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Daydreams Helped Me in Combat. The Science:

You might’ve gotten into trouble for it in school, but daydreaming can be great for your survival.

I learned this the hard way as a method of keeping myself present in the rocky hills of Afghanistan. While on patrol with my fireteam, it was easy for my mind to wander back to what must be happening in the normal world instead of focused on the dangers around me.

Since this isn’t ideal in a place where people were trying to kill me, I fought complacency by running through scenarios in my head. I asked myself difficult questions with complex answers and tried to think about it from all angles and running solution after solution until I came up with the best one.

Foot patrols can be a trudging death march and the 116-degree heat makes even breathing sweaty work. It’s easy to get lost in your own misery, but a good distraction can make a world of difference. I liked to forget by asking myself questions, like, “If we hit an IED, right now, what should I do? What injuries are most likely? How would I treat them? What curveballs might get thrown and how would I respond to them?”

During these frequent fantasies I also thought about how I would act. At this point in my career, I’d witnessed some of the best medics in Afghanistan doing their jobs with a high degree of competence and a presence of calm that reassured everyone around them. ‘Doc's here, and everything's going to be all right.'

I wanted to be just as confident as they were in the chaos of firefights and explosions, so during my fantasies, I pictured myself sweeping onto the scene with that same unflappability of the saltiest of corpsman I admired.

I was driven by a desire to succeed, to make up for past failures. People were dead because I hadn’t maintained my calm and made the wrong decision. I had two options, let it destroy me and my confidence and make me a liability for my team, or, get better.  I was determined to fail as little as possible, but to do that I needed to turn myself into a different person. One who was unphased by the mayhem around him and made the best call despite it.

After doing this consistently for a few weeks, I noticed something interesting:

When the time came for me to act, I found myself doing exactly as I imagined. Exactly.

HM3 (FMF) McLaughlin. See it in your Mind, be it in your Heart.

It turns out I’m not the first person who’s thought of this. In fact, this is a well-studied concept in high level sports psychology, and known as imagery, mental rehearsal, or visualization.

“Visualization is intended to take the athlete to an image that conveys what perfection represents in the particular aspect of the sport. During visualization, the brain is directing the target muscles to work in a desired way. This direction creates a neural pattern in the brain, a pattern identical to the network created by the actual physical performance of the movements.”

Visualization in Sport — World of Sports Science

This means, every time I envisioned myself responding to an emergency with all the grace and confidence of a seasoned medic, it was the same as if I’d actually done it.

According to former British Army Officer and Olympic Psychologist Charlie Unwin, visualization allows us to:

  1. Learn and reproduce skills more quickly, accurately, and smoothly.
  2. Manage our expectations and emotions more effectively.
  3. Avoid repeating the same mistakes.
  4. Maintain presence of mind in high pressure situations.
  5. Experience greater commitment and motivation.
  6. Experience more confidence in our own abilities.

I can say without hesitation that I benefited from each of these and there are people alive today because of it.

The Downside of Visualization

This seems like only positives. All you have to do is imagine a scenario and it’s the same as doing it? How can there possibly be a downside?

The problems begin if you imagine the wrong things. If you don’t know anything about trauma medicine, you’re probably visualizing the wrong procedures. It doesn’t help your reaction time if you don’t know what to do in the first place. Being educated on the right choice is essential for this method to work.

Mountain Man Medical offers a free online trauma course that will start you off on your training journey with a good understanding of the basics with only a few hours of time and attention needed.

I’m often surprised by the number of students who come up to me after a trauma class and ask how in the world I can handle all the blood and guts?

My normal response to that question is, “Ah, you get used to it after a bit.” And I see them shake their head and whisper, “I could never do that,”

Yes, you can. If I can, you can. The only difference between us is I saw myself being the hero, and they see themselves falling apart. Either way, we both do what we visualize. When it comes time to act, you will fall back on what you have been mentally rehearsing, sometimes for years.

Make sure you’re visualizing yourself succeed. Don’t set yourself up for failure by imagining yourself panic when faced with an emergency. Instead, picture yourself approaching the scene in a calm and decisive manner, giving clear, efficient orders to those around you and controlling the situation like the greatest medic to grace the halls of Valhalla.

It works. Trust me.

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