SEST-640 Decision-making in Stressful Environments
Fall for 2016-2017
Spring for 2016-2017
This course is designed for leaders, managers, and analysts operating in high-stress
environments within the national security policy community and corporate world. These realms
have many stressors, including intense time pressure and deadlines; conflicting and/or
incomplete information (or, alternately, information overload); long hours, jet lag, and sleep
deprivation; challenging personalities on team projects; coordination with individuals and
organizations across cultural (and often language) barriers; ethical dilemmas; and uncertainty,
complexity, ambiguity, and volatility. In the midst of these high-demand, high-stress
environments, individuals are responsible for making high-stakes decisions that often have major
financial, strategic, or policy consequences – and sometimes even have life-or-death
consequences. So, how do we maintain peak performance and agility during prolonged exposure
to stress in these situations – not just for an acute crisis, but consistently over the longer term?
This course will provide you with the tools you need to optimize your performance in high-stress
environments, while also giving you a framework for understanding how we can change
individual and organizational habits to be more adaptive, innovative and agile.
This course blends experiential exercises and practices with theoretical understanding
from a variety of fields, including neuroscience, stress physiology, psychology, organizational
behavior, technology innovation, and strategy. It draws from Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness
Training (MMFT)®, a resilience program that I developed and tested through four neuroscience
and stress physiology research studies with the U.S. military. MMFT (pronounced “M-Fit”) is
the best-validated resilience and cognitive-performance training program used in high-stress
settings; its effectiveness has been documented in peer-reviewed scientific journals. The MMFT®
program combines mindfulness skills training; an understanding of the neuroscience and
neurobiology of stress and resilience; body-based resilience skills training; and concrete
applications for the work environment. It teaches individuals and teams to perform at their best
before and during high-demand situations and to recover completely afterwards before the next
challenge arises. Although initially researched and taught to US military populations, MMFT
has also been offered with great success to individuals working in other high-stress
environments, including medical services personnel, law enforcement, firefighters, first
responder organizations, humanitarian NGOs, professional athletics, and several fast-paced
service professions (including intelligence, law, management consulting, and investment
Mind fitness has a lot in common with physical fitness. Physical fitness relies on
repeated exercises to generate specific muscular and cardiovascular changes in the body.
Likewise, mind fitness relies on specific exercises to create changes in the structure and function
of the brain and nervous system. Just as the body is physically changed by exercise, brain
regions may shrink or expand – become more or less functional – based on experience and
training. But just like physical fitness, these changes only occur with repeated exercise.
Improvements in effectiveness and resilience are possible through neuroplasticity, the scientific
understanding that any repeated experience (positive or negative) changes the brain. Through
neuroplasticity, humans can rewire the brain and nervous system to be more effective and
resilience, optimize the body and mind’s capacity to experience stress and recover effectively,
and strengthen skills that allow them to enhance their cognitive performance and make more
The course will examine neuroplasticity and the neurobiology of stress, trauma, and
resilience, so that students can understand how the body and mind are wired to perceive
information and make decisions while challenged or threatened. It will examine habit patterns,
both perceptual and behavioral, and explore how these habits can be changed to allow for more
accurate situational awareness, less bias in decision-making, more capacity to interrupt impulsive
or reactive decisions when they are not supporting our goals, and more capacity to access choice.
It will also apply these skills to interpersonal interactions, to improve emotional intelligence,
team cohesion, and conflict resolution. After exploring these topics at the level of individuals
and teams, we will move “outwards” to apply these topics to organizations and systems. We will
explore the dynamics of how organizations and systems are “enacted” through organizational
habits; how they manage stress, anxiety, uncertainty and insecurity; and whether and how they
learn, adapt, and change. This part of the course will draw out policy implications for training
and professional development, ethical decision-making, intelligence collection and analysis, and
resource decisions in the realm of national and international security. We will rely on a monthlong
group project to explore these dynamics in a case study at the end of the semester.
This course will alternate between periods of intellectual learning and discussion, and
periods of experiential practice of mind-body tools and reflective discussion of those practices.
This allows the body and mind to integrate both kinds of learning (intellectual and experiential),
allowing the information and skills to be metabolized in the mind and in the body/nervous system
most effectively. To fully understand how to use the exercises, you need enough understanding of
the neurobiology of stress and dysregulation to be able to interpret clues from your body and mind
during the exercises. Thus, the course includes both the intellectual context for the skills and the
skill-building itself; this synthesis is what will allow you to integrate these practices into your
lives most effectively after the course. As a result, this course has a large component of direct
experiential practice with the exercises. To build these new habits, students will be asked to
complete 30 minutes of mind fitness exercises every day.
The course is designed to enable you to develop your own personal mind fitness practice,
but it does not provide you with the skills necessary to teach MMFT to others. Because these
exercises can tap into deep physiological and psychological processes, teaching MMFT without
additional training and certification may be harmful. For this reason, during our first class
session, I will ask you to sign an Informed Consent Agreement that addresses the intentions of
this course and boundaries of your use of MMFT materials and exercises after this course.
The following syllabi may help you learn more about this course (login required):
Spring '17: Stanley, E (file download)
Additional syllabi may be available in prior academic years.
Other academic years
There is information about this course number in other academic years: