Elite special forces operator Jason Fox on how to excel in the face of adversity and thrive when times are tough.
Pushing past physical limits can be a gratifying experience. Endorphins flood your brain and it feels like there’s nothing enough sweat, reps and hard work can’t overcome.
The truth, however, is that it’s not the straining of sinew or physical application of muscle where battles are lost and won. Failure and success begin and end, always, with our minds.
For Jason Fox, an elite military operator who has planned and led countless special forces missions, entered the cartel strongholds of South American drug lords in his Channel 4 show Inside the Real Narcos, and overcome a debilitating encounter with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the importance of psychological resilience is paramount.
Ahead of the release of his new book, Life Under Fire: How to Build Inner Strength and Thrive Under Pressure, Fox took Men’s Fitness through some of the key principles in building mental fortitude to face any stressful situation, whether you’re facing bullets, the boardroom or the bench press.
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1. Find Strength in Numbers
For Fox, surrounding yourself with the right people is the first place to start. “Joining the military, that’s when I learned what resilience was,” he says. “Not that I knew how to build it; it was being built into me by other people and organisations.”
But different stages of your life requires different types of people, too. Says Fox, “When I was at the very height of my depression (after 20 years of military service, reaching the rank of Sergeant with the Special Boat Service, he was medically discharged, having been diagnosed with PTSD) when I look back at it, I was hanging with the wrong people.
“Not that they were the wrong people themselves, individually, but they were the wrong people for me – their outlook on life was very negative.
“You are influenced by the people around you, you can’t help that, you pick up idiosyncrasies, you pick up habits, likewise, you are that influence to others around you. Having the right people around you is crucial.
“At the age of 16 when I joined the Marines, I had the right people instructing me, and its ethos and fundamental building blocks were right for me.”
2. Be Unselfish in your Thinking
Once you’ve built the right network of people around you, maintaining fruitful, supportive relationships is essential.
In his book, Fox details the thinking behind ‘oppo first’, a strategy drilled into him from years of military service, where the needs of your oppo (naval slang for ‘opposite number’), a close teammate, should take priority over your own.
“Some people are about take, take, take,” says Fox, “but if you’re trying to find your ‘why’ and develop yourself as a person, look to build a culture into your group of friends where you’re there to look out for each other.
“It doesn’t happen overnight but, ultimately, you’re building a structure around you that is good for your mindset as well as everyone else’s. You’re not only helping to develop yourself but also the group around you.”
3. Prepare your Mind for Adversity
Sometimes, we lose the battle before we even set foot in the arena, simply because we’ve mentally surrendered to the challenges that we know lie in wait. For Fox, facing tough times head on is vital:
“It’s that knife-edge walk before you step off and do the hard thing, that could make you or break you. You can let it freak you out, or you can spin it in a different way and think to yourself, the next few days will be hard but the good thing about this is I know they’re going to be hard, so what do I need to do to make it easier?
“Instead of not focusing on what’s going to happen, start talking to yourself about what is going to happen, so it won’t be that much of a shock.”
4. Use Flexible Thinking
Yes, planning is key. But for someone like Fox, who has planned and led high-risk special forces missions, flexibility is the real ace in the hole.
“Always remain flexible in your mind when something goes wrong,” he says. “As you feel things begin to slip, stop. Breathe. Think. There are always other options. Enjoy it even, because moments like this can be exciting – if everything went to plan, life would be bloody boring! It’s what makes being a human awesome.
“Challenges throw themselves at you and you’ve got to work out what to do in those times. Go into everything will a flexible mindset. If soldiers can do it in a gunfight – and they can – you must be able to do it in most situations.”
5. Reflect but Don’t Dwell
We know that evaluation forms an important part of self-improvement, but too much can be destructive. “Reflection is important,” says Fox, “but it’s a double-edged weapon.
“I’ve reflected on decisions in a negative way and it can be a quick spiral into a pit of despair. Reflection is powerful if it’s used in a positive way. It can empower you, but not if you dwell.
“Dwelling can be really negative: constantly going over and over something. Reflection is about balance, using it to move forwards. And once you do move forwards, you don’t look back again.”
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‘I HAVE STRUGGLED.’ —- There’s no shame in struggling, it happens to us all. There’s been points in life where I’ve struggled to find my sense of purpose. Talking to people got me out of that dark place and it’s advice I’ll always give to people when they’re finding life hard. — We are in the fight of our lives against COVID19. . While our frontline workers battle to save lives every day, the rest of us stay home to stop the spread. For many, lockdown is threatening our well-being. As we worry about our physical health, we all face a real threat to our mental health. . Some of us have lost loved ones, some of us have lost jobs, income, routine and purpose. For some of us isolation is proving too hard and we’re struggling to speak up. . A mental health epidemic is exploding alongside the virus outbreak as people are waiting too long to reach out for help. Too many of us are bottling it up. . Suicide is the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK, and claims the lives of 126 men, women and young people each week. This is only rising under the pressure of the battle with COVID-19. . Self-isolation isn’t the only way we can save lives from our homes. We can talk. We can help someone reach out. We can help them save their lives. . MANOR’s @strongnotsilent campaign has partnered with the suicide prevention charity @calmzone to raise awareness and funds for services to help those who are struggling. Visit @strongnotsilent and hit link in bio to get involved. . If you’re struggling, call CALM in confidence, 365 days a year from 5pm to midnight, on 0800 58 58 58 or webchat through www.thecalmzone.net . . #snscovid19 #strongnotsilent #sharethestruggle #mentalhealth #nohealthwithoutmentalhealth #nhsheroes #stayhome #socialdistancing #covid19 #coronavirus #MANOR #wearemanor #manorlondon #Community #Movement
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6. Drop the Stiff Upper Lip
Finally, even with all of the above in place, life is still more than capable of laying you out on the mat. Suicide, a direct result of mental trauma, is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. In part, says Fox, that’s because we, as men, don’t talk about our mental health:
“People who say we should adopt a stiff upper lip? That’s simply not working. Men are taking their life left and right. We need to open up that conversation, let people know that it’s OK to talk.
“Getting over issues that affect you is never going to be easy – you need grit and determination – but we need to make sure men feel safe and encouraged to talk when those situations arise.”
Words: Dan Cooper