They are called the “TOP”, for “techniques of optimization of the potential”, and this practice designates a method of stress management combining in particular sophrology and meditation. Born in the 1990s, the TOPs today extend well beyond the ranks of military circles.
From breathing, to ritual gestures, through sensory relaxation, the French army has been honing in on its stress management techniques for thirty years to gain efficiency and prevent trauma, a method that is now spreading throughout society. The TOP (for potential optimization techniques) mix hypnosis and yoga with a simple objective: to harden oneself psychologically in order to mobilize one’s resources, whatever the emergency, and to improve the quality of sleep.
These mental preparation strategies were born at the Fontainebleau joint sports school in the early 1990s. At that time, “stress was a bad word in the armies and the problem of well-being at work did not exist”, says Edith Perreaut-Pierre, then a military doctor and responsible for designing a method for managing stress and operational fatigue.
Sophrology, neurolinguistics and meditation
To do this, she borrows from sophrology, neurolinguistic programming or, as she says, “processes as old as humanity” such as meditation.
Breathing becomes one of the components of this “toolbox” usable in the middle of the night as in the middle of the desert, and this without equipment and in complete autonomy. Mental imagery is another which, through the effect of repetition, creates a Pavlovian conditioning conducive to unfailing concentration, assure the partisans of the method. It is not a question of therapy, the domain of psychiatrists and psychologists, nor of a spiritual quest like in yoga, but of an accelerator of adaptation to stress.
Very pragmatic, it is supposed to energize, regulate or relax before, during and after an action. “Regulating stress also means limiting energy expenditure and holding on better over time,” emphasizes Dr. Perreaut-Pierre. “Fighter pilots and special forces are immediately interested” because “fatigue and stress are two major accident-prone factors”, she continues.
At first, “the ‘sophro’ side can put off, especially in the military”, comments André Pisani, ex-soldier and expert in TOP. Skeptical when he discovered the technique when he joined the army in 1998, he realized that adopting it was “limiting and preventing” post-traumatic stress disorder because it “reduces the feeling of helplessness”. He adheres to it and then becomes a trainer.
Manage stress to better manage the workforce
During the same period, the external operations of the French military forces multiplied, sometimes long and trying. The notions of “psychic injury” and post-traumatic stress disorder are intruding into military vocabulary.
In 1996, President Chirac also announced the professionalization of the French armies. As the numbers are reduced, it is therefore necessary to limit the number of injured as much as possible. In this context, and while American troops surrounded by squadrons of psychologists are exploring the benefits of meditation and breathing exercises for cardiac coherence, France is spreading TOPs in its ranks. It relies on clinical trials to motivate their deployment.
One of them, conducted in 2014 by the Biomedical Research Institute of the Armed Forces with young military firefighter recruits, concludes that this method “significantly increases the quality of functioning of the parasympathetic system at rest and reduces perceived stress and negative mood”.
Up to companies
The method spreads, when returning from overseas operations, to the school of Saint-Cyr, where army executives are trained, to the foreign legion “where the mentality is rather to say ‘we are strong , we don’t need to sleep'”, underlined a soldier during a conference on stress management organized at the end of June by the gendarmerie.
It is precisely in this body that TOPs pierce the most, against a backdrop of an increase in suicides. A circular of April 2021 provides that all recruits be introduced to this technique renamed “Optimization of the resources of the armed forces”. “Mentalities are changing and areas of reflection are underway in the three armies to increase moral strength”, that is to say the ability to face adversity, explains Captain Gilles F. of the national sports center of defense.
The TOP are also gaining the police but also companies, the sports and hospital world where former army personnel in particular, including Dr Perreaut-Pierre and André Pisani, offer training. Five recognized organizations, or around a hundred practitioners, operate in a market boosted, according to André Pisani, by the “long uncertainty” linked to Covid.