrah’ (prestige in hebrew) is a little less, is simply a matter of semantics when one looks back on his army service. I believe that everything happens for a reason and that “Gam zoo le tova” – “this too is for the best”. I’m also a strong believer in destiny, and that there is definitely a good reason, and an excellent life lesson learnt with this entire affair. “It is written” before me, my destiny was outlined, and it was simply a matter of living up to this moment and discovering the path that I am to tread. And yes, despite the unsavoury news, I still feel that I have suceeded.

I’ve proved to myself that if I can put my mind to it and give my maximum, I can achieve – anything. You can only give 100%, and the rest, so to speak, is out of your hands. That annoying little element of uncertainty that bugs the hell out of me – that hovers on everybody’s shoulder like an unwanted stain, constantly whispers into my ear that maybe, maybe it will not be. It will not succeed. It will not work out in the end. It was not meant to happen. That yes you have 2 days until you reach the light at the end of the tunnel and there is still a minute chance that they will drop you at the eleventh hour. Anything is possible. Dreams become reality and reality morphs into nightmares. The future is uncertain, yet I believe that “it is written” and this was meant to be. And this thought of all things provides me with the most consolation. I can do everything in my power to minimize the element of uncertainty, yet I can never eliminate it. And that’s the great irony: our path is laid out before us, yet it curves in mysterious ways.

Conversations with Yoni

Over the course of the past few months, I engaged in long discussions with my close friend from the garin, Yoni, about service in the gdudim, in regular infantry, versus that of special forces units, Sayarot in hebrew. It’s a given that Olim normally arrive in Israel with the motivation levels of a horny Chihuahua overdosed on viagra, and thus many of them volunteer and attempt to get accepted into the elite special forces units in the IDF. Yoni however was different. His position – for an Oleh – was rather radical and from what I found, strangely noble. He argued that he “Davka” wants to be a regular infantry solider – to serve side by side with the layman – the ones who spend hours on guard duty, man checkpoints and conduct the day-to-day work on the ground. These are the guys in the “Shetach” (the field in hebrew) – who may go in slightly less motivated than all the GI Joe Olim straight off the plane from America in their quest for modern-day Maccabee-dom – and yes, some of them may be left slightly short of breath after a 5km run, but these are the guys that we should invest our time and effort into improving. ‘From the ground up’ in other words. “We can be an inspiration to others” he argued. After all, the brigades fight the wars and suffer the bulk of the casualties – not that that should be a reason to run there bareheaded – but that Olim and other Israelis who really want to contribute should be ‘side by side with the man in the trench’, not sitting on their high horse within the sayarot. From this persepective it’s easier to be a Special forces solider in the IDF, as everybody there is super motivated, is there on a voluntary basis and absolute discipline and self control is a given. Every one is ‘mentally ready’ over there. That’s not where the work is. That’s not even a challenge. Sure, aspire to aim as high as you can. But anybody who thinks that they have what it takes to be a SF solider should consider first and foremost  the Gdudim. Thats where they need to be. And Yoni wasn’t just saying that. He really believed it and wanted to set a personal example.

I found Yoni’s outlook interesting for a few reasons: firstly, because he was not only motivated by a desire to serve, but because he was motivated by a desire to improve. The Zionism running through his veins is one of self sacrifice in a place where much of the blood, sweat and tears that he – we – will endure will go largely unsung and unnoticed. After all, a SF soldier has but to board the bus as all heads turn accordingly in awe and admiration (perhaps slightly exaggerated, but you get the drift). A regular ‘Gdudnick’ does not bask in the aura of everlasting glory – his is the curse of the foot soldier – he may put in more work and effort and time and willpower than Moshe and Gidon from Special Forces, yet he remains judged and confined by his shoulder unit-tag. What struck me most about Yoni’s worldview however, was the modesty and humility with which he viewed the whole situation – a modesty welded into his personality that cannot be learned or acquired, and that I can only envy. “This is the real challenge” I hear him saying in my head as I type this up in the wee morning hours before I go in tomorrow (today!), and although the question of ‘what could have been’ keeps on pounding through my skull like a woodpecker, I realize that the experience that I’m in for now is no less honourable, and demands far more patience, effort and respect for those around me. This is the challenge. Now is the time for me to really get to work.

At times like these I remind myself why I immigrated to Israel – the country I love. I came here because I believe in the Jewish state, in our right to self determination as a people, “lihiot am hofshi be’arzenu” as the last line of the anthem goes. I made Aliyah in the hopes of building a fair and equal society that will be the envy of the world. A place where ‘freedom’ and ‘peace’ will one day replace today’s political discourse of ‘war’ and ‘violence’. And of course, I came here to protect the Jewish people and defend their homeland – as a soldier in the Israel Defence Forces. I didn’t come here to get into the elite units per se – even being considered was just a bonus. Yes it is disappointing that I nearly made it, and I’m now coming to grips with it, but I’ve long known that every job in the army is extremely important, and just like in a well designed mechanical clock – you need all the cogs and pieces, no matter how small, for everything to work properly. Frankly, I’m just really excited to get in tomorrow and start my service. This country is dear to me, and I want to give back with everything I can. Sure, there might be less prestige in my new place – but I’m here doing what I believe in, and fighting for a cause that defines my very identity. And that’s what counts.

I go in tomorrow into the infantry brigades, and I’m still as motivated as I was when I got off the plane. I’m young, healthy, and of sound mind (at least as far as I can tell – the rest is between me and my therapist. Just kidding 🙂 ) and the future looks prety bright. I’m finally fulfilling my dream of serving in the IDF and I will proudly wear my uniform and know that I am making a difference. This country was built from the ashes of the Holocaust because of resilience – because of people who in the face of despair chose never to give up. Who never said ‘I can no longer’. People who defied the Nazi beast to immigrate to Israel and turn their hopes into reality.

Tomorrow it is my turn, as I join the IDF and fulfill an ancient legacy dating back 3000 years – I will now be a warrior in King David’s army – and I’m fighting for what I believe in. And when I look at it this way, this whole experience is something that I’m greatful for – far from disappointing, to say the least.